By Chris Le
After a million home team victories, a pair of Game 7’s and one dirty play, it’s down to the final four.
In the East, we have Detroit and Boston, the two teams most pundits expected to face each other in the Conference Finals. Everyone is waiting to see if the Celtics are capable of channeling their regular season selves and win a road game. With home court advantage, will they have to? Chauncey Billups could be huge in this series, but is his hammy ready to go?
In the West, it’s once again Los Angeles versus San Antonio—an almost forgotten rivalry of the early 00’s with deep-seeded and very real animosity. Compared to the remaining teams, the Lakers have breezed through the postseason with their balanced yet potent offense. It’ll be interesting to see if they have enough weapons to trump the Spurs’ execution and know-how. Fatigue might be a factor for San Antonio and their aging legs after an emotional series against New Orleans that went the distance. But both teams match up well. Should we expect another Game 7?
Here’s my take:
(3) San Antonio Spurs vs. (1) Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Outcome: Throw out the regular season numbers—if they even matter in the first place—since their first three meetings were without Pau Gasol, and in their final game, the Spurs were without Manu Ginobili.
Now, I’m not going to claim journalistic objectivity and refute that I don’t have a horse in this race. I’m biased towards the Spurs. There. I said it. Everyone knows it. Attempting to say otherwise would be lying.
With that out in the open, however, I have to admit there’s no denying that the Lakers have been the most impressive team in the postseason, showcasing a juggernaut of an offense with 112.1 points per game. They have scoring at every position: Gasol in the post; perimeter shooters in Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton; Lamar Odom everywhere else, and obviously Kobe Bryant, the best player in the world.
But they work best in transition—even their big men, Gasol and Odom.
That’s why Tim Duncan will be the most important player on the court. The Spurs must establish their franchise player in the post—thus the game’s tempo—if they stand any chance of winning. I would normally think no one on the Los Angeles roster can effectively guard Duncan, but Timmy didn’t look like his usual impressive self against New Orleans. He missed a bunch of chip-shots and seems reluctant to use his patented 15-foot bank. He’ll really need to assert himself and get Gasol into foul trouble. If Duncan fails to do so, they’ll single cover him and deny the three-ball, which is the best way to beat the Spurs if you can get away with it.
Once in a half-court game, the Spurs could more easily sic Bryant with specialized defenders (Bruce Bowen and Ime Udoka) and take away a chunk of LA’s three-point attempts. In order for this maneuver to be effective though, San Antonio will have to rotate like they’ve never rotated before. It should be burned into their brains that giving up the three is almost certain death. The Spurs will live with Bryant getting his; it’s his teammates they should worry about.
When it’s all said and done, whichever team wins the battle of tempo and rebounding will take the series.
Using these criteria, my eyes and brain scream that the Lakers are the obvious choice, maybe in an easy series. But my gut and my heart say the Spurs. And when it comes to sports—or life, for that matter—it’s always best to go with the latter. Spurs in 6.
(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (1) Boston Celtics
Regular Season Series: Boston 2-1
Outcome: A closely matched pair of teams, this will be a battle of attrition. Both squads are stout and the play on both ends should be what we all expect from a playoff series—extremely physical and very defensive. The Pistons shot horribly against the Celtics, a combined 88 for 228 (.386) in their three regular season meetings. But if we’ve learned anything in the first two rounds, it’s that these postseason Celtics aren’t the same team we saw in the regular season, particularly on the road.
Kevin Garnett has shown his inability to take over a game, sporadically looking like an MVP candidate. Ray Allen has all but fallen off the face of the planet, something the Celtics won’t get away with against Detroit. But most glaringly, the vaunted Celtic defense has been mediocre at best outside of Boston, allowing 95.3 points per game against 77.4 at home.
Detroit, on the other hand, has proven it’s capable of winning away from home. They also are rested, while the Celtics are coming off of a second consecutive 7-game series. Don’t be surprised if the Pistons steal Game 1.
Like the Pistons-Magic series, this one comes down to backcourt play. (I’m assuming Billups is fully recovered from his hamstring injury. If not, the makeup of this series changes, evening things for Boston.) Frontcourts are a wash—KG and Rasheed Wallace cancel each other out in my eyes, and Tayshaun Prince can keep a lid on Paul Pierce. But Billups has the strength and savvy to abuse Rajon Rondo on both ends of the floor. Rip Hamilton can score in bunches, which will be magnified if Allen continues his disappearing act.
I don’t foresee an end to the Boston road woes, especially after fourteen playoff games, and now they must face their toughest and most experienced opponent yet. It’s just slightly too much to overcome after what the Celtics just endured. Pistons in 6.