(Editor’s note: I am visiting my buddy tonight who’s on two-week leave from the Peace Corps. Thus, there will be no recap tonight. I apologize in advance.)
One day, the boys from the Hangover were celebrating a bachelor’s party. The next, a naked Asian man was trapped in their trunk, Mike Tyson (and his tiger) were their enemies, Stu had married a whore, Doug was lost on top of a roof, the police were after them for stealing a cruiser, and Fat Jesus—err, Alan—had taken a stun gun to the nuts.
A lot can change in a day, especially if you accidentally ingest a dosage of Roofies. But my choice for Eastern Conference favorite isn’t one of those things. Even before yesterday, when the Celtics were mired in a “damn, they just lost seven out of 12 games” stretch, I believed the Celtics would win the Eastern Conference. I’m not just a helpless homer who believes in his team whatever the situation, either—okay, maybe I am. But I’ve got some reasons for still believing in the Celtics, despite the recent run of play that’s been uglier than a Ben Wallace free throw.
Some real reasons.
1) Derrick Rose has never won a playoff series.
Not a single one. I know he’s been spectacular this season. I know he’s (probably) going to win the MVP. I know the Bulls have looked terrific, Tom Thibodeau could devise a defense that would stop the Original Dream Team from scoring 100 points, Chicago will almost certainly have home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng make one hell of a supporting ensemble. I am well aware of each of these facts.
But there’s a pecking order in the NBA. Experience matters. Just ask Lebron James, who’s still searching for his first title despite winning the regular season the past two seasons. Just ask Michael Jordan, who lost to the Detroit Pistons in three straight postseasons before finally learning how to get past them. There’s a postseason learning curve that keeps young stars from winning titles. Think about it; who’s the last young star to win a title? You could say Dwyane Wade, but he also had Shaq. Tim Duncan in ’99, but he also had David Robinson. And before that? Magic Johnson, but he had Kareem. If you want to go back to the last young star who won a championship without a superstar sidekick, it’s Larry Bird in ’81. His supporting cast included young Kevin McHale, young Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, and Tiny Archibald.
The ’08 Celtics didn’t need to become playoff seasoned, but they were the odd exception. They threw three veterans together who A) were in the perfect stages of their careers, where nothing but a title mattered, B) fit perfectly together on the court (this should not be overlooked), with Pierce slashing, Allen spotting up, and Garnett working the high-low game, and C) had little competition. Don’t believe me? Check out Boston’s playoff foes: the Hawks sucked, the Cavs were “Lebron and the pu-pu platter,” the Pistons were slightly over the hill, and the Lakers were in their first playoff run themselves, and also missing Andrew Bynum. I don’t mean to put an asterisk next to Boston’s title. Not at all. But if you think ’08 had the same quality of play that this year does, you’re crazier than Ron Artest (and also crazier than whoever nominated Ron Artest for a citizenship award).
All that said, if you think I’m pissing my pants about the thought of playing Chicago in Chicago, you’d be correct. Consider me Miles Davis. Although thinking “Keith Bogans, starter” helps me out.
2) The Heat just don’t fit.
There’s no other way to put this. Are they capable of winning games in the playoffs? Yes. Does the thought of having to beat Dwyane Wade and Lebron James, at the same time, strike the fear of God in me? Yes. But they just don’t fit, for a number of reasons.
Here’s what I wrote back in November:
There is something beautiful about the way Boston’s Big Three complement each other. Allen’s the shooter, Pierce the slasher, and Garnett the mid-range shooter, defensive menace, noted trash talker and occasional post threat. From day one, they developed a synergy. Together, they are greater than they ever could have been alone. Their games thrive off each other’s. Not just because they are willing to put egos aside, either. Because their talents mesh almost perfectly. Pierce’s slashing makes it easier for Allen and Garnett to find space; Allen’s shooting enables Pierce’s slashing; Garnett’s basketball IQ and unselfishness allows it all to flow. Boston’s Big Three is a match made in basketball heaven.
Is Miami’s? Not in a conventional sense, at least. James and Wade thrive in pick-and-rolls, but neither are pure shooters. Wade’s talents aren’t utilized when spotting up in the corner while LeBron runs the pick-and-roll, and vice versa. Basically, when one has the ball the other might as well pick his nose on the other side of the court. So far, James and Wade don’t make each other better. They don’t make the game any easier for themselves. The only places the new duo really thrives, right now, are on defense and the fast break. But fast break opportunities, even for these guys, are tough to come by.
Months later, none of those concerns have been alleviated. I have never once looked at Wade and Lebron and thought, “Wow, they make things easy for each other.” Not once. Sure, they make some (okay, a lot of) highlight plays. Sure, they’ve won some (okay, a lot of) games. Sure, the thought of needing to win four games against two of the NBA’s top five players (and Chris Bosh) still petrifies me (if not as much as beating the Bulls does). But when the playoffs become a grind-it-out, half-court game (and it will), do the Heat have enough chemistry and teamwork to win the tight games?
I don’t think so. And I haven’t even mentioned the thought of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers defending Rajon Rondo for seven games, or that Erick Dampier—in the year 2011—is starting for a contender.
3) Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Earl Clark, Daniel Orton and Malik Allen are Orlando’s only non-Dwight big men.
Need I elaborate?
4) The Celtics have owned their Eastern Conference foes.
The Celtics have played exceedingly well against their best competition this year. The only contender the Celtics have a losing record against is Dallas, and if last night was any indication, Dallas won’t be making the Finals. No matter how well Dirk has been playing, no matter how good that defense has looked at times, it’s tough to beat the Lakers when Jason Kidd has to spend significant time defending Kobe. It just is.
And in the East? Boston’s even better. They’re 7-2 against the top contenders (I’m including Orlando, just in case), including 3-0 against Miami, 2-1 against Chicago, and 2-1 against Orlando. Without Kendrick Perkins in the lineup, since that matters now, the Celtics are 5-2 against those teams. If you add Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Knicks, the Celtics are 14-3 against the Eastern Conference’s six other best teams. That’s pretty damn good.
5) I need to add caveats, because they exist.
I know Shaq hasn’t played in 15 months. I know thinking about relying on Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal to play 20+ healthy games in the playoffs gives me an ulcer. I know Rajon Rondo has looked bad, Paul Pierce hasn’t shot well, and Ray Allen is suddenly slumping for the first time this year. I know the Celtics haven’t consistently played to their capabilities in a few weeks, and I know losing to the Bobcats (who were missing Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas, mind you) does nothing to inspire confidence. I know winning the Eastern Conference championship on the road (part two) will be grueling.
(Note: fuck, that’s a long list of caveats.)
All that said: as the Celtics showed last night, they’ve still got the 100-MPH heater when they need it. In a tough but flawed Eastern Conference, that will be enough.
Please don’t blame me if this entire column turns into a jinx.