EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 24, 2008

L.A. Fakers are back at it again

On Pro Basketball

BOSTON — Up until a couple of weeks ago, this Christmas clash was a bit more palatable.

The Boston Celtics would be making the cross country trip to play the Los Angeles Lakers for what would be the most eagerly anticipated regular season game since, well, the Celtics and Lakers played nationally televised games the entire 1980s.

The Lakers had won their first seven and 14 of their first 15 games. The Celtics were right there, on their heels, with only two losses.

The Lakers weren't going to be shoved around like they were last June, particularly in Boston.

But it won't be so extra special now, despite the ad nauseam marketing attempts by ABC and ESPN.

Don't blame the Celtics. They kept their end of the NBA marketing bargain. They've picked up exactly where they left off last spring. With last night's 19th straight win — a 110-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers — Boston is 27-2, officially the best start ever for an NBA franchise.

The problem is the Lakers. Despite last night's 100-87 win over New Orleans, they've reverted to their 2007-08 roots.

Center Andrew Bynum, who was supposed to give the Lakers some beef in the middle, has not picked up where he left off when he injured his knee last January. He is scoring less than he was a year ago (as of yesterday he was averaging 12.4 points per game this season vs. 13.1 last year) and his rebound totals are down (from 10.2 to 8.5) as well.

The bigger enigma is power forward Lamar Odom, who lost his starting position to another no-show during last June's NBA Finals, Luke Walton. Odom is averaging only 8.6 points and 6.3 rebounds this season, a drop from 14.2 and 10.7 last season.

Of course, Kobe is still Kobe. He has led the team in scoring in 25 of the Lakers' 28 games. He is averaging 26.1 points per game and 31 over the last seven games, including last night.

Through the first seven games of this season, the Lakers appeared to get it. They allowed less than 87 points a game and were undefeated.

After their second victory, a 117-79 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said that the Lakers, with that defense, were his pick to win a championship.

But since their 7-0 start, the Lakers (23-5) have allowed slightly more than 102 points per game.

Two weeks ago, Lakers coach Phil Jackson told the L.A. Times his team wasn't "measuring up" to the "defense-minded Celtics," saying he gave a "warning sign" to players that they weren't good enough yet to "match that effort that they saw last spring."

But Celtics coach Doc Rivers certainly doesn't think the Lakers are struggling. He's excited about the match-up.

"I'm looking forward to it. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," said Rivers. "There is history between these teams and we're coming off the Finals against them. I don't care how the Lakers have been playing lately. We know we are going to see their best (tomorrow)."

The irony is that the Celtics, rather than the Lakers, appear to have improved more. Not only are the "Big Three" still intact, the other two starters, point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins, are better than a year ago.

Rondo is up nearly a point and 21âÑ2 assists per game while Perkins is up two points and 21âÑ2 rebounds per game.

Add in Tony Allen, whose impression of James Posey on the defensive end is as impressive as his two more points per game in 2008-09.

The Celtics left for Los Angeles immediately after last night's game. They were scheduled to arrive at LAX Airport at about 3 a.m. Rivers says he planned on giving the Celtics the day off from practice today.

"We haven't even talked about the Lakers," said Rivers. "Seriously. We know it's going to be a hostile atmosphere. Everywhere we go, to be honest, is that way."

It should be exciting. Maybe the Lakers will answer the call on national television, with Santa Claus in tow, and beat the Celtics.

But as of Christmas Day, we know the truth. The Celtics, winners of 19 straight, are the team to beat.

"I appreciate people saying that, but it means nothing, just like the streak," said Rivers. "We just want to be the best at the end of the season when everything is said and done. That's all."

Sounds like a Christmas present to me.