EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 5, 2008

Don't believe the hype: Celtics in 6

Bill Burt

It seems like months ago when the Boston Celtics barely skimmed past the Atlanta Hawks, leaving doubters at every corner.

The Los Angeles Lakers, on the other hand, are the sexy pick. They had no such struggles against three very good teams in Denver, Utah and finally San Antonio, the defending champs.

The Celtics have only one semi-regular player with a world championship, and that's sixth man James Posey.

The Lakers have the league MVP in Kobe Bryant, who has been on three world championship teams.

The Celtics are from the East, which has been a punching bag, losing in the finals seven times in the last nine year, while the Lakers are from the West. Enough said.

A case can be made that the Lakers are not only the team to beat, but have everything in place for a romp.

But don't believe the hype. In fact, a closer look at the personalities and the key numbers, like opposing field goal percentages, and the Celtics look like the team to beat.

Here are 10 reasons why I believe the Celtics will win their 17th world championship:

1. Paul Pierce

I wouldn't suggest he is better than Kobe Bryant, but for this series he will eliminate the Kobe Advantage. Pierce has the most to gain or lose in this series. This is his day to shine, on the biggest stage, and finally get something he's always craved — his due.

That will come not only with a championship but an MVP performance.

Los Angeles is where he grew up as a youth. Boston is where he grew up as an adult.

You couldn't write a better script. Only a leading man, like Pierce, could make it happen.

Kobe will have average more points, probably in the high 20s maybe even the low 30s. But Pierce will be around the mid-20s, which will offset the MVP.

2. West Coast bias

I can't say I blame them. In the National Football League, the AFC is the big league and the NFC the junior circuit. The same in baseball, with the American League being the daddy to the National League.

The Lakers and Spurs have combined to win seven of the last nine titles. Only the Miami Heat (2006) and Detroit Pistons (2004) have won it from east of the Mississippi.

The problem is the West was better from 1 through 10, but not 1 through 2.

The Celtics dominated the regular season over the Western Conference (25-5) and they were an impressive 12-4 against their eight playoff teams.

Too many people remember the Celts' struggles against Atlanta and Cleveland and not their dominance from opening day.

The East wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as it's been for much of the last decade. The Pistons were every bit as good as San Antonio.

3. Kevin Garnett

He is not Mr. Clutch, just yet, but trust me, this guy is taking this run to the finals very, very seriously.

Garnett has been good for most of the playoffs, but it says here he is great for the finals. While I believe Pierce's matchup with Kobe Bryant is the key to the series, Garnett is the wild card.

The Lakers big men can't match Garnett's intensity.

He came to Boston for one reason and that was to win these four games. He's dying to beat the rap of can't win the big one, which came from losing his first seven playoff series in Minnesota.

At practice on Monday, it was like talking to someone in search of his lost child. There was no joy in just getting this far.

4. Celtics defense

The Lakers just played one of the best defensive teams in the league in San Antonio (90.6), which trailed only Detroit (90.1) and Boston (90.3) in points allowed.

They beat them pretty good, winning the series 4-1 while averaging 93.4 points a game.

There will be a difference beginning tonight at the Garden. With regrets to the Pistons, the Celtics defense is the best in the league.

The Celtics defense has been even better in their playoff slump. They've allowed only 87.3 points per game in 20 playoff games.

5. Lakers defense

What defense? Exactly.

The Celtics playoff struggles have been on offense. Cleveland and Detroit were their equal on defense.

It meant very few open looks for anybody not named Rajon Rondo. And Paul Pierce is really the only Celtic consistently able to create his own shot.

That will be less of an issue against the Lakers, who allowed 101.3 points per game this past season, a 10-spot more than the Celtics did.

The plays right into the Celtics weakness, which has been generating offense, particularly on the road.

This might be the key to the series.

6. Ray Allen

I said it before and I'll say it again: Everything changed Game 5 in Boston. It changed because Allen, for the first time since the playoffs began, decided he was going to "really" look for his shot.

Maybe it was playing against Richard Hamilton, who would use every ounce of energy to get open on the other end.

Whatever the case, Allen's 29- and 17-point efforts the last two games against Detroit, included five 3-pointers in Game 5 and three more in Game 6, gave the Celtics an offensive lift.

7. Garnett-Allen vs. Gasol-Odom

Let's just say Paul Pierce plays Kobe Bryant to a near draw, which is highly probable.

That means the secondary matchups could be the difference.

For the Celtics it is Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and for the Lakers it is Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

Is this a fair fight? I don't think so.

Mind you, Gasol (18.8 points, 7.8 rebounds in the regular season) and Odom (14.2, 10.6) are deserving players. But are they up to snuff with Garnett (18.8, 9.2) and Allen (17.4 points per game)?

This means Kobe has to beat Pierce every night. I don't see it happening.

8. Homecourt advantage

This is not about simply winning at home, as the Lakers are 8-0 at the Staples Center in the postseason.

This is about a city, Boston, awakening it basketball roots.

The TD Banknorth Garden will be like the old Boston Garden. It will be louder than we have ever, and I mean ever, heard it before.

Celtics fans are not going to be nice to the Lakers or the referees.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had public squabbles with Red Auerbach in his later years, will hear it too.

If the Lakers can overcome playing here, particularly secondary players like Odom and Gasol, they will win. I don't think they will.

9. Let's get physical

Remember the famous Kevin McHale clothesline which sent Kurt Rambis flying out of bounds?

That probably won't occur in this series, but neither will easy layups.

The Celtics will need to be physical and they have widebodies — Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, P.J. Brown — and feisty James Posey to do it.

The Celtics will try to slow the pace when the Lakers have the ball and that's where the physical play will begin.

10. A perfect storm

Is this a fairy tale or a perfect ending?

Teams don't make wholesale changes like the Celtics did (bringing in nine new players!) and win a championship. It just doesn't happen. In fact, it's never happened.

Until now.

Danny Ainge found two superstars, Garnett and Allen, with Hall of Fame statistics, and added them to Pierce. All of sudden, the Celtics and Celtics pride had returned.

The Celtics luckily survived their growing pains with Atlanta and Cleveland. I believe what happened against Detroit was the rule rather than the exception.

Thirty-somethings Garnett (32), Pierce (30) and Allen (32), with their combined zero championship rings, have too much at stake here. This might be their only chance.

I say Celtics in six.

I say it won't be easy, but it will be fun.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com. Check out his blog, "Burt Talks Sports," at blogs.eagletribune.com/sports.