Thursday, May 12, 2011

C’s and Lakers: Don’t Let the Door Hit You

By Bob Ekstrom

Together, the Celtics and Lakers own more than half of all NBA championships. At least one has appeared in 40 of the 64 Finals series played to date, and both have gotten there together on 12 occasions. Green and purple are as much a part of spring's palette as Easter white, but neither will be adorning courts this June. And all a friend can say is, ain't it a shame?

With the Dallas Mavericks concluding a sweep of the Lakers on Mother's Day and the Miami Heat running off the game's final 16 points en route to dispensing with the Celtics last night, the first slots for each conference final series are now set. The Mavs will host either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Memphis Grizzlies, where it is advantage Thunder; while the Heat's travel plans await the outcome of the Chicago/Atlanta series, as the Bulls look to close out the Hawks tonight.

Meanwhile, we're not getting any time to wish the door not hit Phil Jackson on his way out and to relish the thought of spending the next four months without images of Kobe's tantrums and KG's flapping mouth across our TVs. Postmortems have already kept the Lakers in the news all week, and we can now figure on the C's getting similar exposure into the next.

Analysts have barraged us with speculation as to whether Mitch Kupchak will break up the Lakers and where the Celtics can find some length. We've heard what Kobe is saying about Phil Jackson's legacy and how the Celtics need a transfusion of youth. Best yet: a Boston sports network has debated which team has the brightest future, even before the Celtics' came to its end.

It's as if the Grizzlies didn't just pull off two last-second treys on their way to forcing triple overtime on Monday, or Derek Rose wasn't a single-handed wrecking crew breaking open a tight game in Chicago on Tuesday, or Lebron finally walked the walk last night. No, the basketball world has a fascination bordering on obsession with all things Celtics and Lakers. Even in death, these two teams remain hotter than Pippa Middleton in a push-up bra.

It has come time to throw a bucket of ice water on America's collective crotch.

The NBA is on the threshold of throwing open its doors to a new era of challengers that will compete with these two behemoths, if not cast them entirely into the Gehenna of irrelevancy. The Knicks, Bulls, and Heat in the East, and the Grizzlies and Thunder in the West, will make it no slam dunk for the C's or Lakers to get an automatic bye into the NBA Finals any time too soon.

Oh, they'll be back at some point, perhaps sooner than many would like. That's what keeps the question of which one has the brighter future on everyone's lips. Lest it linger through the postseason, let's deal with it now and put these teams away for the summer once and for all.

Both have chemistry issues, and both played long stretches of the season with an apparent lack of fire, the latter owing in large part to the former. Exacerbating this in Los Angeles' case is the imminent retirement of Phil Jackson, the ultimate harmonizer who could keep Arnold and Maria together if given the chance.

The C's may lose their head coach as well, although Doc Rivers indicated in his postgame conference last night that he is "leaning to coming back." Regardless, unlike the Lakers, Boston's chemistry issues were not the result of who was in the locker room, but of who was not. They miss Kendrick Perkins, both on and off the court. Whether it's Rajon Rondo seeking out his binky in the post, or Ray Allen trying to free himself for an open three, or Kevin Garnett looking for help in containing the suddenly Chamberlain-esque Chris Bosh, the ill effects of the Perkins trade were on display throughout the Heat series. It's been said around Boston that age started the Celtics' fall and Danny Ainge finished the job.

On the matter of age, the sentimentality that led Boston to hold onto its original Big Three of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale into the early 1990s and stymie competitiveness for more than a decade is alive and well in 2011. Even if there was a market for Allen, Garnett, or Pierce, the Celtics front office has shown a reluctance to part with any of them.

The Lakers, on the other hand, give up their parts faster than Chastity Bono. Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum embarrassed their franchise with ungraceful exoduses last Sunday and did the unthinkable by ticking off Magic Johnson, so GM Kupchak already has an itchy finger on the trigger. The early buzz puts Dwight Howard in purple, either through trade or free agency. Howard can become a free agent as early as the summer of 2012.

And that is an arena in which the Lakers have it all over the Celtics. Hollywood attracts replacement parts; Boston does not. Before Lakers fans puff their chests with organizational pride, realize yours is merely a city of sunshine and cameos, and the ability for the common NBA thug to blend in cannot be under-estimated. Where else could a guy like Ron Artest win a good citizenship award one fortnight and assault the Mavericks' J.J. Barea the next?

After the sun set on their storied decade of the 1980s, the Lakers orchestrated two successful rebuilding programs that each ended in consecutive championships while the Celtics had one unsteady rise to their sole title in 2008. Boston was the first to fold back then, and if the last 19 seconds of regulation play in their game on Monday — in which Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett could not execute a pick-and-roll they'd done a hundred times before, while Paul Pierce opted for a desperation heave rather than driving on Lebron for a foul — told us anything, it was that they'll be the first to fold again.

Like the 1990s, the 2010s look to be a long decade in Boston, while L.A. tries to hold the fort down for another year until Dwight Howard's arrival. So, whose future is brighter?

Guess Jack Nicholson doesn't wear sunglasses inside Staples Center for nothing.

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