Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Wins Give Fresh Starts to Celtics, Lakers

By Bob Ekstrom

NBA action on Christmas Day brought its usual yuletide cheer to ABC and ESPN, but it also started the righting of a league that has been a bit upside-down a third of the way through its schedule.

The Christmas centerpiece was the rematch of last year's NBA Finals, which drew a 6.0 overnight in the early evening slot on ABC, as the Miami Heat served notice that they — and not their upstart Thunder opponents, nor the much-publicized fantasy team the Buss family is collecting in L.A. — are still the team to beat. In an otherwise unrecognizable conference that has the Knicks and Pacers leading their divisions, Miami remains the constant force in the East, now winners of six straight, while OKC is still a familiar favorite in the West.

Over on ESPN, the Houston Rockets continued their climb through the standings with a new backcourt duo of Jeremy Lin and James Harden, beating the nondescript Bulls for their fifth straight. And in Los Angeles, the Clippers set a new franchise high, outlasting the Denver Nuggets for their 14th in a row. But the real heavy lifting needed to conform the NBA standings to our expectations came earlier in the day in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Excepting last season, which opened on Christmas Day, you'd have to go back to 2006 to find a Boston Celtics team that hadn't wrapped up the Atlantic Division before the arrival of St. Nick. This year has been different. The C's have looked up at the Knicks and Nets since before Halloween. To date, they haven't won more than three games in a row — which they've done only once — nor have they been more than three games above .500. They've already lost three times to the Bucks and twice each to division rivals Philly and the Nets, and Brooklyn was set to make it three straight in front of an impassionate crowd punch-drunk in the limelight of the first professional sporting event ever played in their New York City borough.

It's been a similar story for the Lakers, where the seeds of their four consecutive Pacific crowns had all been sown by Christmas Days passed. Yet, in spite of all the firepower their All-Hall-of-Fame lineup should bring, they're not even regarded as the best team in Los Angeles this year. With all talk (the season began with Metta World Peace suggesting 73 wins was in the realm of Laker possibilities) and few results, the Lakers have been the ass clowns of professional basketball, the NBA's answer to the New York Jets.

Five games into 2012-13, GM Mitch "Tannenbaum" Kupchak fired his head coach and didn't come up with a Plan B until Mike Brown's seat was no longer warm. That plan involved the courtship of a burnt-out retiree with a plethora of prima donna employment demands who was nevertheless their best candidate. Then, in an inexplicable display of dysfunctionality, they severed ties with him in favor of a guy just coming off surgery not even physically fit enough to take the job. On top of the front office hijinks, Kobe Bryant has been doing his best Bart Scott impressions as the self-appointed spokesman who threatens to kick everyone's ass, while Peace has taken on the role of Tim Tebow, the malcontent who doesn't want to sit on the bench. All that is needed is Mike D'Antoni doing a few pressers donned in a wig, and the illusion will be complete.

Yet, of the two teams, the Celtics' condition was the more dire. At 11-17 all-time, they never play well on Christmas Day. Those losses leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and can spoil even championship years. Take the infamous 1983 game when the C's blew a 25-point lead to Patrick Ewing and the Knicks. It ate at them all season to the point where, doused in champagne after beating the Lakers for the NBA title in June, the late Dennis Johnson's jubilance melted in an instant when a reporter joked that the following year's schedule had just came out with another Christmas Day game on it. In 2008, their defending championship team brought a 19-game winning streak and all-time best 27-2 record to the Staples Center, but a Christmas Day loss to the Lakers sent them on a 2-7 spiral and they never made it back to the Finals. The back half of an entire season can be riding on Christmas Day in Boston.

Nowadays by Christmas, the Celtics have usually resorted to dispensing their limited health and energy with the frugality of Scrooge. However, they still know the opportune times to turn it on, and Tuesday was one of those times. A solid win over the sputtering Nets was nevertheless impressive as it was welcomed, elevating Boston over .500 once again. But the reservoir of youth is depleting, and that could mean a short stint with a winning record for the C's, whose starters will be on minutes counts and life support tonight in Los Angeles, where the Clippers look to make them their 15th victims.

The Lakers, on the other hand, embrace the national spotlight. They should. Tuesday marked their 39th Christmas Day game, and they finally look to be getting the band back together again. Their win over the Knicks was only the fourth game in which Pau Gasol and Steve Nash played together this year. It also capped their first five-game winning streak of the young season, and helped them reach .500 for only the second time.

It's as if the Lakers had spotted the field the first 28 games and were now ready to play out the real season. By Christmas night, their 14-14 mark had the feel of 0-0, like someone had just hit the reset button. But much like the faux season just ended, things once again started out on the wrong foot for the Lakers last night with a defenseless effort in Denver.

For the second straight night, Kobe Bryant launched 24 shots and had big scoring numbers to show for it, which increasingly defines the concept of modern-day Showtime that resided at Lakers games in decades past but has, as Magic Johnson recently surmised, moved on to the Clippers. And with the ill-tempered Dwight Howard getting himself ejected in what could have been a statement game, followed by coach Mike D'Antoni suggesting his absence was of little handicap, the buffoonery doesn't so much look to have disappeared as to have taken a short intermission before its second act.

The Lakers' recent five-game winning streak effectively gave them a mulligan on a 9-14 start, but the West is too deep and the schedule too grueling to think they're going to get another. They've assembled the first Big-Five team in NBA history, but are just a few more antics away from becoming the biggest busts the league has ever seen.

Los Angeles may have physically evolved with the additions of Nash and Howard, but they've yet to prove they have evolved mentally in the way the Clippers have. And if they don't do so soon enough, D'Antoni may as well just wear a wig the next time he takes the podium to explain how Howard was another non-factor.

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