May 16, 2011

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Why The Lakers and Celtics are Heading in Different Directions

By: Anson Whaley

With the early second-round exits suffered by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celticsthis past week, much has been made about the shrinking window of opportunity for more championships for each team. The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win the last three NBA Championships and in two of those seasons, have faced off against each other for the title. So why is everyone down on their chances to win more hardware?

Age.

Boston and Los Angeles have two of the oldest rosters in the NBA. Even the 1996-97 Houston Rockets team of aging vets such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis, Sedale Threatt, and Eddie Johnson (all of whom had played at least 11 years at the time) think these guys might be over the hill. So are these two franchises, the most storied ones in league history, effectively done winning championships with the same group of players? Well, one of them is.

Last week, I heard plenty of analysts draw parallels to these two teams. But the fact is that they’re both in entirely different situations.

The Celtics are, for all intents and purposes, finished. The team’s triumvirate of stars, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are all getting up in age. While all three were durable this season, they are also past their prime – and by several seasons. The Celtics have a few nice pieces in guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jeff Green, but (and with all due respect to Rondo who is a very good young point guard) those are supplementary players. Shaquille O’Neal’s absence in the series against the Miami Heatproved that age is catching up to him and without the recently-traded Kendrick Perkins, Boston was extremely light in the frontcourt, needing to rely on Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic.

Boston simply doesn’t have enough to compete for future rings with this group of players. If they’re to get back to the top, the Celtics will need to reshape their current roster. The greatest need will be to add another skilled rebounder in the middle to complement or even replace Shaq. In the words of Yoda: several mediocre rebounders do not a frontcourt make. Adding a quality guard would also be a good idea as the Celtics are very thin after Rondo and Allen. Boston’s greatest problem lies in the fact that due to their age, the team cannot expect to make it through a full season healthy.

The Lakers, on the other hand, still have enough in the tank for a few more runs. Despite the embarrassing sweep to Dallas, there’s plenty left on this team. Kobe Bryant is still the best closer in the game and one of the NBA’s top players. After Bryant, you’ve got Pau Gasol. I know, I get it – he disappeared against the Mavericks. Fact is that he was dealing with some off-court issues and probably just needed a break from the game. The only problem for the Lakers was that he took it during the most important time in the season.

And here’s the thing about Gasol – even though he vanished faster than Houdini in the Mavericks series, he has a good track record of succeeding in the playoffs. His numbers in the postseason over the past two years actually exceeded those of his regular season stats. Because of that, I don’t expect Pau to shrink again next season and Los Angeles will be a better team for it.

In case the Bryant/Gasol duo isn’t enough, the Lakers also can throw Andrew Bynum, one of the best (and here’s the key) young centers in the game and Lamar Odom, who seems like he’s been in the league forever, but is only 31.

Los Angeles’ key pieces are simply younger than those of Boston’s. Four of the five Celtics starters are at least 33 years old while the only Laker starter that old is Derek Fisher. And while Fisher has been an integral part of the Lakers winning five championships, he’s not relied on nearly as much as any of the Celtics starters. The Lakers would be a better team if they could add a younger point guard in their starting rotation, but they could get by with Fisher for the next season or two if need be.

Not only is Los Angeles younger where it counts, but they’re also better than Boston – which is why a couple more title runs with the same team might not be out of the picture.

May 4, 2011

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Second Round Shockers

By: Rick Jarrell

The first round of the NBA playoffs was a surprisingly exciting and competitive introduction to the NBA’s second season. Usually nothing more than a cake walk for most teams, each series seemed to have an unusually enticing aspect to it. The current era of talent is peaking, as the young bucks are surging to take the reins from the old guardas they begin their decline. It’s a thrilling time to be a fan, so in case you’ve been living in a cave for the past two weeks, here’s a quick recap.

The Memphis Grizzlies rid themselves of the Western Conference’s top seed in the San Antonio Spurs, gaining the franchise their first playoff series win. The Dallas Mavericks managed to hold off the upstart Portland Blazers to win their series. The Los Angeles Lakers did the same against the New Orleans Hornets. The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks provided surprisingly entertaining performances despite vanquishing their opponents with relative ease.  High expectations were met and transformed into more high hopes for the second round. Will the encore be able to please the fans? So far, the answer is emphatically, YES!

Trendy Finals Picks in Peril

Peril may be a more drastic description than currently warranted, but this could get very interesting after Wednesday night. Perhaps the two most common finals picks, the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, as well as trendy sleeper Oklahoma City Thunder, all lost their respective opening games. That’s three out of four home teams effectively losing their home court advantage. It’s too early to tell whether or not these losses will matter, but not too early to proclaim each Game 2 a must win for the home team. The likelihood any team, even a title contender, loses their first two home games and comes back to win the series is very low.

The away teams are still in the driver’s seat, though. Out of the three in peril, I’m still confident the Bulls will rebound to overtake the Atlanta Hawks. Derrick Rose’s  ankle is a concern, but assuming it’s an injury the newly crowned MVP can play through, his team still matches well against the Hawks. Joe Johnsonwill score his points, but Jeff Teague and Josh Smith will not play nearly as well as they did in the first game, and will revert back to being offensive liabilities. The Game 1 loss for the Bulls, along with the gritty first round series with the Indiana Pacers, should serve as a continued wakeup call, and may help them in the long run.

The Lakers and Thunder, however, may be in trouble. The Mavs charged back from a 16 point deficit and survived a Kobe Bryantlast second shot to beat the defending champs. Bryant said it himself – the Mavs can beat the Lakers. Right now, LA is playing well below their talent level. Other than Kobe, the team seems to lack a sense of urgency.

The Thunder, also playing complacent in Game 1, were caught off guard by an equally athletic, gritty Memphis team. Kevin Durant played well, but turnovers and second chance points fueled the Griz early on as Zach Randolph lit up OKC for a playoff career high 34 points. For the Thunder to win, Russell Westbrook needs to control the ball better, the bench needs to provide a scoring punch, and Z-Bo needs to be at least deterred from dominating the offensive end.

In Game 2, OKC did just that. Turnovers were still higher than they should be, but Westbrook played better, James Harden and Eric Maynor provided a scoring outburst in the first half, and Randolph and Marc Gasol were held to 28 points combined. Now the series heads back to Memphis all knotted up.

The Original Three vs. the New Three

The one team to take advantage of their home court, the Miami Heat, appear set to fully embrace their villainous image on the way to an NBA title. Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, with a few flashes from Chris Bosh, have dominated the veteran Celtics the first two games. Despite the final scores being relatively close, the Heat dominated each game. Boston fans will point to the large free throw advantage by the Heat and controversial ejection of Paul Pierce as reasons for the team’s shortcomings, but the Heat look to be firing on all cylinders at the right time. Wade and James have learned to alternate domination on the offensive end, and the team as a whole supports with strong defensive stances and timely three (see James Jones Game 1 performance).

I for one am surprised at the outcome so far. Coming in, I expected this series to be the most competitive in the conference semifinals. In the past, the Celtics have proved to be a well oiled machine, turning it on when it matters most, specifically in their finals run last year. But the team’s ability to do so may have reached its peak, as the clearly more talented Miami duo has made the aging Celtics look mortal. There’s a very good chance this series goes the full seven game and alternate home wins, but after the Heat’s performance in the first two games, it’s hard to see how Miami can be stopped.