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NBA Finals Preview
by Larry Ness - 06/02/2010
The Celtics hardly looked like a team capable of winning the East after the team finished 50-32 during the regular season, good enough for just the East's fourth seed. Boston muddled through its last 54 regular-season games with a 27-27 record but easily dispatched of the Heat in five game in the first round. The Celtics suffered the worst home playoff loss in team history in Game 3 of their semifinal series with the Cavs (124-95) and fell behind the Cavs 2-1. After that loss, few would have predicted the Celtics would be making their 21st all-time appearance in the NBA Finals come June.
However, the Celtics would win three straight games against the Cavs, holding LeBron and Company to just 86.7 PPG in the process to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the defending East champs, the Orlando Magic. All the Magic had going for them was a perfect 8-0 (7-1 ATS) mark in opening the 2010 playoffs with back-to-back sweeps plus a 14-game overall winning streak (13-1 ATS) heading into the series. Boston won the first two games in Orlando (92-88 and 95-92) and then devastated the Magic in Game 3 in Boston, 94-71.
The Magic regrouped to win Game 4 in OT (96-92) and Game 5 back in Orlando, 113-92. However, the Magic joined 94 other NBA teams which had fallen behind 0-3 in a seven-game series, as they lost Game 6 in Boston, 96-84. Reports after the game told of Rivers gathering Allen, Garnett and Pierce together with about a month to go in the season to tell them of his plan on how they could be champions again. The Celtics would stop angling for playoff seeding and home court, “Listen, we’re going to practice harder, you’re going to play less and there’s going to be a minute restriction,” Rivers told them. He punctuated his declaration with the obvious; “And I know you’re not going to like this, but the only way you’re going to win is healthy.” I doubt any of the "Big Three" are complaining.
The Lakers are back in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season and the 31st time in team history (easily the most of any franchise). LA hardly looked "unbeatable" in the first round of this year's postseason against the youthful Thunder. The Lakers were tied two-all in that series before winning the final two games. They then swept the Jazz in the semifinals and went up 2-0 in the Western Conference finals against the Suns, averaging 126.0 PPG and shooting just under 58 percent in two home games. That gave LA an eight-game playoff winning streak (7-1 ATS) while averaging 111.9 PPG
However, the Suns were able to win back-to-back games at home (each by nine points) to even that series at two-all. The Lakers blew leads of 16 points (first half) and 18 points (second half) in Game 5 back in LA but won at the buzzer when Kobe missed an off-balance jumper (air ball) but Artest, just 1-of-8 from the floor up until that point, banked in a layup to give LA a 103-101 win (the Lakers moved to 19-0 all-time in home Game 5s in a series tied 2-all). The series then returned to Phoenix where the Suns were 20-3 SU (18-4-1 ATS) since the All Star break but the Lakers dominated the first three quarters of Game 6 (led 91-74 entering the 4th) and held on the win, 111-103.
The NBA has had its sights set on a Kobe and LeBron showdown for the NBA Finals for two straight years now and gone 0-for-2. However, the league can't be unhappy with yet another Celtics/Lakers matchup. The Celtics are in their 21st Finals (17-3 in previous 20 appearances) and the Lakers in their 31st (15-15 their previous 30), as the league's two most storied franchises meet for the 12th time. Boston won the first eight meetings (the first seven of which came no later than 1969), LA the next two ('85 and '87) and then after a 21-season gap, the Celtics made it 9-2 all-time vs the Lakers by winning the title in 2008.
The Celtics won the 2008 Finals in six games, while going a perfect 6-0 ATS. However, this time around, the Lakers will have the home court advantage and in the 2-3-2 format and it's a fairly significant edge (more on that in a bit). I point out every year before the playoffs begin, that the NBA's postseason has rarely offered any real surprises. Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. Of the 30 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 (exactly 50.0 percent) have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Nine champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark (including the Lakers last year) and three others with its third-best record.
That leaves just three champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 30 seasons (10 percent). Two of those champs have come in the last six years. The 2003-04 Pistons finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets are the third team and deserve a special mention, especially as this year's current Boston team may relate. The Rockets won the NBA championship in 1994 but the following season finished with a record of 47-35, tied for the 10th-best mark during the regular season.
However, the Rockets would beat beat in order, the 60-22 Jazz, the 59-23 Suns and the 62-20 Spurs (owners of the league's best record that year in David Robinson's MVP year) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-25 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny (remember him?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ (who returned late in the that season from his MLB 'sabbatical'). The Rockets swept the Magic in four games, giving Rudy T and Hakeem back-to-back titles and giving Clyde Drexler (who was acquired from Portland during the season in a trade), the lone NBA title of his Hall-of-Fame career. Houston 'victims' that postseason had a combined record of 238-90 (.726) during the regular season. No championship team, before or since, has beaten a more impressive group of challengers on its way to an NBA title.
Do the 2010 Celtics remind anyone of those 1995 Rockets? The Celtics are one of four teams in this year's postseason field to win exactly 50 games, giving them the ninth-best record during the regular season. Many actually thought this aging team would struggle to get by the Heat in the first round. However, Boston easily took care of the Heat (4-1) and I've already recapped at the beginning of this journal, Boston's performance against both the Cavs and the Magic. Rivers' late season strategy (also referred to earlier) has the Celtics four wins away from an 18th NBA title.
The Lakers finished 57-25 this year (the league's third-best record), putting them in the 'class' of 27 of the last 30 NBA champs (explanation above). This year's LA squad is a much more polished team than the one which faced Boston in 2008 with Gasol now among the league's elite players (has averaged 20.0 PPG and 10.9 RPG this postseason, while shooting 56.5 percent). Center Andrew Bynum is not 100% but he's available, which is something he very much wasn't back in 2008. The Lakers are 28-3 SU the last three postseason at home and with the 2-3-2 format, they deserve to be about 2-to-1 favorites to win a second straight title.
Because of coast-to-coast travel in the early 80s (LA vs Boston or Philly was the matchup in FOUR of five NBA Finals from the 1979-80 season the 1983-84 season), the NBA changed its traditional 2-2-1-1-1 seven-game format in the Finals to the current 2-3-2 format for the 1984-85 postseason (also a Finals which featured Boston vs LA). The team with the home court advantage now opens and closes with two home games, while its opponent gets three consecutive home games in the middle (Games 3-5). At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that this new format could very possibly benefit the team without the home court edge. That hasn't been the case.
Over the last 25 NBA Finals, the team with the home court edge has won 19 of the 25 series played, or 76.0 percent. A closer look shows that over the last 25 years, teams playing Games 1 & 2 plus Games 6 & 7 at home are 47-19 or .712 percent in those contests. However, teams with Games 3 thru 5 at home have gone just 35-36 (.493) in that same span. Pointing out the disadvantage of this format even more to the team without the home court advantage, is this. Of the six teams which have won the title since 1985 without the home court edge in the Finals (the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 Bulls, the 1995 Rockets, the 1998 Bulls, the 2004 Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat), history shows that those teams won not so much as a result of them winning their home games but rather by them being able to win their road games.
These six teams did go a combined 13-4 or .765 at home (just 7-4 prior to 3-0 sweeps by both Detroit in '04 and Miami in '06) but more importantly went 11-5 (.688) in their road games! What this points to is that having three consecutive home games in the middle of a seven-game series has certainly been no advantage and that makes sense. After playing Games 1 (Thursday) and 2 (Sunday) in LA, the Lakers and Celtics will head to Boston for a week. Game 3 is set for Tuesday, Game 4 for Thursday and Game 5 for Sunday. The home court edge is mitigated, because the visiting team has almost an entire week in its opponent's city.
I'm not predicting an LA win but I do feel that history reveals that if the Celtics are to beat the Lakers in this year's Finals, they'll most likely have to do it by winning at least twice in LA. It's not as if the Celtics can't win all three home games (remember, the Pistons did it in '04 and the Heat did it in '06) but it's highly unlikely that the Lakers would lose three straight games in Boston. Game 1 is set for 9:05 ET on ABC with the Lakers favored by 5 1/2 points (total is 192). My next journal will be posted by 12 noon ET on Saturday.