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NBA Finals Fever

   by Jim Feist - 06/02/2010

Think Kobe Bryant wants to win another title without Shaq? Think Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen want a second ring? "I just want it so bad," said Bryant a year ago on the eve of the Finals. "I just want it really bad." Shaq used to say that Bryant was easily the most motivated player in the NBA. In Game 1 last season the Lakers looked fired up and focused in a 100-75 pasting of Orlando. The young Magic looked like deer in the headlights.

The 2010 Finals are different. There are no young players who've never been on the NBA Finals stage before. These teams met in the Finals two years ago, with underdog Boston winning in six games. The Lakers were favored even though the Celtics had home court because Boston had struggled in the postseason, playing two seventh games and going six games with the Pistons. The Lakers, meanwhile, had steamrolled through the postseason.

This postseason has been different. The Celtics basically took the last three months of the season off, trying to get healthy and slipping all the way to a No. 4 seed in the East. Then they put on an incredible transformation, dominating the No. 1 seeded Cavaliers (six games) and the No. 2 seeded Magic. Not having home court didn't matter as they clearly got healthy and got it all together.

You don't see teams do this very often. Red Auerbach used to preach that you can't slack off in the regular season and hope to turn it on in the playoffs because you develop bad habits. There are a few examples, though, to the contrary.

In 1995, the No. 6 seeded Houston Rockets (47-35), also the defending champs, got hot at the right time. They beat the 60-win Jazz, the 59-win Suns and the top-seeded Spurs (62-20), before sweeping Shaq and the Magic in the NBA Finals, a truly remarkable run. In 1969, the aging Celtics finished as the No. 4 seed in their division, yet advanced to the Finals and stunned the top-seeded Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain in seven games, winning Game 7 on the road.

However, there aren't many examples. The Celtics and Lakers met twice this season, each winning on the other's home court by one point. You can't get any closer than that! The Lakers won at Boston in January, 90-89, as the Celtics got outscored 24-16 in the fourth and Kobe sank the go-ahead basket with 7.3 seconds left. Boston slowed the tempo down and held LA to 6 fast break points. The Lakers outscored Boston on points in the paint 18-0 in the fourth quarter.

The teams met in LA three weeks later and the Celtics won, 87-86, despite scoring only 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics, who came in allowing a league-low 93.7 points per game, held the Lakers to one field goal over the final 7:14. Both meetings went under the total.

The edges the Celtics have for the Finals are supreme confidence, playing their best basketball of the season, and knowing they beat these Lakers two years ago. Boston won Game 4 at LA in the 2008 Finals despite trailing by 24 points. This Celtic team could be better, with the emergence of Rajon Rondo as a star and a solid bench with newcomer Rasheed Wallace. The edges the Lakers have are home court for the 2010 Finals, unlike 2008, and being the defending champs. We're not giving up the crown, you're going to have to take it!

Some of the weaknesses, however, cropped up in the Conference Finals. The Lakers didn't play much defense on the road, as Phoenix won Games 3 and 4 attacking a lack of LA transition ‘D'. The Suns also had huge edges at the free throw line in those games.

Boston hasn't really looked old in these playoffs, but there are times when energy and the age factor of the Big Three seemed a concern. With a chance to sweep the Orlando Magic last week, the Celtics came out flat in the first quarter (at home) and gave up 31 points to Orlando, easily their best quarter of the series. They could have had more, too, as the Celtics defense was slow to react on the perimeter, with the Magic getting a string of open looks beyond the arc. Boston later looked out of gas in overtime.

While the Kobe/LeBron Finals has failed to materialize for the second straight season, at least NBA history buffs can find excitement as the Celtics/Lakers meet again for the crown. The last four meetings since 1984: 2 LA championships in six games each time, and a pair of Boston titles in seven and six games. Bring on the Green versus the Purple and Gold!

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