Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Rivalry renewal -- the NBA Finals

Other than the Dallas-Miami clash in 2006, this will probably be the first NBA Finals that I actively watch since the end of the Jordan Era (the Knicks-Spurs matchup was a foregone conclusion). And there's a good reason for it: RIVALRY.

Although announcers and sports pundits love to prattle on about parity, underdogs and the great unknowns, the simple fact is, and has always been, that big teams and their big rivalries sell.

White Sox-Astros? Who cares? Show us another Series with the RedSax or Yankees.

Spurs-Nets? Why bother? We all know who'll win, it's a question of when.

But marquee teams and marquee rivalries are the foundation of sport: Yankees-RedStiffs, Duke-Carolina, Canadiens-Bruins (or the modern version, Avalanche-Red Wings), and the biggest NBA rivalry of all, Celtics-Lakers.

From 1959 to 1984 the Celtics and Lakers met 8 times in the NBA Finals, and the Celtics won all 8. In that same period, the Celts won 14 times in 14 NBA Finals appearances (that's incredible -- the Yankees' best is 8 wins in 8 WS from 1927-1941; the Canadiens won 9 Stanley Cups from 1968-86 without losing in the finals), the Lakers were the basketball version of the Brooklyn Dodgers -- 3 wins, 11 losses. In 1985 and 1987, the Lakers broke through -- beating the Celts in the NBA Finals in six games each time. In 1985, the Lakers took four of five after Boston blew them off the court in game 1 and the press said Kareem looked old and slow next to Robert Parish (Kareem was the MVP); in 1987, the Lakers rolled the Celts in six games with three blowouts in LA.

This is the first time the Celts are in the NBA Finals since that 1987 loss to the Lakers. They have three of the best players in the NBA on the team -- Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (kudos to you if you knew off the top of your head that Pierce is the leading scorer). The Lakers have the single best player in the NBA, Kobe Bryant, and two under-the-radar stars in Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol.

Although historically I've rooted for the Lakers in this rivalry, The Monk leaned toward cheering on the Celtics because he likes KG and Ray Allen, and cannot stand Phil Jackson (Knicks-Bulls rivalry from the '90s) . . . but then I realized that ESPN's The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, the embodiment of Bostonian fandom would be thrilled beyond belief by a Celtics win. That's unacceptable. Plus, a 66-win team that pathetically struggled to win seven-game series against two teams that couldn't even qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference should not be the NBA champ.

Go Lakers.

And for an actual prediction: Lakers in 6 -- the Celts are the best defensive team in the league, the Lakers are the best on offense (remember, they don't play at the Warriors-Nuggets-Suns breakneck pace, so their offensive efficiency is likely better than that of the three teams that outscored the Lakers); the Lakers have better rebounding and a better bench and, to my chagrin, a better coach; and basketball is an OFFENSIVE game first.

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