Celtics are still defending champs

David Denenberg

There has been a lot of talk around the NBA that the Los Angeles Lakers are not only the class of the Western Conference, but of the entire league.’ While it’s true they’re easily one of the best teams in the NBA, Boston is only behind them by one game in what is turning out to be a battle for home court.

In the first meeting between these teams on Christmas Day, there was no question that the Lakers were the better team.’ Kobe Bryant did what he had to do to fire his team up and, in the end, the Lakers defense was just too much for the Celtics.’ But that was a game that’ Los Angeles had to win because it was on their home court.

Fast-forward about a month-and-a-half later to the teams’ second meeting, in Boston.’ The Lakers got the win again, which started the whispers that they were the favorite to win the title.’ But something about that game seemed a little mysterious.’ Throughout most of the second half, the Celtics maintained a steady four-point lead and were showing no signs of letting up.

It wasn’t until Kevin Garnett fouled out that the Lakers were able to take their first lead of the game and eventually win it in overtime.’ Is that so hard to believe?’ Garnett is a dominant force down low, as we all know, but what he was showing us that night in the Garden was that Pau Gasol is not up to the daunting task of guarding him.’ That isn’t to take away from what Gasol was doing that night offensively. He scored 24 points.

Garnett had his game face on that night and, had it not been for him fouling out, the Celtics would have won.’ That’s why it’s too early to crown the Lakers champions.’ Obviously the season sweep of Boston is huge for the prolific Lakers, because it might end up being the tiebreaker in a possible Finals rematch, but this L.A. team is going to need to shore up a few loose ends if it really wants to go toe-to-toe with a team like Boston, the defending champion.

One thing to watch out for is the improved play of Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.’ His numbers are up from last season and he’s showing that he can not only dish the ball out, but also score. Rondo’s averaging 11.7 points and 8.4 assists per game. During the Feb. 5 game in Boston, the point guard was a key factor prior to Garnett fouling out.’ Rondo and Garnett seemed to have that killer chemistry.

Rondo was able to put the Lakers in a position where they had to pick their poison.’ The Lakers could try and double Garnett down low, but then Rondo would either take the shot himself or feed it to one of the sharpshooters on the outside.’ Yes, I’m talking about Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.’ Those guys couldn’t miss and were even given support from Eddie House off the bench.

With all those factors playing a part, it’s hard to say the Lakers are the better team.’ The Lakers have surely improved since last season, but with Andrew Bynum out again for a few months – just like last season – the Lakers are going to need one man to really step up. That’s Lamar Odom.’ Odom is the type of player that makes one unsure of who he’s going to be on any particular night.’ One’s either going to see an Odom that’s a dominant inside presence or one that’s flat. And that would be another important question if these teams were to meet in the NBA Finals again this year:’ Which Odom will show up?

Ultimately there are a few other factors.’ The Lakers obviously have to deal with Bynum going out, which they have attempted to with Josh Powell.’ And now the Celtics are trying to win games without Garnett, who sustained an injury to his right knee that will sideline him for at least two more weeks.

It would appear right now that these teams are on a crash course to meet once again in the Finals, but that would be taking away the possibility that some other teams could potentially get it done.’ But if when the smoke clears, the Lakers and Celtics are the last teams standing, I’m not prepared to write off the Celtics only because they got swept in the season series.

Nothing should be taken away from the success this Lakers franchise has experienced this year, but Boston is such a talented team it’s hard to imagine them getting dethroned while playing this well.’ With that said, the Lakers do have an excellent opportunity in front of them to lock up home court advantage throughout the playoffs, something they would have to do to beat a team like Boston that has such enthusiastic fans.

So the heated rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics continues.’ We don’t know where the road will lead these teams, but it’s safe to say if they see each other again this season, sparks will fly.