Celtics in Early Trouble



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

It was like the clock struck midnight in Game One of the NBA Finals this past Thursday Night, and seeming championship contender Boston turned back into a pumpkin.

The old players were old again. The slow players were slow again. Point guard Rajon Rondo went from being a dominating force to a straw trying to stir a boring drink. Boston looked every bit the #4 seed that many expected to be long gone by now rather than the surging super-team that had taken out Miami, Cleveland, and Orlando in such impressive fashion.

Was it an 'off' day, and we're about to see the Celtics at their best? Or, did they really turn back into a pumpkin and the Lakers are about to carve them up in four or five games?

We won't know until Boston takes the floor again this evening. What is clear is this:

*Rondo's back is bothering him enough that he's not likely to be as big a force here as he was in the earlier rounds. He can't move laterally very well. He can't stop and start quickly. It's not like he's lost all of his value. He's lost enough that it matters, at least to this point. Rondo's huge strides forward this year were kind of a 'tie breaker' that put Boston back into the title hunt. Tough to stride with a bad back. So, the tie-breaker disappears.

*Kevin Garnett isn't moving as well as he was earlier in the playoffs either. Pau Gasol felt bold enough to tell the media that Garnett has lost a step. Normally, that's chalkboard material. But, it's such a master of the obvious statement right now that Gasol may never have to regret it. Garnett HAS lost a step from earlier in the playoffs, and a few steps from the championship series of two years ago that the Celtics won.

*What positions will Boston win with those guys unable to make a big impact? Can you squeeze out enough of an edge over the roster to justify a series win? Who are the weak links on the Lakers? Normally everyone points to Derek Fisher. But, he lifts his game significantly in the playoffs...and he's a point guard like Rondo.

Frankly, the Celtics team that played Thursday Night will have trouble winning a game in this series. The Lakers barely broke a sweat while jumping to a comfortable lead. And, Boston actually got a little help from the refs in terms of free throw attempts (though both teams marched to the line much of the night). What's going to happen when the Lakers win free throws? What improvements can Boston make that won't be trumped by more intensity from the Lakers?

Big questions for handicappers as they think about tonight's very important rematch.

LOS ANGELES leads 1-0
Vegas Line: Los Angeles by 6, total of 190

The Lakers were -6 in most of the lead-up to Game One, though Boston money did come in on game day to bring the line down to Lakers -5.5. Normally, you see an adjustment toward the Game One loser...as bettors look for the bounce back. That didn't happen here, with the Lakers sitting at -6 again. The fact that you're NOT seeing sharp money come in on the underdog at +6 suggests that the Wise Guys weren't particularly enamored with Boston's matchup situation. Note that Boston +6 didn't even get you to halftime in the first game...with the Lakers leading by 11 points at the half and 20 after three quarters.

The total has come down to 190. The first game started at 195, and got bet all the way down to 190.5 by tipoff. The scoring landed on 191...meaning the money was smarter than the oddsmakers in that instance. The oddsmakers adjusted here to keep that from happening again.

Let's take a look at the scoring breakdown from Game One to see where Boston can improve...

Three-Point Scoring: Boston 3, Lakers 12
Two-Point Scoring: Boston 56, Lakers 66
Free Throw Scoring: Boston 30, Lakers 24

One jumps out right off the bat, as the Celtics are very likely to score more than just three pointers from this point forward. They should realize now that they can't dominate the Lakers from inside. They're going to HAVE to make some three's to counter-act that. So, this is good news for Boston fans. The bad news is that the Lakers are likely to score more than four treys if they need them. Note the Lakers were just 4 of 10 from long range, after having those bombs-away parties against the Phoenix zone. We expect both teams to do more from behind the arc. It's not necessarily a Boston win if that happens.

The Lakers weren't afraid at all of attacking the inside of the Celtics defense. Why shoot three-pointers if you're going to pop 90 points from your inside attack alone (two's and one's). Defense is a strength of Boston to be sure. They're dealing with a lot more weapons in this round. Orlando had a monster inside who can't shoot from more than five feet away. Cleveland had a superstar dealing with a bad elbow. The Lakers bring an uncaged Kobe Bryant playing for his legacy, along with threats like Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom who will beat you for a bucket if you give them a step (and Gasol can just drop a shot over your head).

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Normally, we like focusing on stats when we provide these NBA playoff previews. The TV networks and your local media do a good job of hyping the players. The numbers often tell the story better. In this series though, it may turn out that just listing the names and looking at the matchups is all you need to do. Let's go position by position.

Rondo vs. Fisher
Two weeks ago, this is a big edge for Boston. Rondo's hurt and Fisher's playing with confidence. It's very tough to make the case that this is a meaningful edge for Boston now, unless Rondo gets his full range of motion back or Fisher loses his shooting confidence.

Ray Allen vs. Bryant
Allen had some bad luck with foul calls the other night. He's likely to contribute more tonight just by having more time on the floor. He's a great pure shooter. Are you going to give this matchup to Boston though? Bryant has the edge, and he's playing for blood.

Pierce and Garnett vs. Artest and Gasol
Garnett and Gasol are more like centers, but they're listed as power forwards...and it makes more sense in the way you match up the teams to stick them here. Both teams obviously have great combinations. You have offense, defense, and rebounding in bountiful supply. What's the name of the guy who's lost a step again? Which combination looks old, and which is playing at top speed?

Perkins vs. Bynum
Similar players right now in terms of impact, whose contributions probably won't sway the series either way.

Boston has some contributors. The Lakers have Lamar Odom, who would be a star starter on many other teams. There's a chance the Boston bench could have a big game that helps the team steal a victory somewhere along the way. Just be aware that Odom only played for 21 minutes the other night, and was barely needed.

Throw in home court advantage for the series, which favors the Lakers. Where does Boston pick up significant edges? You're going to hope Ray Allen outplays Kobe four times? You want Rasheed Wallace and Big Baby to crush Lamar Odom off the bench?

We made the point earlier about Rondo being a tie-breaker at full strength. They NEED him to win the point guard battle convincingly to have any chance of winning the series. They have the talent to be competitive. WINNING the series will take four huge performances from the little guy with the bad back.

Note: in Game One, Rondo's plus/minus was -18, Fishers was +17.

That sets the stage for tonight. Either Game Two is where Boston makes it a series again by showing that Garnett hasn't lost a step...Rondo CAN play big with a nagging back...or maybe that the Lakers can panic if they have a cold stretch where the shots don't fall. Or...Game Two is where the Lakers say 'We're the best team in the league and there's not a darned thing you can do about it!'

JIM HURLEY has been talking with his SCOUTS...and his SOURCES...and his STATHEADS...and his COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS...and his WISE GUY CONNECTIONS to make sure he has this game covered from every possible angle. He's learned what he's needed to learn, and he's got something very special for you at 1-800-323-4453. Sign up for the rest of June, and you'll get all of the NBA Finals including tonight in your package. Be sure to call early so you can include Sunday baseball in the mix.

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Back tomorrow to talk some more baseball. Game Three of the NBA Finals is set for Tuesday night in Boston. We'll have a preview for you here in the NOTEBOOK on game day.


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