Lakers/Celtics Rivalry Rematch

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

PARQUET POWDERKEG AS LAKERS MAKE ONLY REGULAR SEASON TRIP TO BEANTOWN

They played last year for the NBA Championship (won by the Lakers). They played three years ago for the NBA Championship (won by the Celtics). They played a week ago Sunday in what seemed like the unofficial start to the 2011 playoff race. Now, for the final time in the regular season, and possibly the final time in 2011 if the Lakers don't get their act together (!), it's the Los Angeles Lakers visiting the Boston Celtics.

If you're a basketball fan, you'll be watching tonight on TNT.

And, maybe...if you're a Las Vegas bettor...you'll be watching and winning along with JIM HURLEY!

Though we've been devoting the bulk of our NOTEBOOK coverage to football and college hoops the past several weeks, we've been paying very close attention to the NBA as well. We understand that most of you are more interested in the colleges in general...and that many of you would probably pick a generic college game to watch over a generic pro game. That's the nature of the industry.

But, that DOESN'T apply to great games like Lakers/Celtics! The world stops when these two superpowers collide. It's a rivalry that's existed for all of our lifetimes in one form or another. It's arguably the rivalry that launched the sport into the public consciousness back in the days of Bill Russell. It's the rivalry that rekindled a dying sport in the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The past few years, with Kobe Bryant and company on one side of the floor, and a great team atmosphere on the other, the rivalry is just as strong as ever.

Boston won Round One of the regular season battle on the road on a recent Sunday. That was a disappointing result for the Lakers because:

  • Los Angeles had already lost a marquee TV home game to Miami on Christmas Day, and they wanted to show everyone they were back in championship form.
  • Los Angeles had been hearing media concerns about the team getting too old. Boston is also old, but isn't showing signs of age! On that Sunday, the inspired Celtics made the Lakers look old and outmatched.
  • Los Angeles was fading out of the race for top seed in the West. A loss to Boston made it clear to everyone that the Lakers weren't currently playing basketball at a very high level. A subsequent loss to San Antonio may have ended hopes for the Lakers to earn a top seed barring injuries to some San Antonio stars.

If the season ended right now, it's Boston and San Antonio who would have to be considered the favorites to meet in a championship series based on recent and full season form. Obviously Miami is in the discussion. They've been very strong when all three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have been healthy. The Lakers are only in the discussion because they're three-time defending Western champs. They know how to win playoff games. Or, at least they did before they started looking too old!

Lakers fans can take heart in the fact that Boston wasn't setting the world on fire last year at this time. The Celtics went 27-27 over their last 54 games in fact. Once the playoffs started, they found that old postseason form and steamrollered the East. The Lakers could surely do the same thing in the West by finding an extra gear.

Let's run the Lakers and Celtics through a stat ringer and see how these teams rate heading into tonight's showdown.

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (points allowed per 100 possessions)
Boston 2nd
Lakers 8th

No surprises here. Boston has been a great defensive team with this group. Los Angeles is always much better defensively than fans and the media realize. Phil Jackson teaches defense. The Lakers have often played at a faster tempo than other playoff contenders, which makes it harder to see the impact of his teachings. Once you adjust for tempo, this is a good defensive team.

REBOUND RATE
Lakers 3rd
Boston 18th

This is a shocker. We always say that defense and rebounding wins championships. Would you have guessed Boston was BELOW average in this stat so far? The Lakers are third best. You may think Pau Gasol is soft. He gets a lot of rebounds. You may think Ron Artest is going to run around in his pajamas until the playoffs start. He's getting rebounds. Even while slumping, the Lakers will be a dangerous team because of Kobe on offense, and their defense and rebounding chips.

Boston may not be sitting as pretty as they think in terms of a playoff run. If everyone's making their shots, you can live with this kind of rebounding rate. It's tougher to make your shots against playoff defenses. We'll say it now. Should Boston get derailed by Miami or Orlando (or Chicago) in the Eastern brackets, this category will probably be the reason.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
Lakers 2nd
Boston 12th

The Lakers are starting to look better and better, aren't they? This is a team that knows how to shoot, and get to the free throw line. That means they have fewer zero possessions than most teams. We thought Boston would rank higher here than they do. They have more three-point threats than the Lakers, which is also a great way to come out ahead in efficiency.

We don't want to suggest that Boston's win in LA was some sort of illusion. The Celtics definitely played better that day, particularly when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. There are good signs here though for Lakers fans that things aren't as bad as they seem. Let's look at a few more of our indicator numbers.

MARGIN AVERAGES
Boston +6.9
Lakers +6.7

A dead heat here. And, we're more than 50 games into the season so the averages are meaningful. This category by itself would suggest Boston should be about a 3-point favorite at home (home court is worth three points in the NBA in general). A best-of-seven series would be very evenly matched.

WINS MINUS HOME GAMES PLAYED
Boston +11
Lakers +9

Boston starts to get some distance here. Each has similar home/road splits, so your newspaper standings are basically "what you see is what you get" in a comparison. Maybe that nudges Boston up a half a point in a head-to-head projection.

ROAD RECORDS
Lakers 17-8
Celtics 15-9

But, then again, the Lakers are one of the best road teams in the NBA! Kobe Bryant can break hearts anywhere. The Lakers are a veteran team that just doesn't get intimidated in hostile territory. Boston's record isn't as good. We have to admit though that we've seen some veteran teams "pace themselves" by letting some road games slide by the wayside as they navigate a long season. This differential may not end up being meaningful. Boston sure looked great in LA.

It's a great week in the NBA. Both of these teams will be in showcase games once again over the weekend. On Sunday, Boston hosts Miami, and the Lakers visit Orlando. As soon as the NFL is out of the way, the NBA starts fighting for you attention!

JIM HURLEY sure has the oddsmakers attention with his recent run through basketball. LA/Boston may or may not be part of our Thursday Night slate. NETWORK only releases the very best plays on the college and pro card. If this one makes the cut...customers will get it. If the best options are in the colleges, that's where we'll attack Vegas sportsbooks. Among the college games we're looking at Thursday Night: Connecticut at St. Johns, Illinois at Minnesota, Alabama at Vanderbilt, Penn State at Michigan State, and California at Washington.

You can purchase selections daily with your credit card right here at the website. Plays go up a few hours before first tip. Or, sign up for the rest of basketball at discounted rates to get the best value. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to preview Saturday's Ohio State at Wisconsin game, one of the biggest danger spots on #1 Ohio State's schedule. It's an afternoon game, so we wanted to get our preview up Friday to give you plenty of time to look over the numbers. Saturday we'll look at Pittsburgh at Villanova in prime time on ESPN's "Game Day" feature. Sunday, we'll talk about those big NBA showdowns we just mentioned.

Every day is a BASKETBALL BONANZA through February. Don't sit on the sidelines waiting for March Madness to get here. GET IN THE GAME and start making money TONIGHT!

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