Last night, the Boston Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons to set up a Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers. I'm a major basketball fan, and while I anticipate a great series, I'm a little dismayed. With these two teams in the Finals, media outlets around the country are popping metaphorical bottles of champagne, and will be predicting, arguing, looking back, looking forward, comparing, and any other verb one can plug in. Within half an hour of the Celtics-Pistons game ending, ESPN was running the obligatory footage of past Celtics-Lakers Finals: Magic Johnson's hook shot, Larry Bird's sideline towel waving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's white glasses, Red Auerbach's cigar, Kurt Rambis' nasty hit, and the severe case of secondhand smoke that was the old Boston Garden. The series will easily be the most anticipated one since the 1990s. Last year, I was on vacation, and I was asked who I was rooting for between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs. I couldn't offer anything more than a shrug. This year, I still have no deep, regional interest (read: the Chicago Bulls), but I'm looking forward to it, since the NBA is back. I will be rooting for the Lakers...more on this to follow.
What I will not be rooting for is the media coverage. Fans love to talk about an East Coast bias, and I suppose it will be reflected in the Boston Celtics, with journalists and sportscasters wondering if the Celtics can win their first championship since 1986 (if you pay any attention to the Finals this year, that will be one of a barrage of facts spewed hundreds of times). Another infuriating reflection has been in the advertising. Since the first round of the NBA playoffs, Gatorade has been running a nonstop commercial featuring Kevin Garnett. The theme is "be history, or make history," yet one can only conclude that the ad clearly assumes that Garnett and the Celtics will win the championship. With the ad being run constantly, I wonder what would have happened if the Atlanta Hawks had pulled off the upset in the first round. Would it still be running, or would the advertising executives have made a hasty replacement ad with Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant?
Curiously, I'm very much looking forward to the sideline shots of the coaches, Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson. Throughout the playoffs, they have acted as total opposites. I can't remember a coach as animated (or pouty) as Rivers. Even as early as the second quarter of a given game, a call against the Celtics makes him jump and scream as if lives hang in the balance. How he doesn't get hit with more technical fouls is beyond me, at least just as a message to calm him down. While Jackson would probably be a great coach no matter how old he is, age is definitely catching up with him. He doesn't yell as much as he glares, sort of resembling an angry old man who has just been shortchanged at a sandwich shop. In all seriousness, one has to respect Rivers' coaching. Under a different, lesser one, the Celtics would probably have been eliminated weeks ago. Jackson likely has had the exact same style that he had in the early 1990s, but the Lakers haven't truly been challenged in the postseason yet. True, the Utah Jazz took them to six games, but did anyone really have any doubts that the Lakers would win that series?
If the Celtics win, I will be happy for one player: Paul Pierce. As awful as his teams have been lately, it's amazing that he wasn't traded years ago. With all respect to Garnett, Pierce is the definite face of the team. This is embarrassing to admit, but I was openly rooting for the Celtics in 2002, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. In my younger, misguided mind, I actually thought that the tandem of Pierce and Antoine Walker could win a championship. This was before Walker gained too much weight and primarily became known for shooting and missing way too many three-point shots. I'm sure that the Celtics management listened to many trade offers for Pierce, but they did a smart job of keeping him. Otherwise, the team would have been even worse before the trades for Garnett and Ray Allen.
I hesitate to make predictions, because I try to keep Chicago Ex-Patriate above a typical "blog." But, since this is a Finals preview, I'll do so. I pick the Lakers to win the 2008 NBA Finals in six games. The Lakers have a deeper bench, and I prefer Derek Fisher's playoff experience to Rajon Rondo's inexperience (all around) at point guard. Pau Gasol will have a major defensive challenge with Garnett, but that matchup will be fun to watch regardless, considering their previous tenures with losing teams. The obvious "x-factor" (as much as I loathe that term) is Kobe Bryant. I never thought I would ever write this about anybody, but he is the closest thing to Michael Jordan that we'll ever see (oh, how close he was to being a Bull in the off season). No player on the Celtics can take control of a game like Bryant. I envision at least one 45-50 point game from him, likely in Los Angeles, preferably with his team down two games to one. A game like that would turn the series in the Lakers' favor, even with a game six in Boston.
And a final note to the ABC camera people: Yes, we know that Jack Nicholson will be in attendance at the Staples Center. You don't need to show him every five minutes.