Hate Mail: The sooner you realize, the better
LOS ANGELES -- This is where I tell you who's going to win the NBA Finals. I've done it before. Sat here, in the hours leading up to Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and told you who would win. Most vividly I remember telling you in 2007 not just that San Antonio would beat Cleveland in the NBA Finals -- but that San Antonio would sweep Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
Result of the 2007 NBA Finals? Spurs in a sweep.
|Even if Kobe Bryant is slowed, players like Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol can step up. (Getty Images)|
So don't be surprised when the 2010 NBA Finals end like I'm telling you they're going to end. Because I've done that before. But I've never nailed the exact reason before, like I'm going to nail it here. So get ready, because here comes your NBA champion, and here comes the reason why:
Now then, don't misunderstand me. I don't necessarily want the Lakers to beat the Celtics. I'm not a Boston guy, but I prefer the players on the Celtics -- Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo in particular are sweethearts -- to the players on the Lakers. Kobe's the best player in the game, but he bugs me. Pau Gasol really bugs me. Lamar Odom? Ugh. Meanwhile, Celtics coach Doc Rivers is quite possibly the kindest man in the universe. Root against Doc Rivers? I couldn't do it, even if he were playing me in a game of poker for my house. I'd just give him the deed. Because I can't root against Doc Rivers.
But Rivers can't win the 2010 NBA Finals -- like he won the 2008 NBA Finals, against these same Lakers -- because Paul Pierce still has to guard Kobe Bryant.
And Pierce can't do it.
Not like he did it in 2008, when Pierce hounded Bryant into the most ineffective 25.7 ppg you'll ever see. Bryant scored his points, but he shot just 40.5 percent from the floor to do it. Shoot as often as Bryant does, and 40.5-percent shooting kills your team.
Meanwhile, at the offensive end, Pierce still had enough gas in the tank to average 21.9 ppg in the 2008 NBA Finals. Even guarding Bryant, as tiring as that was, Pierce was fresh enough to score effectively. And he had help, too. Ray Allen averaged 21.3 ppg in those NBA Finals. Kevin Garnett averaged 18.2 ppg and 13 rebounds. That was too much for the Lakers to overcome.
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But none of that will happen this time, because all of the key figures have gotten older, and slower. Except for Bryant. He's just as good as he ever was, and in these playoffs he has been, impossibly, even better.
"I don't think there's any doubt that this is one of the great playoff performances," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Wednesday of Bryant's 2010 postseason, and he didn't mean "one of the great playoff performances in Bryant's career."
He meant, in anybody's career -- and Jackson coached Michael Jordan to six NBA titles in Chicago. He coached Shaquille O'Neal to three titles in Los Angeles, when Shaq was rampaging through the playoffs at a 30-ppg, 15-rpg clip. Jackson has seen incredible postseasons, but this one by Kobe Bryant is, as he said, "one of the great playoff performances" ever.
In today's NBA, the only player who comes close to Kobe Bryant's individual talent is LeBron James, and we all saw what guarding James did to Pierce earlier this postseason. The Celtics beat the Cavaliers in six games, and they won in large part because Pierce was fantastic defensively against James, but playing such a tough defensive role took a toll on Pierce's offense. He averaged just 13.5 ppg in that series and shot just 34.5 percent from the floor. The Celtics didn't need more from him against the Cavaliers, because Cleveland is -- or was -- The LeBron Show. Pierce stifled James, and the Cavs had nothing else.
Even if Pierce stifles Bryant -- and I'm not sure he can, not the way Kobe's playing -- the Lakers have something else. They have the 7-foot Gasol averaging 20 ppg and 10.9 rpg. They have the 6-10 Odom averaging a double-double of his own. They have 7-0 Andrew Bynum, playing gamely on a knee that didn't get much relief from a fluid-draining procedure earlier this week, averaging 9.1 ppg and shooting 57 percent from the floor.
The Lakers are deep, and they are huge, and as an added bonus they have something the Celtics don't have: They have a defensive stopper they can throw at their opponent's best scorer. Ron Artest will defend Pierce. The Celtics don't have that luxury. They'll throw Pierce at Bryant, and this is where I remind you -- in Pierce's own words -- what a defensive matchup like that can do to a guy.
"You are talking about playing the best player in the league -- it's tough physically and mentally," Pierce said. "You sit at home before the series, and I'm watching so much [tape of him], how to play him defensively, that you forget about your offense. ... [It's] a huge defensive responsibility."
That was what Pierce said about defending James in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But it's the same thing with defending Bryant. Same 30-ppg scoring average. Same big, strong body scoring inside and out. Same stress, physically and mentally.
And this season, Pierce won't get the help he had in 2008 when Allen and Garnett were still superstars. Rondo has become a better player, but he's not that much better. Don't buy into the hype. He can't score enough to overcome what will happen to Pierce in these NBA Finals, especially if Bryant is defending him, and Ray Allen's scoring is down from 21.3 ppg in the 2008 NBA Finals to 16.8 ppg this postseason. Garnett is a shell of himself at 14.9 ppg and 8.2 rpg. They're both still effective players, but they're not superstars. And with Pierce defending Bryant, he can't be a superstar either. Not on offense.
So when Gasol and Odom and Bynum start scoring, to go with the points you know Bryant will score, how will Boston keep up?