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Basketball Notes

Down the stretch, Lakers are homed in

At stake now is a key advantage

A determined Lamar Odom says he and his LA teammates are ''taking care of business.'' A determined Lamar Odom says he and his LA teammates are ''taking care of business.'' (Rick bowmer/Associated Press)
By Marc J. Spears
April 5, 2009
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With the Western Conference's top playoff seed in hand, the Lakers are now eyeing the East.

The Lakers are trying to stay ahead of East powers Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. To remind them just how important home court is, the Lakers just have to think about the 2008 Finals.

"There won't be any let-up this year," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "We're striving to get the final word. Our goal is to make it back to the Finals. We want home court for that particular reason."

The Lakers had the West's best record last season with 57 wins, but the Celtics had 66. And although Los Angeles was favored when the Finals began, the Celtics were nearly unbeatable at TD Banknorth Garden.

The Celtics took care of business at home three times and won one road game, a 24-point comeback triumph in Game 4, for a 4-2 series victory and their 17th NBA title. Along with a need to improve defensively and get tougher, Los Angeles knew to win this season it would have to secure home court in the Finals.

"That goal is one of our main objectives," Odom said. "We know how important it was after the run last year."

The Lakers and Cavaliers are in a tight battle for the top record in the league. The Lakers are 60-16, with four of their six games left at home; the Cavaliers are 61-15, also with four of six at home.

"It's a challenge," said Odom. "Cleveland, Orlando, and Boston are playing at a high level. Hopefully, for the fans and for competitive spirit, [the best record] will come down to the last three or four games."

Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are both averaging more than 36 minutes per game. But with the home court a big goal, don't expect Los Angeles's key players to rest now.

"You rest when you're tired," said Odom. "We're in shape. We had a tough training camp. Everyone is taking care of business and their body."

One thing that will bolster the Lakers' hopes is the return of Andrew Bynum, who tore his right MCL Jan. 31. The 7-foot center hopes to play April 12 against Memphis.

But even with Bynum out of the lineup, the Lakers haven't taken a step backward.

"A team effort is needed to win on a consistent basis," Odom said. "[Bynum] going down and us winning, that's what good teams do. More success means more time to bide for him. And that's what we're doing."

The good news for the Lakers is that while the East powers beat up on each other, LA has an easier road to the Finals. Unless San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are all truly healthy and playing well, nobody can challenge Los Angeles in the West. Add home-court advantage at the Staples Center, and the Lakers believe that the Larry O'Brien Trophy will be returning to Los Angeles.

"In a funny way, we had [the 2008 Finals]," Odom said. "We could have been up, 3-2. We were up 20 points [in Game 4]. We would have gone back to Boston up, 3-2. We want to have more games at Staples Center."

Local stars on Springfield's radar

While Springfield might have been too late to be affiliated with the Celtics, it isn't too late to be affiliated with former New England stars.

The NBA Development League announced last week that Springfield has been awarded an expansion team to begin play in the 2009-10 season. Portland, Maine, also recently was awarded a team - the Maine Red Claws - which is expected to be affiliated with the Celtics. The Springfield team could be affiliated with New York, New Jersey, or Philadelphia.

"I'm a Celtics fan," said Springfield team owner Michael Savit of Newton. "It would have been great to be affiliated with the Celtics. But there is an assumption that the Celtics would be in Portland, which was in the making before I even talked to the D-League. It wasn't a competitive thing.

"To be honest with you, I have a background in minor league baseball and I've got teams all over the country. I am affiliated with minor league teams that aren't necessarily geographically close. And you know what? It doesn't make a difference. The bottom line is the D-League team in Springfield is affiliated with the NBA."

Savit is hopeful he can draw New Englanders to games with local stars from, say, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and Holy Cross. Ex-UConn swingman Denham Brown plays for Iowa, while ex-UMass swingman Gary Forbes plays for Tulsa.

"An effort will be made to get some of those guys on the team," Savit said. "If we had a team this year, Gary Forbes would have been on the team."

Springfield will play home games at the MassMutual Center, which recently hosted the NCAA Division 2 Elite 8. There is no coach or team name yet.

"When I started talking to the NBA, we could have gone pretty much anywhere in the country," said Savit. "But the NBA wanted to make a push toward the Northeast, toward New England."

Etc.

Air of anticipation
Led by the legendary Michael Jordan, what could be the most distinguished Basketball Hall of Fame Class in history will be announced tomorrow morning in Detroit. Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, and Jerry Sloan highlight the list of 16 finalists. Other candidates with NBA ties include Celtics greats Dennis Johnson and Don Nelson, Bernard King, Chris Mullin, Richie Guerin, and Johnny "Red" Kerr. The enshrinement will be at the Hall in Springfield Sept. 11. "Every announcement is pretty exciting," said John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall. "But this class will be one of the most notable and significant classes to the modern game." The enshrinement ceremony usually is held at a venue with a seating capacity of 1,100-1,200, but because of the excitement this year - primarily over Jordan - it will be moved to the 2,400-seat Symphony Hall in Springfield. Doleva said there are a limited amount of $250 seats and $1,000 VIP seats (which include a private post-event party) still available. There also will be a free public ceremony on the steps of Springfield City Hall at noon that day that is expected to draw 3,000. There was a lot of excitement for the enshrinement of Larry Bird in 1998 and Magic Johnson in 2002, but neither ceremony was moved to a bigger venue. "The Larry Bird year was exciting for New England," Doleva said. "This year will be an interesting audience."

Second thoughts
Barring some odd circumstances, Oklahoma sophomore forward Blake Griffin will be selected with the top pick in this year's draft, no matter who has it. So who's No. 2? While there has been some talk about Arizona State guard James Harden and Arizona forward-center Jordan Hill, one NBA scout said Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet could be a lock for the second selection. "Thabeet is probably still No. 2," the NBA scout said. "A lot of people would have problems with his height. He's 7-3. You look at people who could pass him in Jordan Hill and James Harden. But it would be risky for a GM to pass on someone 7-3."

Choosing sides
While Celtics coach Doc Rivers said NBA commissioner David Stern "is thinking about changing the rules next year like the NBDL," don't expect the unusual playoff format the D-League is experimenting with this year to be adopted by the NBA. In the format, the top-seeded division winner will select its opponent first, with the second- and third-ranked division winners following. The fourth-seeded team plays the remaining team. The first two rounds are one-game playoffs, the finals best-of-three. Two D-League coaches didn't seem too excited about the prospect of choosing their opponents. "We've had some interesting discussions," Utah Flash coach Brad Jones said. "Do you go with the lowest seed? Do you look at what a team did the last five games? Do you go with the team you match up with the best? You don't know who the No. 1 team will pick. It's an interesting dynamic. Very fluid." Said Colorado 14ers coach Bob MacKinnon, "To be honest with you, it's kind of a coach killer. You're supplying billboard material for the team you pick. We may pick out of a hat and make it known."

Roadblock before Boston?
The Celtics and Magic are projected to meet in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but if Orlando draws Detroit in the first round, could those expectations go out the window? Despite their struggles this season, the Pistons are 3-0 against Orlando. The Magic lost in five games to Detroit in the first round of the playoffs last season and were swept by the Pistons in the postseason two years ago. The Pistons have won 11 of 12 playoff meetings against Orlando since April 30, 2003.

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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