THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

For record, these four are best

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 22, 2008

We did not seem to need the first two rounds of the 2008 playoffs to identify the NBA's answer to the Final Four. We coulda/shoulda hit the fast-forward button.

Boston had the best regular-season record at 66-16. Detroit was second at 59-23. The Lakers were third at 57-25. San Antonio and New Orleans were tied for fourth at 56-26.

The East was thought to be a bit unpredictable, the West less so. But we've had no real surprises anywhere. Cleveland may have had an easier time with the Wizards than many thought it would, but that's about it. The Pistons had one of their celebrated walkabout nights, losing their opening game to the 76ers. All this meant was that they would have to win a game in Philadelphia, and so they did - twice. And, appropriately, one was the clinching Game 6. As the Pistons would gladly tell you, winning at home is no more exhilarating than getting out of bed. Noise is noise, ya know? But clinching a series to the eerie silence of a shocked home crowd . . . that will put a real spring in your step. It's almost worth losing at home just to enjoy that experience.

The Celtics made their fans squirm by needing a pair of rousing Game 7 victories to advance. The party line will be in place until they win a road game, and that party line is as follows: "This is why you work through the Big 82, to secure the vaunted Home Court Advantage [HCA]."

Anyway, it's Boston vs. Detroit in the conference finals. 1 vs. 2. I believe I've heard Doc Rivers say once or twice that this is exactly what he always thought it should be and would be.

The Lakers haven't been messing around, have they? The answer to that would be no. They ran right over and through the glitzy Nuggets, and when they realized they needed to make the proper statement in the next round, they finished off the Jazz in Utah in Game 6. The Jazz, by the way, are very good. There is nothing pleasant about playing Messrs. Boozer, Williams, Okur, and Kirilenko. That Millsap kid coming off the bench is a handful. Jerry Sloan is, you know, Jerry Sloan. The Jazz mail in nothing. But they're watching these games in front of the big screens because the Lakers are better.

San Antonio and New Orleans, the 56-26 teams, met in Round 2. What a shock, eh?

What a weirdly fascinating series that was. New Orleans won Games 1, 2, and 5 by 19, 18, and 22, respectively. San Antonio won Games 3, 4, and 6 by (an easy) 11, 20, and 19. There was quite a bit of talk about the HCA, as you might imagine.

Game 7 was in New Orleans, and you'd have to be either a Spurs investor or a heartless fiend not to be rooting for the Hornets, who had taken to wearing the fleur-de-lis on their uniforms and who were actually out in the battered community shaking hands, patting heads, and even swinging an occasional hammer. A football town had become enthralled with its professional basketball team and its precocious point guard, Chris Paul. The local pols were petitioning for a recount in the MVP vote. The town was engulfed in "Geaux Hornets" fever.

And then the game started.

It was - and I hate to say it - Men vs. boys. It wasn't quite as bad a gagarama as the underwhelming display by the Atlanta Hawks in their Game 7 against the Celtics (Josh Smith did everything but cry for mama), but it was pretty bad. The Spurs were ruthless professionals doing a job they had done before. Games 1, 2 and 5? Irrelevant. This was Game 7, an entirely different animal. I'm not sure that people in the 21st century look flummoxed anymore, but the Hornets looked flummoxed. They were completely outside their milieu. They were the brown shoes underneath the tux. And now they, too, are watching the grown-ups play for the 2008 NBA championship.

And that's what the 2008 NBA Final Four is pretty much all about. It's about men with mortgages and kids and entourages, buttressed by an inexhaustible backlog of basketball knowledge and savvy.

At this level, it's not about what you call your "athleticism." It's about Knowing How To Play The Game. It's about knowing the shortcuts, the best methods of energy conservation, and sometimes even the best acting techniques. Ask anybody. The Hawks and 76ers were the two most athletic teams, and the Wizards weren't far behind.

And where are they now? In front of the big screens, all of 'em.

There are a few scattered trainees left playing. Rajon Rondo just turned 22, for example, and this Rodney Stuckey lad (who should have the words "Future Star" emblazoned on his forehead) is the same. Jordan Farmar is 21 out there in LA. And that's about it in the Final Four for the young'uns. Kendrick Perkins? Well, yes, he's 23, but he's a five-year veteran. He ain't 23, if you know what I'm saying. He gives professional hard fouls and he scowls 34, at least.

Nope, this NBA Final Four is all about Men, and that includes the Lakers, who have a whole bunch of young vets in that 26-29 range, guys who've been around enough now and who are at their physical peak. I'm speaking of Kobe Bryant (29), Lamar Odom (28), Pau Gasol (27), Vladimir Radmanovic (27), and Luke Walton (28).

Elsewhere, fire up the hot tubs. The Pistons start four guys 30 and over and a guy who's 28. The Celtics offer up a pair of 38s (P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell), two 32s (Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett), a 31 (James Posey), and two 30s (Paul Pierce and Eddie House). And the Spurs? The Spurs are so old the team song is "Down by the Old Mill Stream." They get post-practice visits from candy stripers.

They might celebrate with a good postgame rubdown from the trainer, but one of these teams is winning the championship.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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