The Celtics and Lakers usually eye each other warily from across David Stern's room, like a couple of kids at a middle school dance waiting for the other to make the first move. Well, the Lakers made the first move -- an early exit from the playoffs.
Before a game last month against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center, young Lakers staffers intently watched a Celtics-Sixers game, 3,000 miles away, openly hoping for another go-round with the Green. But there will be no lucky 13th NBA Finals meeting between the rivals, no rubber match for Kobe Bryant and the Big Three, and it's entirely possible we could have an NBA Finals without the Celtics, the Lakers or the Spurs. Three teams that have played in 11 of the last 12 Finals, winning 10 titles. That's how quickly the basketball balance of power can shift in the NBA.
The NBA's old-guard has just looked old this postseason, and the Celtics are all that's left of it.
The same Lakers team that outlasted the Celtics last June in a tractor-pull of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, looked aged, slow, unathletic and overwhelmed against the Dallas Mavericks, who unceremoniously swept the two-time defending NBA champions out of the playoffs and Phil Jackson into retirement. The Celtics, locked in a death match with the Miami Heat that resumes tonight at TD Garden with Game 4, had to shudder, knowing that a similar end (of an era) could await them.
The shocking and -- thanks to Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum -- disgraceful demise of the Lakers is a reminder of just how difficult it is to write-off regular-season struggles and peccadillos as insignificant once the postseason arrives.
The 2010 Celtics were an all-time anomaly. Teams don't downshift for large chunks of the regular season and then simply kick all their bad habits and kick their game into overdrive in the playoffs. What the Celtics did last year was one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the NBA, and they're basically trying to repeat it. Think of the Philadelphia Flyers trying to rally back from 3-0 twice against the Bruins.
It was an accomplishment that the Celtics' West Coast counterparts, the Lakers, couldn't match, even with Bryant. The Celtics and Lakers both seemed to suffer from regular-season ennui while waiting around for the real games to start. The Lakers finished 57-25. The Celtics posted a 56-26 record.
The Lakers started out 17-1 after the All-Star break, while the Celtics, paralyzed by the trade of future Hall of Fame center Kendrick Perkins (when are we raising the No. 43 to the rafters?), won 16 games total after having the East's best record at the All-Star break. However, LA followed its 17-1 spurt with a five-game losing streak that foreshadowed their premature playoff departure.
Now, we are left to ponder the fate of the Celtics. Was the emotional and heroic Game 3 victory over Miami and its Unholy Trinity the beginning of another improbable playoff high-wire act or was it the last gasp of another member of the NBA's ruling class?
Unlike some, I'm not ready to condemn the Celtics to the dustbin of playoff basketball. Perhaps against another opponent, but not this one. Psychologically, the Heat are more fragile than a porcelain doll. They've whined in public about people rooting against them and sobbed in private following defeats.
Power forward Chris Bosh has a pinched nerve in his neck and a pit in his stomach. Bosh admitted to ESPN's Brian Windhorst that he was nervous before Game 3 because of the charged up environment in the Garden and that affected his performance.
Are you kidding me?
This is the first time in the series that there is any real pressure on the Heat. If Dwayne Wade and LeBron James can't carry the Heat to victory in Game 4 then their spirited performances in the first two games in South Florida are just more fodder for the idea that they lead a team of front-runners.
The Celtics might be able to survive this series on grit, guts and Jedi mind tricks. But they also might meet the same end as the Spurs, who lost to a more athletic team, or the Lakers, who dug themselves too deep a hole to recover from.
We all know that Rajon Rondo is one-armed and dangerous, but the Heat will have had two whole days to prepare to play him; the Heat were defending him well before his injury. Rondo is the most athletic player the Celtics have, and having him diminished in this series is a huge blow.
The Celtics are a banged up team: Rondo's arm, Paul Pierce's Achilles' strain, Ray Allen's bruised chest, Delonte West's shoulder, Jermaine O'Neal's wrist, Shaquille O'Neal's general calcified state. What does it say when your healthiest starter against the Heat is Kevin Garnett, whose physical state has been the subject of constant fretting for two and a half seasons?
Garnett, who turns 35 later this month, is going to have to carry the Celtics in this series. He is averaging more than 37 minutes a game, and in Game 3 played 37:47, his most minutes since Feb. 24, when he logged 38:16. That was the night the Celtics suited up only nine players because of the Perkins swap. KG is reaching the redline minutes-wise, and you can only cross your fingers that his engine doesn't blow.
We've learned never to count this Celtics team out, but it's also hard to ignore what is happening around them.
The Lakers', 122-86, season-sealing loss to the Mavericks was their second-worst playoff defeat in franchise history. The worst... was issued by the Celtics in the clincher of the 2008 NBA Finals, a 39-point beatdown of LA.
That doesn't seem that long ago, but in the NBA it's a lifetime.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.