So here we are, Game 107 of the most redemptive of seasons, and as we nervously anticipate the arrival of victory No. 82 and the 22 seasons' worth of euphoria that will accompany it, for once I will cut to the chase:
I think the Celtics will win this thing tonight, and I think they will win it going away.
After the enduring Game 4's epic collapse, I just can't see any of the Lakers other than Kobe and perhaps Derek Fisher showing up for this one. Certainly a fast start by the Celtics will render the EuroSofties useless for the remainder of the night, and a fast start by the Lakers can be overcome. We saw proof of as much on ESPN Classic just last night.
To put it another way: When your season is hanging in the balance, do you really want to be relying on the marshmallow-tough likes of Pau Gasol, Sasha (Ole!) Vujacic, and Vladimir Radmanovic? No, you don't, and I don't think Phil Jackson does, either.
And while we'd all love to see a Boston team clinch a championship at home one of these seasons - wow, how greedy did that just sound? - there would be an appropriate symmetry to clinching tonight in LA.
I like the idea of Paul Pierce enjoying his career-defining, Hall of Fame-clinching moment in the city in which he was raised. And it would warm even the most cynical hearts to see Doc Rivers, who lost his dad unexpectedly earlier this season, have a moment of joy this Father's Day.
Even without the sidelined Kendrick Perkins, who apparently doesn't have Martin Riggs's ability to pop his shoulders into place and will be replaced by Leon Powe in the starting lineup tonight, the Celtics are the tougher team. They are also the superior one.
I said it in the tease, and I'll say it again. Tonight is where No. 17 happens.
12:00 - Celts win the tip. This one's in the bag.
11:44 - Celts turnover. Damn, those Lakers are resilient!
11:03 - Kobe hits a step-back three, and the Lakers are off to a 5-0 start. It'll be interesting to see if his teammates are permitted to shoot before he touches the ball on a particular possession. Part of the problem down the stretch for the Lakers Thursday is that Bryant didn't trust his teammates on a night when he wasn't shooting well, while conversely, his teammates were way too deferential to him.
10:45 - Dick Bavetta and Kenny Mauer. I guess Joey Crawford couldn't get off his shift at Jiffy Lube. It's a wonder Pierce hasn't fouled out yet.
9:04 - Fisher drills a three, and it's already 8-2, LA. He's one Laker you have to respect, and probably the only one on the roster who could tell Kobe to shut the hell up without having to deal with the petty repercussions.
7:49 - Rondo passes up an open layup to kick it to Pierce for a three, which he misses. I hate it when Rondo does that - it happens at least once a game.
7:01 - Gasol gets position on Powe, collects the offensive rebound, and converts a conventional 3-point play. That probably wouldn't have happened with Perkins out there, and I thought it was interesting in the pregame when Jeff Van Gundy said the Celtics will miss him more than people realize because of his defensive prowess. Of course, that's coming from someone whose ideal score is 68-66.
6:38 - Bryant for three, and it's 18-5. Good timeout by Doc. This run by the Lakers isn't surprising - they should have the adrenaline out of the gate - but the Celtics need to do all they can to keep it under control.
5:33 - Kobe drills another three, and he is not going to go quietly.
5:16 - Thirty seconds after checking in, Eddie House knocks down a three. If I'm a Lakers fan, I loathe that guy in the same way Celtics fans loathe Vujacic.
4:53 - Kobe, 3. Right now it's Bryant 14, Celtics 10.
3:07 - Strong lefty slash by Fisher, and it's apparent the Lakers' old champions have come to play tonight. No surprise there. It's the rest of the cast that will be their downfall.
2:08 - Lamar Odom steps off the side of the milk carton to lead a 4-on-2 break that culminates with his lefty layup, and it's 31-15. Says Mike Breen: "Celtics have them right where they want them." I think he was being sarcastic, but he's also right.
1:08 - Garnett picks up his second foul, a bummer since he's off to a great start with eight points, including - gasp! - a nice drop-step for two on the last possession.
:47 - Pierce has Luke Walton guarding him right now. Bill Walton has quicker feet. The Celtics need to take advantage of this.
:39.1 - Pierce draws a foul on Walton and hits two from the line. Great minds, baby . . .
:29.2 - Jordan Farmar buries a jumper, and Breen practically jumps out of his seat yelling "FARMAR!" Of course, the "I HEART JORDAN FARMAR" t-shirt he's wearing should have told us where his allegiances are tonight.
:00 - The Lakers own a 39-22 advantage after one, thanks to 65 percent shooting from the field. I'm assuming they're familiar with the law of averages after the other night. No worries yet, my friends. This will be a game yet.
Candace Parker, I agree: You couldn't pay me to watch women's basketball, either.
12:00 - Celtics great Chris Mihm makes an appearance! Frankly, I'm impressed he remembered to put his game shorts on.
11:02 - Vujacic hits a jumper, and it's 43-24. This is starting to get annoying.
10:29 - Pierce has scored on the last two possessions, and he draws a foul on Mihm here. Quietly, he's having an excellent first half.
10:12 - Wow, not exactly the varsity out there for the Celts right now: Pierce, Cassell, Brown, James Posey, and Tony Allen. The Lakers would be wise to single-cover Posey and quadruple-cover Pierce.
9:23 - Tony Allen swipes an inbounds pass, then gets a dunk later in the possession. All right, I guess he'll be allowed to ride on the duck boats after all. Step aside, Scal.
Immediately after Allen's dunk, which cut the LA lead to 11, the camera catches Farmar and Vujacic bickering. Personally, I hope they fight to the death.
By the way, if you didn't think Vujacic was unlikable before, check out the company he keeps:
I bet he's itchy.
8:52 - Pierce has 13 on 4 of 6 shooting. That's the kind of efficiency that gets a player creepy fan letters from John Hollinger.
7:50 - George Karl's kid, Coby, is a Laker scrub who the camera just caught sitting behind the LA bench. He looks like a cross between his old man and Chad Pennington, who I always thought would make a wonderful mother.
7:37 - Garnett comes in, and Kenny Mauer whistles him for his third foul before he even reaches the scorer's table. Replay shows it was clean, but it sure looked like a reach in at full speed. Van Gundy's right, as usual: it wasn't a good call, but it wasn't a smart play by Garnett, either.
6:31 - I probably should this at some point: the Celtics are on a 15-0 run, and the lead is now 4, 43-39. Even more amazingly, I don't think Sam Cassell has taken a shot in the six minutes he's been on the court.
4:13 - I spoke too soon. Cassell clanks two in a row, and by the way, what's he doing in the game? Is he getting House's minutes now, or is Doc going to stay away from Rondo as much as possible because his erratic shot allows Kobe to play free safety on defense?
3:31 - Tony Allen slashes past Radmanovic for a smooth layup. I'm not sure what surprises me more: that Allen is still in the game, or that he's actually playing well.
3:10 - Lakers back up by eight, 50-42. The Celtics are settling for jumpers on offense, and the defensive intensity isn't there without Garnett. Doc won't do it, but it might time to gamble and put him back in.
1:57 - Kobe feeds Farmar for a wide-open three. Apparently, he has Kobe's expressed written consent that he is permitted to shoot in this game.
I haven't written his name often so far, but Ray Allen is playing extremely well again.
1:38 - Man, Odom and Gasol are having their way inside, which tells you all you need to know about the Celtics' interior defense without Garnett and, I suppose, Perkins.
:14.3 - Breen informs us that Larry Bird called Luke Walton to wish him well before the series. In a related note, Magic Johnson called Big Baby Davis and asked him where he could get some delicious popcorn.
:5.2 - Pierce for three, and that was one efficient 21-point first-half performance by Pierce. The Lakers lead, 55-52, and given how this one started, those of us who dream in green have to feel pretty good about the way this one's headed
Halftime analysis: Provided Bavetta doesn't hit Garnett with a couple of fouls en route to the locker room, I'd say we got 'em right where we want 'em. As it was happening I thought Doc went too long with Cassell and Tony Allen in the first half, but it didn't particularly hurt the cause, and if Pierce and Ray Allen keep playing the way they're playing, we may soon be chanting "Beat L.A." in the past tense.
Bill Walton is killing the Lakers. My favorite line: "They shriveled up like prunes!" And for the record, I like the karma of having this man in the building tonight.
All right, time to pee, devour snacks (probably not at the same time), and ignore Stuart Scott. What was it Chuck Woolery always said? Back in two and two . . .
12:00 - Doc comes back with the starters, except that Brown is in for Powe, who seems to be on the bleep list again.
10:43 - Allen misses a three . . . Pierce misses a three . . . Allen shreds the net with a three, and this one is tied, folks.
9:59 - Van Gundy: "You can really tell the difference in the two benches. One never sits down, and the other never gets up." That's one of the things I've really appreciated about this team as the playoffs have progressed - even the guys who are getting jerked around minutes-wise (re: House) are always front and center to lead the cheers.
Pierce hits one of two, and the Celtics have their first lead.
8:46 - Pierce draws a charge on Kobe. Might be the first time that's ever been called at the Staples Center.
8:05 - Rondo hits a J for a 62-60 lead. Great sign, because Kobe is ditching him and running at Garnett every time he touches the ball.
7:16 - Garnett picks up his fourth on a ticky-tack call as Gasol completes a 3-point play. Doc's staying with him, though. (Edit: Apparently, the refs called it on P.J. Brown. Whew.)
7:12 - Odom casually clanks a jumper from the foul line. He's playing like he has to catch a flight to Jamaica after the game.
6:44 - By my count, Pierce blew past four Lakers in the lane on his way to a layup, and at least two of them fouled him. Finishing drives in traffic might be his greatest skill as a player.
6:04 - Kobe gets called for another charge, his fourth foul. A clearly disoriented Kenny Mauer obviously thinks this game is in Boston.
5:17 - Derek Fisher makes more ridiculous long-range shots than any mediocre player in history. This time, he banks in a 22-footer after getting bumped by Rajon Rondo, and after the free throw, the Lakers lead, 68-64.
5:00 - Radmanovic steps out of the witness protection program to sink a three, and the Lakers are suddenly up 7. Rondo's foul on Fisher looks very bad right now.
4:07 - Breen pays homage to Jim McKay and Tim Russert. The timing seems odd, but the sentiment is spot-on.
4:06 - Fisher hits a pair after a weak call on House in which some sized XXXXL fan in yellow practically walks out on the court to taunt him. I couldn't get a positive ID, but I'm pretty sure it was either Oliver Miller or Penny Marshall.
3:22 - Pierce fouls Fisher on a 20-footer. That's twice they've done that, and the Celtics should be smarter than that. Cripes.
2:31 - Garnett gets his fourth, and this would be a good time for the Celtics to put a little run together. It's been a while, and they just haven't been able to get over those one- or two-possession deficits. And as I'm writing that, they get two offensive rebounds on a sequence, but still can't convert a hoop, with Allen missing one open look.
:53.8 - Fisher misses a three from the corner, probably due to Cassell jumping off the Celtics bench behind him as he released it. It's the best D Cassell's played since he's been here.
:37.4 - Sloppy end to the third quarter for the Celtics, who have six turnovers and no flow on offense. This would be a good time for Phil Jackson to put Radmanovic back on Pierce.
:00 - Allen misses from the corner with a tick or two left, and the Lakers take a 79-70 lead into the final frame. I have to say, I'm not feeling it right now, probably because the Celtics aren't feeling it on offense.
12:00 - Wait! Is Breen telling the truth?! Kobe actually wanted a trade at one point? Wow, hadn't heard that story before. Tell me, out of curiosity, how is his home life? Does he have kids?
11:47 - Pierce draws a foul on Bill Walton's Slow Offspring and hits both free throws. Keep feeding him (and as I'm writing that, he clanks an ill-considered three.)
11:20 - Odom hits a three. Odom? C'mon, there's no way that guy is going to deliver the backbreaker. It's 84-72, and the Celtics need to show some life, now.
10:32 - Pierce can drive at will. The deficit is 10.
10:19 - Farmar charges past Garnett for a layup. He's played very well tonight. Maybe Kobe will learn his name soon.
10:00 - Allen gets swatted by Gasol, who then draws a foul on a loose ball. Just ugly. The player and the play.
9:11 - Walton rattles one in, and the camera catches the old man beaming with his new Pat Healey teeth. Wait 'til he finds out Luke is actually Greg Kite's kid.
8:35 - Vujacic is a completely reprehensible basketball player. He flops like he's got a hook in his lip, he's a gunner, and he seems to talk trash to everyone on the court, including his own teammates. I can't be the only one who looks forward to the day he's found dead in the trunk of Ron Artest's Bentley.
8:04 - Cassell hits his second straight shot, Fishering in a jumper and drawing the foul when he got slapped by one of Farmar's ears.
7:17 - And after a Kobe jumper, Cassell scores again on savvy little drive. I'm pretty sure he's convinced himself this is '93 and John Starks is guarding him.
6:22 - Pierce cuts it to 90-83 at the line. The lead has been halved, and the time to win sucker is now.
6:03 - Kobe jumps in the air, throws the ball out of bounds, and throws up his arms and blames everyone, though no one specifically. I'm stunned ABC didn't cut to Stuart Scott to remind us that Kobe sometimes takes his teammates to dinner AND EVEN PICKS UP THE CHECK, BOO-YEAH!!!!!
5:39 - Posey (!!!) for 3, after Pierce stumbles and falls in the lane and somehow spots him in the corner. Van Gundy calls it "offense by accident," a perfect description, and that might be the play we're talking about in the Dunkin' Donuts line tomorrow morning if they do end up stealing this one.
5:16 - Pierce slashes, draws the foul . . . there's one . . . there's two . . . and the margin is two. It's a 14-2 run, if you're scoring at home. (Insert Keith Olbermann joke here if you wish.)
4:32 - Pierce drives, feeds Garnett for a 14-footer . . . swish, for his first hoop in quite a while I believe, and it's a new ballgame.
4:10 - Gasol gets the lead back for LA. He's been pretty good tonight, though Garnett's foul trouble didn't hurt his cause.
3:54 - Garnett splits a pair at the line, and it's 92-91.
3:31 - Pierce and Garnett each pick up their fifth foul within six seconds. I'm pretty sure Mauer just got a message titled "Attaboy" from David Stern on his BlackBerry.
3:25 - I'm shaking. Hold me.
3:23 - Pierce is no longer guarding Kobe. I'm with Mark Jackson: That's a mistake, despite Pierce's five fouls.
3:07 - Pierce gets stripped by Kobe at the top of the key, Fisher converts one of two free throws at the other end. LA is up four, and Pierce can't be making those kind of mistakes . . .
2:56 - . . . and as I'm writing that, he drives from about 25 feet out (Farmar handed him a GPS system en route to the hoop) and draws another shooting foul. He hits both, and he is bringin' it, with 36 points.
2:31 - Garnett plays brilliant defense on Gasol in the post, snatches the rebound, then draws a shaky over-the-back call as he was falling out of bounds. Unfortunately, he did his reputation no favors by clanking both free throws, and the Celts are still down two. Man, two misses. That's hard to swallow, and if they lose this, we'll all be hearing about it a lot tomorrow.
1:58 - Down four after a pair of Kobe free throws, Pierce (twice) and Garnett can't convert in traffic, and it's going to take an extraordinary effort to win pull out the win.
1:14 - Tony Allen checks in. I . . . I . . . I have no idea . . .
:37.4 - With a chance to tie or take the lead, Kobe picks Pierce again, Odom hits him for the two-point conversion, and LA is up four, dammit. It's hard to fault Pierce for anything tonight, but that's tough to justify.
:26.8 - Allen misses a drive, Garnett, who, to be honest, has been brutal, clanks the tip-in, and LA has the ball and a four-point lead. The only hope is that they brick some free throws.
:24.8 - Fisher doinks one of two. Five-point game. Doable, but unlikely . . . right?
:16.7 - House misses an open, if off-balance, three, and that should do it with Kobe going to the line.
One of two. Six-point game.
:14.3 - House hits a three . . . and then damn near pulls a Reggie Miller-against-the-Knicks on the inbounds pass. So close, but Odom beats him to the ball. That was their last chance right there.
:0.0 - Fisher converts both free throws, then swipes the inbounds pass for good measure, and the Celtics are coming home in pursuit of that one final win. Final score: LA 103, Boston 98.
Postgame overanalysis: Logically, I guess, we should be okay with this. Even in defeat, the Celtics again looked like the superior team, especially on the defensive end, and they damn near stole, in enemy territory, what was a must-win game for their opponent. But right now, I can't shake that feeling of disappointment. Had Pierce not so carelessly been picked by Bryant, and had Garnett not bricked that pair of free throws, I know they would have ended the night as the NBA champion. Instead, the coronation is delayed, and while you have to believe the Celtics will get it done at home sooner rather than later, right now it feels like an opportunity lost.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.