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For your sake, J.A., I was hoping we wouldn't have to get into the Lakers' problems this week. Everyone needs a break from doom and gloom, right? But lo and behold, it has gotten worse. First Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant take not-so-veiled jabs at each other, and then when it looks as though it's about to fall apart, bodies start to fall apart. Torn labrum for Howard. Concussion for Pau Gasol. No return dates set. No end in site for this season's mega-drama. I'm tempted to say the Lakers will play better without the bigs, based on the theory that Kobe and Steve Nash will simply play their games without concerning themselves about getting their needy bigs involved. But that's built on the assumption that the rest of the team will defend well enough, and that's hard to envision at this point. Where in the world do we go from here?
Where do the Lakers go from here? To Secaucus, N.J., to watch the pingpong balls bounce! Oh wait, that's not even an option because the Phoenix Suns get the Lakers' first-round pick if it's in the lottery. The previous two times the Lakers failed to reach the postseason they wound up drafting Eddie Jones and Andrew Bynum, both future All-Stars. At least they had something positive to take away from it. This time it's literally playoffs or bust -- as in the biggest bust in NBA history. That would be the only appropriate label if a team with this many big names can't finish in the top eight in its conference. You would think that wanting to avoid that ignominy would be enough to motivate the Lakers to get their act together. But I don't think motivation has been their problem. Neither are the insufficient touches all around that you alluded to. This team can't play defense. Having to go without a three-time defensive player of the year for a stretch won't help that. It's not just the increased probability of losing games, it's the decreased opportunity to practice and try to improve. The Lakers canceled practice after hearing all the injury news Monday, and who knows the next time they'll get their starting five in the gym to work on defense. I just don't see the path to the playoffs from here. I don't know how a team that can't win one out of every two games can find a way to win three out of every five the rest of the way. Maybe I'm just in too deep to see the palm trees. What do you think?
Well, as someone who bought in 100 percent to the Mike D'Antoni hire and insisted Steve Nash would fix a lot, I'm pretty deep in the forest myself. The problem is they appear robotic at times. There's clearly a ton of pressure on Howard, in particular, because he's the primary reason this team has its expectations. That creates a player who wants everything to be perfect right away. Howard wants the defensive rotations to be natural and instinctive, which they are not yet. He wants the offense to flow as if this group had been playing together forever, which it hasn't been. He thinks something as nonsensical as "off-court chemistry" is the difference between the Clippers and the Lakers. The issue with the Lakers is part personnel, yes, because they lack the athletes and shooters to provide easy/cheap baskets and improve the defense. But this team remains good enough to be significantly better than it is. A major reason they're not winning winnable games is because they haven't melded on the court. The pressure to win games, however they win them, is greater than the need to perfect their style of play. Therefore, they don't execute the way they should on the offensive end. So they defer to Kobe and hope he can bail them out, which he has a few times. On the defensive end, there isn't nearly enough communication or rotation. And every loss makes the pressure to win even greater. For all the grief Erik Spoelstra got for spitting out cliches for two years when the Heat weren't winning the way the public expected, he was at least getting the message across to his players that if we continue to perfect our style of play, we will eventually get there. One of Spoelstra's more popular sayings was, "don't let go of the rope." The Lakers appear to have dropped the rope a while ago and are running around panicked. Maybe that's a coaching issue. But maybe now that they're down two superstars, the pressure will subside some and they'll just play their game.
Don't be so quick to dismiss the chemistry issue. I've spent a lot of time in both the Clippers' and Lakers' locker rooms and the tangible difference in atmospheres accounts for some of the difference in their records. So does the fact the Clippers' starters are in their second year together. And that the Clippers' reserves feel as though they're a vital part of the team. Inclusion is an underrated part of NBA success. Proper use of personnel is even more important, and the Lakers aren't getting it. There were back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter of the Denver game Sunday when the Lakers got a 3-pointer for Metta World Peace and a long jumper for Pau Gasol. The ball moved properly and found the open man, and yet those were the shots they got -- shots the Nuggets were ecstatic to surrender. It was a screaming example of how the Lakers' roster doesn't suit D'Antoni's sets. Those are just a couple of things that are wrong with the Lakers. My question for you is, what's up with the Celtics? They were supposed to be the top threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, and they're barely hanging around the playoff picture. If it weren't for the Lakers, the Celtics would be ridiculed as the biggest disappointment in the league. The Lakers' struggles are keeping the spotlight off the Celtics. Wouldn't you know it: The only thing the Lakers have accomplished this season is sparing their arch-rivals from more criticism.
The Lakers are definitely helping take the attention away from Boston. But they're also getting somewhat of a pass because of their history. This isn't the first time the Celtics have struggled early. And in previous seasons, they've been able to recover, relying mostly on that occasionally stifling Boston defense -- most notably, last year's unexpected run to within one win of the Finals. But let's first look back at how that happened last postseason. They went through an OK Hawks team, an OK Sixers team, and then matched up with a Heat team that couldn't take advantage of Boston's weaknesses. The Heat couldn't bully the Celtics with size or dominant rebounding. Therefore, the Celtics were able to get away with Kevin Garnett at center and little size behind him. My point is that playoff run probably masked the Celtics' shortcomings. And now, they seem to have filled some of their holes, with Jared Sullinger and Chris Wilcox partially addressing the size issue, and with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee offering some depth on the perimeter. But it's not enough size or high-quality depth to make them the Celtics of 2008 again. And even when Paul Pierce and Garnett play well, as they have been, it's not enough to get them over the hump consistently. Sure, they're dealing with chemistry issues, like the Lakers, because they have so many new parts. But this doesn't have the makeup of a team that, even when the chemistry is right, can make another Finals run if the Heat are healthy, if the Knicks remain the Knicks, or if the Bulls ever get an explosive Derrick Rose back. This might just be who the Celtics are.
You know what was telling? That you just wrote five paragraphs on the Celtics without mentioning Rajon Rondo. And that's their biggest problem this season. Rondo should be the Celtics' introduction, supporting sentences and conclusion. He should be what LeBron is to the Heat, or provide the leadership that Chris Paul has to the Clippers. But he hasn't reached that next level. The Celtics keep relying on Garnett, the trusty old security blanket. KG has logged far too many NBA minutes to be asked to put up 17 shots on a Sunday night in Orlando. They need Paul Pierce to come through in crunch time. That was the 2008 formula. It worked great back then. So did "Lost" and "The Wire," and you don't see those around anymore. The Celtics have been up and down with Rondo. It's telling that they picked up one of their biggest victories of the season without him, beating the Knicks Monday night while he was serving a one-game suspension for making contact with an official. He missed two games earlier this season for partaking in a scuffle with the Brooklyn Nets. Don't forget he missed a playoff game last year for another official-bump. They can't count on Rondo to win them games if they can't even count on him to play in games. Rondo's game is so distinctive, so offbeat, that for him to quarterback an elite team would constitute a mini-revolution. Instead, he's responsible for an underachieving group.
The one part of the Celtics I'm not ready to criticize is Rondo. There are a couple of characteristics in Rondo that will, it seems, be there forever. First, his hatred of losing, and that's a trait more players in the league need. I wouldn't take that away from him, regardless of how it manifests itself sometimes. Second, he'll play big when you need him most. He's now practically required to play that way all the time, which says a lot about the Celtics' issues. He was at his best when he was running a well-oiled machine that included Garnett and Pierce and Ray Allen, even last year when they appeared to be on their last legs. This isn't the same group, and frankly, Jason Terry has played nothing like a worthy Allen replacement. That win in New York might be a sign that Boston is ready to turn it around. Or it could just be another frustrating glimpse of a level of play the Celtics can't possibly maintain throughout the rest of the season. I know this much, though: I'd rather be the Celtics, a team that is merely facing its own mortality in the late stages of the Pierce-Garnett era, than the Lakers, a team that could potentially be seen as the biggest disappointment in the history of the sport.