Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seventh heaven ... or hell

There's a legend that somewhere underneath the floor of the old Boston Garden, there were "dead spots" under the parquet that only seemed to affect the opposing team, that invisible leprechauns cavorted and connived to make sure their Celtics would emerge victorious.

The old Gahden is gone, and the game that will decide the 2010 NBA championship will be played 3,000 miles away. But that doesn't stop the talk of tradition, legend and history, a chapter of which will be added to tonight when those two bitter and storied rivals, the Lakers and Celtics, meet in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

"Personally, I've never seen a leprechaun growing up in Little Rock or any of the years I've been here in L.A.," said the Lakers' Derek Fisher. "I've only seen them on T-shirts and commercials. I don't want to see one (tonight), that's for sure."

After all the ups and downs of the first six games, the season has come down to a final 48 minutes. The intensity will be palpable on both sides by tipoff, and the emotions were evident on both sides as the teams held off-day practices for the last time this season.

"I don't want to be sitting around in July having to ask myself, 'Did I do everything that I could have done? Have any regrets?' " said the Celtics' Ray Allen. "I don't want to be that person. I want to do everything I can to leave it all on the floor.

"When it comes to Game 7, it's like this is what we were born to do. It's like if we were born, our mothers said we would be in Game 7 of the NBA Finals someday and nobody would blink an eye because we would say that's where we're supposed to be."

Said the Lakers' Lamar Odom, "(It's) historic, when you're talking about these organizations and these teams, what they stand for, the pride. This is what you envisioned when you were a kid playing in your backyard. This was what it was all about."

Clearly, there are issues on both sides. Both starting centers are battling knee injuries; the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins is out for Game 7, with the Lakers' Andrew Bynum hobbled at best. Boston will turn to either Rasheed Wallace or Glen "Big Baby" Davis to start in Perkins' place -- look for the experienced and battle-tested Wallace to get the nod -- while the Lakers will look to build momentum after the stellar performance of their bench in Game 6, which outscored their Celtics counterparts 25-13 and 24-0 through the first three quarters.

Perkins' absence underscores one significant factor -- rebounding. Throughout this series (and most NBA games in general), the team with the edge on the boards has won the game. As Pat Riley used to say, "No rebounds, no rings."

L.A. will also look for another strong offensive effort from Ron Artest, who scored 15 points in Game 6 after averaging 7.8 points in Games 1 through 5.

But if we've learned anything from this series, you can't build on momentum. In reality, it all comes down to who brings the best effort, works the hardest, is more efficient -- plainly, just plays better -- in Game 7.

"It's basketball," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has won a record 10 NBA titles as a coach, but who has never coached in Game 7 of the Finals. "You may be moving at a faster rate, you may be playing at a quicker elevation, spirit, but if you're not going to be able to do the most basic things, if you come out of your skin, if you're out of character, things are going to happen awry. So you have to stay in character."

Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "Before the year, I'm sure if you had asked the Lakers, 'Would they take a Game 7 at home?' They would have taken a Game 7 anywhere for the championship. And we would have said 'yeah,' as well. We would have obviously loved it at home more, but we're not there.

"So we're both probably in a game that we'd like to be in. If you told the teams that that's where you had to be, I think we'd both take it."

This will be the fifth time the Lakers and Celtics will meet in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Boston has won the previous four times (including once on L.A.'s home floor in 1969). In all four cases, the game's high scorer wore Lakers' purple and gold.

The Celtics, don't forget, are 11-0 all-time in the Finals when they hold a 3-2 series lead. But the all-important home court is pivotal: In NBA history, the home team is 13-3 in Game 7 of the Finals.

Year / Result / Venue / High scorer
1962 / Celtics 110, Lakers 107 (OT) / Boston Garden / Elgin Baylor, 41 pts.
1966 / Celtics 95, Lakers 93 / Boston Garden / Jerry West, 36 pts.
1969 / Celtics 108, Lakers 106 / The Forum / Jerry West, 42 pts.
1984 / Celtics 111, Lakers 102 / Boston Garden / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 29 pts.

In the end, you can analyze all you want, but the bottom line is quite simple.

"This is why the 82 games in the regular season matter," Fisher said. "Now it's just about going out and playing the game."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Passing the Stras test

Stephen Strasburg may be the most heralded and hyped rookie to take the big league mound in a long time -- OK, maybe ever -- but he has a long way to go to stand alongside the most prolific rookie pitchers in Major League history.

Sure, Strasburg has been eye-popping in his first two career starts with the Nationals -- a 2-0 record, a 2.19 ERA and 22 strikeouts -- but there are several rookie benchmarks that may be out of reach of the 21-year-old righthander. Let's look at a few:


Hooks Wiltse, 12, 1904. Born George Leroy Wiltse, he won his first 12 starts as a rookie with the New York Giants between May 29 and Sept. 15, 1904. Wiltse finished 13-3 that season, the best of his big-league career from a percentage standpoint (.813). Wiltse was a two-time 20-game winner, going 23-14 in 1908 and 20-11 in 1909, and finished his 12-year career in the Majors with a 139-90 record, 11 with the Giants and his final season with the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the short-lived Federal League.


Hall of Famer Albert Goodwill Spalding, 47, 1876. The pitching records pre-1900 will never be touched, simply because in those days, starting pitchers took the mound just about every day, with rest a rarity and a luxury. Consider in 1876, Spalding started a staggering 60 of the 66 games played by the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association -- roughly twice the number of starts by today's pitchers. The Tigers' Justin Verlander led the Majors in starts last season with 35.

In the modern era, Russ Ford won 26 games as a rookie with the New York Highlanders in 1910. Strasburg would have to win virtually every start the rest of the season to even come close, but in reality, it's another unreachable mark.


Dwight Gooden, 11.4, 1984. Gooden burst onto the baseball scene like a meteor, as he led the Majors in strikeouts with 276 as a 19-year-old. Voted Rookie of the Year, he finished 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA. He was even better the following season (24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks). His problems began when he "slept in" during the Mets' World Championship parade in 1986, and his career was soon dogged by injuries, drug abuse and arrests. He never came close to duplicating the eye-popping the success of his first two seasons, when he won 41 games and lost only 13. He finished his big league career 194-112.

Strasburg actually has a shot here, given his quick start. A lot will depend on pitch counts, his health and if batters can figure him out. It promises to be a fun ride.

Monday, June 14, 2010

C's the moment

For some unique perspective on the NBA Finals, we go to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who doesn't want to play the role of Debbie Downer with his team one win away from the 18th championship, but has a message worth considering.

The TD Garden was still shaking from the cheers following Boston's 92-86 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night, which gave the Celtics the upper hand in the series as it shifts back to the Staples Center in La-La Land for Games 6 and 7 (if needed). Granted, the Celtics are 11-0 all-time in this very scenario -- holding a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. And in the previous 25 instances when the NBA Finals were tied 2-2, the team that won Game 5 went on to capture the series 19 times.

It was the last time the Game 5 winner DIDN'T go on to take the title that gives Rivers and the Celtics pause. In the 1994 NBA Finals, the Knicks held a 3-2 lead over the Rockets in the Finals, but Houston won Games 6 and 7 to win the championship. Rivers was a member of that Knicks team, but did not play in the Finals due to a knee injury.

"I thought about that the other day when John Starks called me and reminded me of that," Rivers said in the interview room Sunday night. "You know, that's a bitter memory, obviously, for me. I was injured, sitting on the bench, so it just felt like you couldn't help individually.

"As a team, we had a lot of great opportunities in that series, in Game 6 (when Starks scored 32 points in an 86-84 defeat) and Game 7 (when Starks went 2-for-18 from the field, 0-for-11 from 3-point range in a 90-84 loss), but it just didn't happen.

"For me, obviously, a learning experience, but I can't use that experience for the players on this team. Hell, half of them are too young to remember, and half of them probably don't care."

Still, Rivers' remembrances are worth noting, because the rest of this series -- however long it lasts -- will be played on the Lakers' home turf.

"We lost our wiggle room by losing (Game 3)," Rivers said. "The Lakers played well enough to have home-court advantage all year, and so it's to their advantage."

Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "It's basically home court, home court. Now we're going back to home court to win it. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it? Unfortunately, we couldn't get this win here but we got the one we needed to bring us back home."

LA may be on its heels a bit, down in the series, with center Andrew Bynum clearly not himself because of a knee injury and with Lamar Odom and Ron Artest MIA on the offensive end. But if you're looking for a chink in the Lakers' armor, don't expect to find any dents on Kobe Bryant, who scored 38 points Sunday, a season-high for him.

When asked how confident he was that his team could win Games 6 and 7 on its home floor, Bryant, with a wry smile, responded, "I'm not very confident at all," and managed to laugh.

"Just man up and play," Bryant said. "What the hell is the big deal? I don't see it as a big deal. If I have to say something to (his teammates), then we don't deserve to be champions. We're down 3-2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that."

Perhaps not quite so simple, given the fact the Lakers are not firing on all cylinders and are at a disadvantage in the battle of the boards, particularly with Bynum ailing. The team that wins in the rebounding category has taken every game in this series, and there's no reason to think that won't change in LA on Tuesday.

With his team on the cusp of beating the Lakers for the 10th time in 12 NBA Finals meetings in their storied rivalry, Rivers is doing his best to keep his team in the moment.

"I think it would be special in any situation," Rivers said when asked about the prospects of closing out the Lakers in enemy territory, but I'm not even going to go there right now.

"We got off of that early on, looking at the big picture and all that stuff. That makes it fuzzy for us. I think our team has a very good ability to just focus on the next game. Through the playoffs that's been very good for us, and that's the way we have to stay."