The Lakers and Celtics are
similar in some ways. Each is made of a mix of older vets and younger
players. The Lakers chose to go all-out for most of this regular season.
Kobe injured various parts of his body – broken finger, strained
ligaments, twisted ankle, wrenched back, and god-knows-what-else – but
played through it all. They dialed it back a little toward the end, but
the Lakers still earned a pretty good regular-season record: best in the
West, 3rd best in the league.
The Celtics went in the opposite direction. They started hot, got
themselves a great record in the first third of the season, then…
injuries happened, and they dialed it back. Way back, as it turned out.
For the rest of the season, the Celtics mostly brought their B game (at
best). It drove their fans nuts. It drove some fans to lose faith, and
some to actually boo them at home. The boos happened twice: first vs.
Memphis – when everybody on the team said it was helpful – and then
again vs. the Wizards, 4 games from season's end, when KG responded by
muttering that the booing fans should stay home. They just didn't get
it, he felt. Was he right?
Were the Lakers right to work so hard to build an excellent regular
season record, and thus have HCA in every Western Conference series? Or
were the Celtics right to ignore HCA and focus on getting to the
playoffs fully healthy?
Here's what we know so far….. Not only is Kobe a walking wreck now,
his whole team looks intermittently beat up and exhausted. Even when
they have a good game, like Game 5 of the 1st round, Kobe is under par.
So one issue is the physical one – when you work that hard in the
regular season – ESPECIALLY when you're an older team – you get beat up
in a hundred ways, which inevitably takes its toll in the playoffs.
And there's the psychological factor. When you've brought your A game so
often in the regular season, it's hard to keep bringing that top level
of urgency and focus night after night. It becomes easier to bring it
SOME of the time. This is, again, especially true when you're not a
young, excited team, but a veteran group that's been-there-done-that for
all of it.
On the other hand, when you haven't brought your A game for about 3
months, it's not only easier to bring it in the playoffs – you
feel like you HAVE TO bring it, because the fans have earned it… your
PRIDE has earned it. And, once again, this is especially true when
you're a veteran team.
And this what we've seen unfold.
The Lakers are now locked in mortal combat with OKC, the 8th seed. The
best they can hope for is 6 games. And Kobe continues to struggle. The
Celtics, meanwhile, are done with first round fairly easily, 4-1, and
are coasting to the next one.
The concept of “flipping a switch”, which started out as some nutty blog
theory, or something Sheed would spout from time to time (in between
his tirades about the refs), is now in every news story about the
Celtics. Now it's reality.
The Celtics are not alone in having adopted this approach to the regular
season vs. the second season. The Spurs did it too, and they too are
succeeding – from the 7th seed. Seeding diminishes to almost zero
importance when compared with health, and Pop-&-Doc were canny
enough to have realized that AND acted upon it.
So the verdict seems to be in. Celtics got it right. Lakers got it
wrong. More than that: I believe the Lakers were NUTS to let Kobe play
injured, as they did. Why do that? He should CERTAINLY have taken 4-6
weeks off, gotten that finger fixed, gotten his whole body fixed and
rested, so he could be whole for the playoffs. But something was missing
in L.A.'s collective head. Confidence, probably. Vision. Discipline.
Faith. Or maybe it was just that the Lakers didn't go through what the
Celtics went through in 2009 – when the Cs learned firsthand how
absolutely vital it is to bring a HEALTHY team into the playoffs.
Nothing is more important. (You could argue that that should be obvious
to everyone – but it's not. Don't ask me why.)
What does this mean to the NBA? They can't have ALL teams soft-pedaling
the regular season – who would watch them? It's a real, structural
problem for the league… and too big to fully address here. In short:
the problem is that the reward for doing well in the regular season
(HCA) is insufficient to properly motivate teams. The problem exists
because the NBA greedily created two clashing elements: an 82-game
regular season AND an expanded 8-team playoff structure. Can't have
both. So one solution (and I'm sure there are others) is to give the top
2 teams in each conference a bye in the first round. There would be two
fewer playoff series, but in return, the regular season would really
And what about us fans? What about the ones who booed our guys in the
Wizards game? And those that thought it was a good idea? And all those
who lost faith and believed the Cs were dead in the water? What do we
learn from all this?
We learn that when there is a reasonable explanation for something our
team is doing – even if you don't like it, even if you HATE it – we
should still accept that explanation, and continue to support and
believe in our team – until we're proven wrong, if that ever
We don't know if the Celtics will win it all this year. They certainly
can. But it's a hard thing to do… there are a LOT of great teams out
there, and any one of them could beat us. But we know now that the Cs
are HERE. They're READY. Their switch is FLIPPED. And they are not going
to stop until they climb the mountain and claim the ring… or fall
From now on, and in all the years to come… we need to support them.
Let's not forget the lesson of 2010. Never lose faith, while faith is