By Gethin Coolbaugh
Somewhere, Walter Brown has a smile on his face.
Brown, the Celtics original owner, went through financial hardship during his days at the helm of the team. There was a point he even had to take out a second mortgage on his house just to make sure that his players got paid.
But through his hard work and love for his team, he created the single greatest franchise in sports history.
A franchise that is on the cusp of its second NBA Championship title in three years and it’s league-leading 18th overall.
My oh my, how far Brown’s efforts have gone.
Boston and archrival Los Angeles square off in the NBA Finals for the 12th time in league history as the two teams tipped off the series Thursday night at Staples Center in L.A.
Los Angeles rolled to a 102-89 victory behind Kobe Bryant’s game-high 30 points and Pau Gasol’s 23 points and 14 rebounds.
The Lakers waltzed into their third straight Finals appearance after having disbanded Oklahoma City in six games, Utah in four and Phoenix in six. Superstar Kobe Bryant is looking to add his fifth championship title to his resume while coach Phil Jackson hopes to gain his 11th.
Despite trouble with the Thunder in the first round and the Suns in the Western Conference Finals, the road to the Finals has been smooth sailing for the Lakers.
But for Doc Rivers’ Celtics, it’s been anything but.
Boston’s path to the Finals was all but conventional. After defeating Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat in five games, the Celtics took on the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the King, LeBron James, too.
Many Celtics fans, myself included, figured that Boston didn’t stand a chance against the King and his troops. After all, like 2008 was seen as the Celtics’ year, the 2010 NBA title was supposed to go to the Cavaliers.
But miraculously, the Celtics did something that we all didn’t believe was possible, even though they had hinted to it in the regular season.
They flipped the switch.
The very same team that posted a middle-of-the-road 50-32 regular season record and a 27-27 mark in their final 54 games turned themselves around.
Boston eliminated the Cavaliers in a stunning five games. After Splitting the first two games, Boston steam-rolled the Cavaliers in the next three to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
And that was where many fans drew the line, again, myself included.
It’s one thing to beat Cleveland, but entering the conference finals, Orlando was the hottest team in basketball having rolled off eight consecutive victories, four against the Charlotte Bobcats and four against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Magic were assured to have their way with this aging Celtics roster and would happily trot back to the NBA Finals for the second straight season.
Not so fast Superman, the Celtics proved to be your Kryptonite.
The Celtics stormed out to a 3-0 series lead as the Magic played like a team dazed and confused in the first three games. Orlando won games four and five, leading Boston sports fans to begin to question if the Celtics could shut the door.
By that point, I had no doubt in my mind as to who would be going to the NBA Finals. Once the Celtics got into that championship groove, there’s no stopping them.
I could tell by that friendly wink in Paul Pierce’s eyes after Game 2 in Orlando. You just knew that the Celtics were going to the Finals for the 21st time.
The Celtics ultimately closed out the Magic with a 96-84 win in Game 6 at TD Garden, punching their ticket to the Finals.
Despite their triumphant return to the top, there’s still four more games to win. And wouldn’t you know it, against the archrival Lakers. How could the story play out any better than this?
For Boston, there are several key match-ups to focus on if they want to defeat the Lakers.
First and foremost, the match-up featuring Celtics forward Kevin Garnett and Lakers forward Pau Gasol.
Garnett’s critics maintain that Garnett is too small and thin to body up against Gasol. And, quite frankly, they might be right.
Gasol plays a similar style of basketball to that of the a younger Kevin Garnett. He’s not afraid to step back and take a jump shot but can also dominate in the post. In order to contain Gasol, Garnett will have to play lockdown defense in the post.
Which, for a former Defensive Player of the Year, shouldn’t be too hard.
But where Garnett excels in this series is his ability to spread the defense. The Big Ticket is just as capable of shooting a jump shot from the top of the key as he is playing in the low post.
No doubt, Garnett’s offense will be a critical factor in the Celtics’ success this series. Boston won’t always need Garnett to score, but they will need him to contain Gasol in the post. Based on the fact that Garnett was karate chopping Dwight Howard, expect to see similar displays of affection between him and Gasol.
The next key for a Celtics championship banner is also my favorite. And it should be for purist basketball fans nation-wide.
The match up between former conference rivals Paul Pierce and Ron Srtest may turn out to be the most physical of the entire series. And it’s certainly the one that I’m looking forward to the most.
As a lifelong Celtics fan, one that didn’t jump on the bandwagon in 2008, I have fond memories of the Pierce-Artest battles in the Playoffs of the early 2000′s.
When Artest was a member of the Pacers, he was widely considered the league’s best defender. Pierce, who was the Celtics’ only superstar at the time, was know as one of the league’s best scorers. Put the two together, and you’ve got a dogfight.
Both are a little older, but don’t be mistaken, the animosity is still there.
But one of them has to give. Pierce was the X factor in Boston’s win over Orlando in the conference finals. Artest, on the other hand, was supposed to be the factor in the Lakers winning it all this year.
My money is on Pierce’s scoring trumping Artest’s defense, as Pierce has been more consistent throughout the years.
And then, there’s the best scorer on the floor this series: Kobe Bryant.
In the same way that the Celtics knew they weren’t going to have a chance at stopping Dwayne Wade, LeBron James or Dwight Howard from lighting up the scoreboard, they do not have a shot at silencing Bryant.
With four championship rings on his fingers, Bryant knows what it takes to win, and you can guarantee that he will put up 30 points a night in nearly every game of the series.
Ray Allen will most likely be give the task of defending Bryant, which may turn into more of a mop up roll for Allen. Don’t hurt yourself trying to stop him, just keep it from getting out of hand.
That isn’t said as a slight to Allen’s defense, but more of a compliment to Kobe’s game. Bryant will go down as one of the best ever to play the game of basketball. There’s a reason he’s earned that title.
On the flip side, Allen has a chance to exploit his match-up on the other end. Bryant is a skilled defender, but Allen’s jump shots are lightning fast and on-target 9.5 out of 10 times.
Allen doesn’t not appear to be an X factor going into the series, but he’s more than capable of having a few big series-altering games.
The glaring mismatch in the series is at the point guard position, where Boston’s Rajon Rondo has emerged as a star this postseason.
Lakers guard Derek Fisher will be give the task of containing Rondo’ but like Allen on Bryant, it may be a mop up roll.
Expect Rondo to have his way in the match-up, as his quickness and explosiveness will wear out the aging Fisher. Not to discredit Fisher, who was been a very solid NBA player in his career, but we all get old eventually.
The last battle to watch will be one that we didn’t see in 2008 when the two teams met in the Finals. Celtics center Kendrick Perkins will take on Lakers big man Andrew Bynum in what appears to be an even match.
Perkins has emerged as a top-cut center in the league while Bynum is still up and coming. Entering the Finals, Bynum is suffering setbacks, including an excess amount of fluid in his knee.
On the other hand, Perkins is just one technical foul away from a one-game suspension. Given his style of play, one is not led to believe that Perkins can hold his tongue for a possible seven game series.
On the bench, it would appear as if the Celtics have the advantage. Led by veteran Rasheed Wallace and rising star Glen “Big Baby” Davis, the Celtics have a group capable of maintaining the pressure and tempo on the court while giving the starters some much-needed rest.
Wallace has also made the switch from his disappointing regular season play, coming on in a big way several points throughout the conference semifinals and finals.
Davis has continued to progress and develop his talent, and will unquestionably be the most energetic player on the court when Garnett is on the bench.
After back up point guard Nate Robinson’s 13-point outburst in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics have a solid Plan B when Rondo needs a break or, God forbid, suffers an injury.
For the Lakers, Lamar Odom is their bench stud. A former starter with Miami and Los Angeles, Odom has found a comfort zone coming off the bench and was a big factor in the Lakers championshgip run a season ago.
Aside from Odom, Shannon Brown Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and Adam Morrison may be able to provide flashes off the bench, but no more than that.
In the end, the Celtics have the advantage on the bench, and ultimately, in the series.
We’ve seen the Celtics top the Lakers in the NBA Finals once already. Kobe Bryant is geared up to face the Celtics in Round 2, and he knows what on the line for his legacy. You’re only a true Lakers great when you beat the Celtics in the Finals.
Unfortunately for Kobe, the Celtics know what’s on the line too.
Pierce, Garnett and Allen all know that this is it. Barring another miraculous run, this is most likely the last time that they will ever be able to reach the NBA Finals as the Big Three.
And from the intensity that they displayed back in 2008 and so far this postseason, I don’t see any reason to discount that.
The 15 men on the Boston Celtics roster are hungry for their second title in tow years, and none more than Doc Rivers and the Big Three.
Los Angeles will be Boston’s biggest challenge yet, but everything that we’ve seen this postseason has led me to believe that the are up to it.
And again, what I’ve learned from watching the Big Three is that, when they want something, there is no stopping them.
That’s what has led me to pick the Boston Celtics to win their 18th NBA Championship title in seven games over the Los Angeles Lakers.
It will be a fitting end to the careers of Rivers, the Big Three, and more importantly, this chapter in Celtics history.
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Associate Editor of Boston Sports U18. He can be reached at 774-279-1995 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit Gethin Coolbaugh’s official website and follow Gethin Coolbaugh on Twitter.