Celtics relishing chance to be underdogs

BOSTON – Here’s what I can’t figure out: What has happened to the Boston Celtics in the last six weeks that makes them underdogs in the NBA Finals where they (a) have the homecourt advantage and (b) have better, overall personnel?

Las Vegas likes the Lakers. Most of the so-called pundits like the Lakers. (Then again, most of the so-called political pundits liked Hillary Clinton, too.) But it’s as if the 66-win Celtics, the No. 1-rated defense Celtics, have been reduced to another steppingstone for Kobe, Phil and the rest of the team that M.L. Carr liked to call “the Fakers” en route to a pre-ordained title. The general consensus out there is that Kobe will finally get that title without Shaq – and it will come at the expense of the Lakers’ historic rival.

That, as you might suspect, is not the consensus inside the Boston garrison.

“I feel pretty good about our situation,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Is Rivers concerned about Kobe Bryant? Does Saudi Arabia have oil? Of course he is, and he remembers, first-hand, what an individual wrecking ball can do to a series.

“Back (in 1995), when I was with the Spurs, we had the best team,’’ Rivers said. “But we couldn’t stop (Hakeem) Olajuwon and they won the series. He was unbelievable. That’s what worries me about Kobe because he can do that. It’s our job to stop that.”

But, aside from the obvious and overall brilliance of Bryant – not to mention that he is, as they say, locked in – what else is there to make normal, sane people jump on the Los Angeles bandwagon? OK, other than that they played fewer playoff games against better opposition than the Celtics?

The Celtics have three certifiably scary players on offense, any one of whom could go off for 30 points without so much as an eyebrow being raised. The Lakers have Kobe. If Pau Gasol ends up being guarded by Kevin Garnett, his chances of hitting 30 points is about the same as Chris Mihm.

The Celtics can bring James Posey, Sam Cassell and PJ Brown off the bench. The Lakers can bring Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton. And does anyone out there honestly believe that Derek “The Flopper” Fisher can stay in front of Rajon Rondo?

The Celtics have had the NBA’s best defense all season. They’ve been inconsistent in the playoffs, mainly due to venue, but the Pistons came away with a renewed appreciation for how difficult it is to score against Boston. Boston handily – and I mean, handily – beat the Lakers twice in the regular season. The Bobcats played the Celtics tougher this season than the Lakers did. And the victory at the Staples Center came on the second night of a back-to-back (the first game was at Utah) for the Celtics while the Lakers were off.

True, both Boston wins were before the Lakers made the “trade” for Gasol. But Andrew Bynum was playing for the Lakers and playing well at the time. He morphed into Greg Kite at the mere sight of Kendrick Perkins. And only one other team, New Jersey, held Bryant to a lower shooting percentage than the Celtics. The Celtics, undeniably and unnecessarily, struggled against the Hawks and Cavaliers. Neither series should have gone more than six games and both went seven.

Those two series resulted in the bloom coming off the Boston rose. But what about Detroit, a team with a boulder on its shoulder, a team which had oodles of playoff experience and, lest we forget, also had the second-best record in the NBA?

The Celtics responded to their first home loss with an emphatic road victory in the very next game. They then beat the Pistons in an epic Game 5 in Boston and closed them out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, coming from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. That series alone should have smartened up all of those who were suddenly dismissive of the Celtics after seeing them against Atlanta and Cleveland. The Pistons were a very good team.

“People look at us as underdogs even though we’ve had the best record all year and beat the Lakers twice,’’ Paul Pierce mused the other day. “This is the first time for us, together, as a unit in the playoffs. We learned a lot about ourselves in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different game. We had to re-learn ourselves again and we figured it out against Detroit. That’s probably why we’re the underdog. But we relish that role.”

Well, someone has to be the underdog to get the money rolling. But when’s the last time the team with the best record in the league, the homecourt advantage, three All-Stars and the No. 1 defense opened a series as that underdog?

It’s amazing when you think about it. But it’s also a testament to the star power of the Lakers in general and to Bryant in particular. The Lakers have the best player in this series. No argument there. They have the best coach in this series. No argument there, either.

But on most occasions, the best team (and the one that plays the best defense) usually wins these things. That team has been the Celtics all season. They may have had a stumble or two to get to this point, but they are here and coming off an impressive series against the Pistons. They’ve had a week to prepare (as have the Lakers) so there will be no excuses for fatigue, surprises or lack of preparedness.

There’s only one way to find out if all this Laker Love is justifiable or hogwash – and that’s to go out and play.

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Updated Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008