Lakers still the ones, but Celts not out

January 31, 2010, 8:21 PM

By: John Ireland

BOSTON -- After the Lakers beat the Celtics 90-89 on Sunday in Boston, I asked Phil Jackson if it was the team's best road win of the year.

"We had one in Dallas," Jackson said, "where I think we played better. But considering the history between these two franchises, this is a very, very, good win for us."

In other words, any time you can stick it to the Celtics, it's worth more than a normal win. As usual, Kobe Bryant was the hero, hitting the game-winner with seven seconds left. It was also a breakthrough win for Andrew Bynum, who was left on the court by Jackson to finish the game -- something that normally doesn't happen.

"Somebody threw me the ball with about 10 seconds left," Bynum said. "I was so surprised that I got rid of it like a hot potato. It was fun to be out there in the end, though."

Even though the Lakers won, to me, the game covered up two major points.

For starters, it's clear now that the demise of the Celtics has been greatly exaggerated.

For most of this month, anybody with a microphone has been talking about how the Celtics are finished, and that they are no longer a factor in the East. After watching Boston play in person, this much is obvious: Don't sleep on the Celtics.

Before the game, Michael Wilbon said on the ABC pregame show that the Celtics were "old" and that their "window was closing." NBA experts all over the league are lamenting that Boston has a 6-11 record since Christmas, and that the Celtics have lost to Cleveland, Orlando, and four times to Atlanta. But I don't think that means anything.

All of those losses are tied to injuries; specifically, to Kevin Garnett. If Garnett doesn't get healthy, the Celtics are done. But if Garnett is healthy, Boston is a monster. Even this season, Boston is 24-10 when Garnett plays. He's the heart of the defense, and still a great offensive option on a team that has Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace. No other team -- including the Lakers -- has that much firepower (of course, the Lakers have Bryant and Pau Gasol, who are better than any two Boston players).

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Boston is healthy when the playoffs start in April. I don't think Orlando or Atlanta beats Boston is a seven-game series. Cleveland would be favored, but the Cavs haven't shown they can win big games in the playoffs. I honestly think that no matter where Boston finishes in the seedings, it can come out of the East.

Of course, my assumption that Garnett will be healthy is a huge leap. I'm not sure he has ever been the same since Boston jumped out to that 27-2 start last season and he hurt his knee. He just doesn't move the way he used to. But if he gets that figured out, Boston has as good a chance as any team to make the Finals.

Now, let's get to the Lakers.

I still think the Lakers are team to beat, because I don't know of another team that could win four times against them in seven games. But their weaknesses are starting to show, and some are obvious:

-- They still have trouble with quick point guards. So much so that Rondo had a double-double by halftime. I now think that a trade by the Feb. 18 deadline is a real possibility.

-- Andrew Bynum needs to play more, not less. While I recognize the importance of having Bryant, Gasol, Derek Fisher, Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom on the court at the end of games, I loved it that Jackson changed it up and stayed with Bynum in Boston. Bynum needs to continue to play without fouling, blocking shots and rebounding. When he does, the coaches need to reward him with more minutes.

-- Most Lakers fans want Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown to play more, and Fisher to play less. Fine. But when Farmar and Brown are in the game, they can't give up huge leads. After the first quarter in Boston, the Lakers led 30-19. When the reserves took over in the second quarter, Boston outscored L.A. 33-17. In the second quarter, Rondo had nine points and eight assists. Yes, Farmar and Brown are more athletic and more spectacular than Fisher, but if they get outscored that way, what's the point?

The Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference, and can finish their eight-game trip with a solid record of 6-2 by winning Monday night in Memphis (it won't be easy -- the Grizzlies have won 11 of their past 12 at home).

But anybody who thought L.A. would waltz back to the Finals and flirt with 70 wins hasn't been watching the games. The Lakers are still a work in progress, and haven't come close to being as good as they can be. John Ireland is a co-host of the "Mason & Ireland Show" on 710 ESPN in Los Angeles.


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