The gift of unpredictability

If you can get past the barrage of whistles (these NBA Finals' equivalent of the constantly buzzing vuvuzela horns at the World Cup), if you can accept the occasionally vanishing stars or the lower scores, the reward is one of the most competitive NBA Finals of the past two decades.

We emerged from Game 4 with the series tied at two games apiece, the first time that has happened in the Finals since 2006 and only the fourth time in the past 16 championship series. The Lakers have averaged 94 points per game, the Celtics 93. In the past three games, the lead has changed hands 38 times, and the teams have been tied or separated by only a basket for at least one stage of the fourth quarter in all three.

"I kind of anticipated this was going to be a back-and-forth series like this," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It's a lot of teeter-totter here, despair and elation."

At its best, sports should produce those emotional extremes -- winning and misery, as Pat Riley put it. Sometimes it is helped along by statistical extremes, in this case the wild disparity between Ray Allen's eight 3-pointers in Game 2 (one better than the previous Finals record) and 0-for-13 shooting in Game 3 (one shy of the most Finals field goal attempts without a basket).

The best gift these Finals have given us has been unpredictability.

Had the Lakers won Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead and make their 16th championship an inevitability (no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals), we would have built up to Game 5 by spending two days discussing Kobe Bryant's place among the all-time greats. Instead, Glen Davis and Nate Robinson were the talk of Boston after Game 4, the local papers featuring huge pictures of Robinson joyously hopping onto the back of a slobbering Davis in the midst of their unlikely fourth-quarter dominance. Those types of hidden heroes can alter a Finals, but rarely do they define them. There's a certain status you need to have to be worthy of inclusion in the Finals' opening montage.

That's why this series has yet to yield to a singular storyline. The Celtics, by design, are too spread out to have one player carry them. They won a game in which Kevin Garnett scored six points and nabbed another "W" when Rajon Rondo had only three assists.

Their defense, meanwhile, is designed to keep one player from beating them. Sometimes the Finals are simply a matter of one team having Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon and the other team being powerless to stop him. That's not the case here. Although Bryant has averaged 28 points in this series, he is shooting 41 percent and committing four turnovers per game. It was Derek Fisher who produced the memorable moments that enabled the Lakers to grab Game 3, taking advantage of the Celtics' focus on Bryant to shake loose for 11 fourth-quarter points.

Even that was a function of the Celtics' defense, with Boston's strategy dictating who would have the opportunity to challenge it. And Ron Artest has helped the Lakers prevent Paul Pierce from dominating as he did in the 2008 Finals.

"Both teams are defensive-minded," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Both teams have the ability to make defensive runs. I think if both teams were offensive-minded, you would see one team get blown out in this series. You can be up 12 in this series, and then a team can get 10 or 15 straight stops and get back in the game. Both teams have shown they have the ability to do that. You know, I think we're pretty evenly matched."

So what will be the difference? Hopefully not a call or an injury.

There is the looming possibility that a technical foul -- or worse, the loathed double technical foul -- could alter the course of the series. If the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins or Rasheed Wallace gets hit with another "T," it will be his seventh of the playoffs and will merit an automatic suspension in the next game.

There's also the potential that Andrew Bynum's injured right knee will be too troublesome for him to help the Lakers in the remaining two to three games.

It would be a tremendous letdown, a disservice to both teams, if the series can't be decided with both sides at full strength.

"The Finals is and should be the ultimate test," Bryant said.

So far, they have given us the gift of doubt, the benefit of an unpredictable outcome -- which is the reason we watch sports in the first place and is what has made these artistically challenged Finals so compelling.