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Celtics love it when you overlook them

October 28, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

What do you get for winning a title, reviving the NBA's greatest franchise and proving all your doubters wrong?

Picked to finish second this season is what you get.

There's no end to the disrespect the NBA champion Boston Celtics have to endure. The team they're supposed to finish second to is the same Lakers team they rolled over in the Finals -- when the Lakers were favored too.

The Celtics, who finished nine games ahead at 66-16, weren't even the consensus pick a year ago in the East (ESPN's panel had them third behind the Pistons and Bulls.)

Gee, what does a storied franchise have to do to be favored these days?

"Oh, I don't care one way or the other," said Coach Doc Rivers last week when the Boston media brought it up. "We pick us. We picked us last year too."

Actually, he cares a lot, but that's their gift.

They never complain. They store it up, go out on the floor and take it out on whatever team is there. Like Mother Nature, it's not nice to fool with the Celtics.

The Lakers were not only favored last spring, they thought they had things in hand, not even bothering to hide their amusement at the local hyperventilating over Paul Pierce's wheelchair exit and heroic return in Game 1.

The Celtics didn't even react to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson ("Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?") before Game 2, aside from Rivers' oh-I-don't-care number ("Oh, I don't care. Aren't we skeptics anyway now about everything? So what the heck. Let it begin. . . . Lee Harvey Oswald did it.")

Only after the Lakers lost Game 2 did it dawn on them that they didn't have anything in hand. Nor did getting serious turn out to be the answer.

Without Andrew Bynum, it was as though the Lakers were en route to a bonus championship before Bynum came back and they really started dominating.

Meanwhile, the Celtics had Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Pierce in their first title shot, which, at their ages -- they're now 33, 32 and 31, respectively -- could have been their last.

Having won a title, they still look hungry. It's never an issue on a team that has Garnett, who looks even hungrier.

"I didn't think he could go to another level," said Pierce last week, "but he has."

Unfortunately for the Celtics, if hunger isn't an issue, they have others.

* Age.

Last spring, they had to acquire Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, both 38, to back up their Three Thirty-Something Amigos.

Brown has retired and Cassell may have, sitting out the preseason while Rivers played second-year Gabe Pruitt, hoping not to have to turn to the creaky, non-defending Cassell again.

Pruitt shot 36%, so they're still in the hopeful stage.

* Depth.

What depth? The Celtics were thin before they let James Posey leave in a financial decision -- the team reportedly lost money.

"The way I look at it, Posey was like three or four guys," Pierce said. "He could guard a three [small forward] or four [power forward] and play them offensively, slashing and knocking down threes. . . . It's going to take a combination of guys to replace him, Tony Allen, [Glen] Big Baby Davis, maybe Darius Miles."

Maybe not. Miles, their big off-season acquisition, was cut.

* Rajon Rondo.

Has their gritty little 22-year-old point guard learned to shoot or can teams leave him to jam up their offense as the Hawks and Cavaliers did in the first two rounds of the playoffs?

On the other hand, Pierce is 10 pounds lighter (he looked like a small forward version of Wes Unseld last fall); Ray Allen, who was coming off ankle surgery a year ago, is healthy; Tony Allen isn't dragging that knee brace around and Garnett is Garnett.

Best of all, they play that suffocating defense that even kept Kobe Bryant from getting good looks.

If the Lakers deserve to be favorites with Bynum back, they'd better come ready if they're lucky enough to have a next time next spring.

By then, the Celtics will have been disrespected for seven more months. The Lakers may need Bynum and more.


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