It is a long season. If we go back a few months, you’ll remember that San Antonio and Boston were way ahead of the pack and appeared destined to grab the two number-one seeds for this year’s playoffs. But since then, Boston became complacent and then completely changed their team while the Spurs ran out of good luck, catching injuries to all three of their big guns.
Now with the two teams matching up tonight, the question looms: Who has the better chance to win it all this year?
We argue. You decide….
I’ve decided to use Eminem‘s approach in his final battle against Papa Doc in 8 Mile and address all the arguments that can be made against the Celtics right off the bat.
At 51-22, the Celtics are tied with Miami for second place in the East and sit just two-and-a-half games back of the Chicago and Derrick Rose for first. That being said, the Celtics are struggling. They’re 5-7 in their last 12 games and have hardly looked like themselves. Rajon Rondo is frustrated, Kevin Garnett is constantly playing in foul trouble and injuries have crippled them as of late.
But Boston fans, come in off that ledge. All hope is not lost. In fact, the Celtics are actually ahead of schedule in comparison to 2010. Few may remember, but the C’s finished 10-10 in their last 20 games last season and limped into the playoffs as a banged-up four seed. Then the “old,” “tired” and “banged up” Celtics beat Miami in five, Cleveland in six and Orlando in six to reach the NBA Finals, concluding the season a knee injury away from an NBA championship.
But the Celtics are a different team now with a different identity. No longer are they the bullies at school – taking Tommy’s lunch money, stuffing little Billy into a locker. Those days are over.
However, the Celtics are still a championship-caliber team.
When the Lakers lost five of nine in mid-January, the media tagged them as “old” and questioned whether they would even reach the conference finals. Now they’ve won seven in a row, are 15-1 since the All-Star break and look poised to defend their title.
Too quickly do people write teams off, assume the worst and rush to judge when a bit of adversity is experienced.
The Celtics are experiencing a similar drought. New players, a new system and untimely injuries have taken a toll on their wins column. When a star receiver is traded in the NFL, what’s the first thing you hear on SportsCenter the next day? “Quarterback X and receiver Y spent two hours running routes after practice, working on their timing and footwork.” These things take time.
The Celtics lost one key player (two if you count Nate Robinson) from last year’s team. They added six. Troy Murphy, Jermaine O’Neal, Nenad Krstic and Shaquille O’Neal provide depth and an abundance of fouls in the frontcourt. Once Murphy, O’Neal and Shaq return from nagging ankle and knee injuries, the Celtics should reassume dominant form. They also added Delonte West and Jeff Green. West, a veteran with playoff experience, provides the Celtics two things: perimeter scoring and someone to come off the bench and give Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a blow. Green is an interesting player who has the potential to make the Celtics a different team. With his size and athleticism, he makes them more flexible, providing perimeter versatility not just on offense but on defense, something they will need to slow down Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
The Celtics’ nucleus, along with their six new additions, makes them championship contenders. Don’t let 10 regular season games tell you otherwise. –Scott Horlbeck
San Antonio Spurs
Most assumed that the Spurs’ surge to the top of the standings would be short-lived. In time, the injury bug would run its course. The Spurs have had other ideas. Manu Ginobili is playing with his trademark reckless abandon. Tim Duncan is once again a defensive anchor. Tony Parker has filled the gaps with a varying array of floaters, elaborate layups and timely shooting. Ultimately however, the prognosticators had it partially right. Four starters have recently missed games due to injury.
For most teams, minor injuries cause major ripples. With little continuity on NBA rosters, each game and practice is valuable for enhancing chemistry. The Heat, Thunder, Bulls and Magic (the young and/or newly acquainted contenders) are still developing that ever-elusive chemistry while exerting their youthful energy on a nightly basis. Although this makes them more prone to injury, it’s an unavoidable risk. Asking these teams to slow down is like asking Manu to play conservatively; it’s ineffective and detrimental to the team.
Some teams, despite injuries, put it together when it counts simply because the chemistry is already established. Doc Rivers famously claims that no team has beaten the Celtics in a seven-game series when completely healthy. Similar statements can be made about the Spurs.
It’s not that the Spurs are an immovable object impervious to defeat when healthy. History has proven otherwise. They are, however, part of a certain group of NBA teams that can shift to cruise control. Teams in this group, such as the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Mavs see the bigger picture. If they want to win in the playoffs, they need their guys to be healthy and rested. They can rest on their laurels as they please.
Recent NBA history suggests that veteran teams with chemistry have the best shot at a title. But each team that has actually won it has had that extra edge. The 2006-07 Spurs had the growing legend of LeBron to combat and the swirling belief that it was only because of Amar’e Stoudemire‘s suspension that they won the Western Conference Finals. In 2008, the Celtics had a plethora of veterans devoid of playoff success; the Lakers were hell-bent on revenge after the Celtics stuck it to them the year before. Last season, the Lakers had doubters, a possible repeat and the rival Celtics as motivation to finish the job.
So what do the Spurs have that separates them? The “nobody believes in us” factor. They are already arguably the best team in the NBA. They have reignited their stars and propelled them to new heights with a run-and-gun offense. They have the NBA’s best record. And despite all that, nobody seems to be giving them a chance. When experts talk about championship favorites, the Spurs hardly enter the conversation outside of “they’ll be a tough out.” This added fuel can, and will, propel them to an NBA title. If they weren’t dangerous before, watch out for them when they’re motivated. –Dylan Murphy
Who do you think has a better chance at winning the championship this season?
Follow Scott on Twitter at @scott_horlbeck.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.