Lakers keep an eye on the beasts in the East

Can the Celtics spank them again?

Western Conference playoff contenders and hopefuls readily acknowledge that the conference is so competitive that the least little slip up can be quite damaging, and with mere minor tweaks of the roster, teams can go from being non-playoff participants to powerful foes in one year.

But the teams in the west also must be wary about what challenges the Eastern Conference could present.

In one brief synopsis – Can the Big Three lead the Boston Celtics on another championship ride?

What will the hiring of head coach Michael Curry do for the talented but self-imploding Detroit Pistons?

Will the Cleveland Cavaliers get over the hump now that superstar LeBron James has a new sidekick in guard Mo Williams?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers figure to be a new player in the mix, now that Elton Brand has left the west for the east?

Or is the Orlando Magic, behind the growing domination of Dwight Howard, posed to reign in the Eastern Conference?

Certainly, the Lakers will have an eye on the east throughout the 2008-2009 season.

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all are likely headed for the hall of fame, once they concluded their NBA careers. Each had been an adversary of each other for years.
That is until last summer, when a pair of blockbuster trades by Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge brought Garnett from Minnesota and Allen from Seattle to join Pierce, forming what instantly was dubbed, The Big Three, a moniker that head coach Doc Rivers knew was inevitable.

Skeptics insisted that this trio would not be able to coexist peacefully in the locker room or mesh smoothly on the court, the egos supposedly being too grandiose to allow that.
But the doubters were wrong.

And ever since that late June evening when they were pummeled into submission by the Boston Celtics, it has been on the Lakers’ minds to exact comeuppance for that humiliating loss in the NBA Finals and wrest that championship crown from Beantown that they feel rightfully should have been theirs.

In one of the most remarkable one-year turnarounds in professional sports, the Celtics went from a team that failed to make the playoffs and finished with the league’s second-worse record the previous season, to a team that ended the 2007-2008 season with a NBA-best 66-16 record.

How the Celtics did it was a tribute to the coaching and leadership exhibited by Rivers, who had personal loss to deal with during the season, the death of his father. The Big Three’s role in the success boiled down to each of them unselfishly submitting their personal goals for the team’s good.

Prior to last season, Allen had averaged 21.5 points per game, over his 11-year career. He was Boston’s third-leading scorer last season, at 17.4 points.

Garnett had put together a prolific streak of nine consecutive seasons averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Last season, he averaged 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Pierce, who had put up gaudy numbers for mainly pedestrian Celtic teams in previous years, had a streak snapped of seven consecutive years of averaging over 20 points per game.

But Pierce was more than happy with his team-leading 19.6 scoring average since it culminated in the championship that he previously thought he’d never get.

So, here we are, a year later and the Big Three are a year older. Allen is 33. Garnett will be entering his 14th season at the age of 32. Pierce, who idolized the Lakers while growing up in Los Angeles, will turn 31 next month.

Is there enough bounce left in those thirty-ish legs and sufficient mental drive for the Big Three to be the guiding force in a successful defense of their NBA title?

There is ample support to back that trio. Point guard Rajon Rondo played a pivotal role for Boston last season and is growing more confident in directing the offense. The Celtics’ center, Kendrick Perkins, is not counted on to score but he, Leon Powe and Glen Davis relish playing a bruising, physical style.

Key second-unit players Eddie House and Tony Allen are back, and Coach Rivers most certainly will push the development of second-year guard Gabe Pruitt, formerly of USC and rookie swingman Bill Walker.

One of the most intriguing stories for the Celtics going into training camp will be what former Golden State Warriors draft bust Patrick O’Bryant has to offer, and whether former Clipper Darius Miles can resurrect his career, after missing the past two seasons recovering from micro-fracture knee surgery.

When asked whether he expected the Celtics to be a formidable challenge again for the Lakers this season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s snappy reply was, “I don’t care about them. I care about us.’’

But it was evident that the Lakers’ Game 6 loss and elimination at the hands of the Celtics still weighed heavily on Jackson’s mind.

During that series, the Lakers were unable to control Garnett on either end of the floor, Pierce was a force offensively and in key situations, played superb defense on Kobe Bryant and overall, the Lakers got outmuscled by the Celtics.

At a pre-training camp session with the media, Jackson scoffed at a suggestion that perhaps the Lakers were too soft as opposed to the Celtics, who plainly were aggressive in the Finals.
“You don’t get to where you are by being a soft team,’’ Jackson said. “Boston was tougher than we were in the last the last game. They deserved it. They got it.’’

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