Two months ago, the Lakers and Celtics were on a collision course for a rubber match in the NBA Finals, and all was going according to plan. But a week away from the NBA Playoffs, the Celtics have gotten blown out by the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, and the Lakers have lost five straight.
In L.A., Phil Jackson spoke after L.A.'s loss to the Thunder and talked about urgency. "The reason is lack of urgency," Jackson said. "Because it's a lack of urgency, there's not a whole lot of crispness and execution in what we're doing." You'd assume that changes in the playoffs.
In Miami, Doc Rivers said, "Frustration is high on our team right now."
But excuse me ... What the hell happened?
Look at the bigger picture this year. This isn't how things were supposed to play out. As much as everyone whines about the reign of Boston and L.A. the past few years, there was something refreshing about seeing two proud, championship-winning teams totally upstage the circus in Miami. As the first few months of the season unfolded, it felt like destiny.
In the year where Miami was supposed to change the face of the NBA, we'd all watch the Celtics and Lakers dominate, reminding us that some things never change.
"Team" beats talent, hard work beats hype, etc.
If nothing else, it would've dazzled sportswriters the world over. But now it all just looks like a myth, destined for debunking, with all those proud, self-righteous veterans getting dunked on. Miami ran the Celtics off the court on Sunday, and the Lakers didn't fare much better at home Sunday night.
Of course, all of this comes with a giant asterisk. We're currently in play-it-out mode in the NBA. You know, the phase of the season where the best teams start looking ahead to the playoffs, the worst teams start keeping an eye on the lottery, and only the teams in no-man's land make some real noise.
This is how a team like the Wizards can win three straight, leading their owner to brag, "a new big three has announced its arrival -- Wall, Crawford and Blatche." So, yeah ... Read too much into the April regular season at your own risk. But still.
The NBA's two, true immortals look pretty vulnerable right now.
With the playoffs a week away, let's take a closer look. We'll begin in Boston.
What happens when you take the best defender away from a team that thrives on defense? Well, glad you asked, because the 2010-11 Celtics are the answer! Here's what I wrote back when the Kendrick Perkins trade happened in Februrary:
The Celtics got the perimeter help they needed (Jeff Green), but in the process, they had to sacrifice what made them special in the first place. Suddenly, everything we liked about the Celtics as playoff team (size, defense, rebounding, toughness) is all a question mark.
Basically, to address a weakness, the Celtics sacrificed their biggest strength. It might have worked, too, but what Ainge didn't count on was the effect it'd have on the players that didn't get traded.
In the six weeks since the trade, Boston's trademark "UBUNTU" swagger has been replaced by this empty sort of frustration. Over that span, the first place Celtics have slid to third in the East, going 14-11 with Jeff Green replacing Perkins. It's not just different personnel, though; Boston's gotten beaten by New Jersey, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the Clippers--teams that Boston should beat with or without a shot-blocking center.
But their pride's been replaced by doubt, and things have crumbled from there. Throw in two blowout losses to their two biggest rivals in the East--Chicago and Miami--and you have to wonder.
Before, they were a flawed team--old, slow on the perimeter, prone to scoring droughts--but they thrived because of a shared belief that nobody could beat them. Without Perkins, they still have all those flaws, but none of the swagger that used to mitigate them. Before, when the Celtics were down double-digits in the third quarter, you'd expect a defensive stand, some big shots from Paul Pierce and a hard-fought fourth quarter.
Win or lose, they weren't going down easy. That attitude--UBUNTU, stubborn pride, or whatever you want to call it--is what defined Boston. And even more than a sudden dependence on Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal's fossilized knees, the Perkins trade shattered that UBUNTU mystique. That was always their biggest asset, and now it's history.
For the past year or two, Boston had been beating people by believing their own hype, and refusing to accept their time had passed. Now we're left with a team that can't score at an elite level, can't defend elite teams the way they used to, and worst of all, they know it. It's over.
Boston's like the movie hero that beats the odds and survives about five more shootouts than he should, but finally goes down in the end, because one man, or one team, can only survive so much.
As for the Lakers ...
The Lakers are like the evil movie villains that won't die. No matter what, they're not dead until they fall off a 10-story building, into moving traffic, and then get hit by a dump truck.
Until that happens, or until we see Kobe and Derek Fisher looking on dazed and expressionless as another team celebrates their first title, the Lakers aren't in trouble. They have the deepest roster in the league, the most experience, the best coach, the best closer ... There's way too much working in L.A.'s favor to think that a late-season swoon changes anything.
The Lakers have had these sort of losing streaks the past few years, and every time it happens, we get a whole new round of "Are the Lakers Done?" stories. And let's not forget the "Is Kobe Too Selfish?" stories that come with 'em. Every time the Lakers lose, it's like clockwork.
So with that in mind, let's just say this: The Lakers shouldn't be too concerned about losing five straight games at the end of a regular season that's pretty much meaningless, anyway. But meaningless or not, they wanted that game against the Thunder Sunday night.
They didn't need it, they can survive the loss, and there's no good reason for anyone else to be NBA Title favorites at this point. We're not talking about Boston here. Where the Celtics may have plenty of reasons to doubt themselves, the Lakers still believe that it's all about the postseason, and that once they get there, nobody's beating them. Real or imagined, that goes a long way.
But whether the Lakers are worried or not, after what happened Sunday night, they should be. With both teams hitting on all cylinders, L.A. just couldn't compete with OKC down the stretch.
Kevin Durant hit effortless jumpers, Russell Westbrook broke out of a shooting slump to slice down the lane when things got tight in the final minutes, and most important, L.A. had to settle for wild jumpers down the stretch. Where Westbrook and Durant got good looks on one end, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins made the Lakers desperate on the other.
So while there's no reason to think the Lakers are in trouble because of some random five-game losing streak at the tail-end of the regular season, there's also no reason to think that OKC's advantage on Sunday night will somehow disappear in six weeks. It's not that L.A.'s regressed from their championship teams of the past two years, but the competition's gotten better. And this year, L.A. may not have an answer.
So what the hell happened to the Lakers and Celtics?
Kendrick Perkins happened.
In the year when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were supposed to be turn the NBA inside out and flip the hierarchy upside down, we thought the Celtics and Lakers would be the ones to respond.
Almost like the NBA's a rubber band, and LeBron, Bosh and Wade got together to stretch it too far. Over the first few months, as Miami struggled and Boston and L.A. looked better than ever, you got the sense that everything was due to snap back to where we started, with the Celtics and Lakers on top again, gunning for a rubber match.
Then Perkins got traded, and now Boston's not the same team, and they may not even make it out of the second round. Meanwhile, the Lakers are every bit as good as they've been, but with Perkins anchoring things in Oklahoma, that might not be good enough.
And in The Year of LeBron, maybe it's not Boston and L.A. who'll be the ultimate counterpoint.
Maybe it's Kendrick Perkins. When you think about it, that'd be kind of perfect, too. Wouldn't it?