Are Lakers & Celtics Folding or Bluffing?

April 11, 2011 | Thyrl Nelson

We should know better than to fall for this from the Celtics again. As they apparently limped into the playoffs last season after a regrettable looking second half of the season, the Celtics quickly showed themselves to have been playing possum all along, saving what they had for the playoffs and using it to substantial benefit as they came up just one game short in their quest for a second title in three seasons. As Doc Rivers and his charges ultimately proved themselves smarter than us, and seeing that they haven’t gotten any younger over the last year, it stood to reason that we might see a similar tank job from the C’s this year too.

In addition to the wear and tear that they seemingly saved themselves in coasting through the end of the regular season, the Celtics may have also seen some level of additional benefit from teams perceiving them as less capable than they actually were based on the way that they finished. No matter where they found benefit in taking things as they did last season, they at least lent some credence to the theory that there are more important things to take with you into the playoffs than just home court advantage. In so doing, they may have also unearthed a bit of a new twist on an old strategy, typically reserved for the NBA’s also-rans.


It was after all the blatant absence of discretion or fair play as teams tanked the latter stages of the 1983-84 NBA season in an effort to land Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon that led the league to it’s draft lottery strategy in the first place. That effort and the subsequent refinement thereof is supposed to insure that teams will play out the string honestly, as good karma might be a bigger factor than worst record in hoping to land the top pick in the draft lottery. For those teams in the playoffs though, especially those with legitimate designs (and track records) on making a run to the title in June, maybe tanking a few games here and there could help those title hopes.


The Celtics took a tough road to the Finals last season and survived it admirably, but when all was said and done, their difficulty in getting to the Finals may have had more to do with the draw than with not having home court advantage. For getting the 4th seed last season, the Celtics hosted the Heat in round 1 followed by the top seeded Cavs in the second round. After that they beat Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Arguably, no matter which of the top 4 seeds the Celtics would have drawn, it would have come with a “beatable” opponent in the first round followed by the Magic and Cavs in some order. Even the Hawks, in last season’s version, looked like a tough match up beyond round 1.


On the other side of the country, for their efforts in achieving the 1st seed, the Lakers were tested for seemingly every second of 6 games by an up and coming Thunder team that probably had no business being an 8th seed in the first place. After making easy work of the Jazz the Lakers got all that they could handle from the Suns too before reaching the finals. The point being, that if you’re going to win an NBA title, you’re going to have to work hard for it no matter what you did in the regular season. Beyond that, the luck of the draw is just that, the only things predictable, or controllable from a team standpoint are first round match-ups.


Picking your poison is an oft frowned upon practice in sports. Players rarely offer any insight into their preferred match-ups when laying out their championship strategies partly for superstitious reasons, and surely in part to prevent any bulletin board material from coming about as a result. Still, in a contentious and competitive environment like the NBA Playoffs, a place where minor adjustments will mean the difference between winning and losing games, series’ and titles, it’s tough to imagine that grizzled playoff coaches like Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, ones who have stepped out on limbs before and earned the right and credibility to do so again aren’t doing whatever they can to massage the first round match-ups and pick their proverbial poisons.


If you were ever going to try such a strategy, this might be the year. It seems that neither conference’s seedings look to reflect their top to bottom wherewithal. Partially attributable to the model set forth by the Celtics last year, but mostly due to the barrage of moves at the trade deadline, the power curves by seed in both conferences of the NBA read like an EKG or a failed lie detector test.


The Celtics sit in 3rd today and can’t be too unhappy about it. The Bulls have locked up the top spot and a showdown with the Pacers in the first round. Orlando and Atlanta both look firm at 4 and 5 respectively, leaving the 76ers or Knicks as possible first round opponents for Boston. The Sixers started miserably under first year coach Doug Collins but are among the league’s better second half teams, and although they’ll likely be fodder for either Boston or Miami, they’re certainly trending much better than the Knicks who occupy the spot one place above them in the standings. For now, the 3rd seed and the reeling Knicks look like a much better proposition for Boston in round 1 than the 2nd seed and Philadelphia.


A single game separates the Knicks and 76ers today, as does a single game separate the Heat and Celtics. By virtue of winning the series against Miami, the Celtics own a tiebreaker between those two giving them some level of control in trying to move up and keep New York in their draw. As I said earlier, I’ve been expecting them to dial back a bit toward the end all season, perhaps it’s just because of that slide’s coincidence with the Kendrick Perkins trade that we’re led to believe that it may be out of their control.


The Lakers, having conceded the top seed to San Antonio sit in a virtual deadlock with Dallas with 2 games remaining for each. Portland, New Orleans and Memphis at 6-8 respectively are all still viable draws for LA. Among those, by far the Hornets look to be the most favorable to the Lakers. Memphis is strong in the front court and is likely to beat up whomever they draw in the first round significantly even in they’re not much of a threat to upset. Portland is an anomaly. They’ve stayed afloat through injuries (as usual) all season long, and added Gerald Wallace at the deadline. If he’s not the most talented player who moved at the deadline, it can be argued that Wallace is the most valuable this year. His ability to fill up multiple stat categories without plays being run for him is what made him invaluable to the Bobcats in recent seasons. It also makes him an easy fit for Portland or anyone else for that matter. Add to that Brandon Roy’s light workload throughout the year, and his potential to log big minutes in the playoffs and the Blazers could be a nightmare first round draw for any team.


By putting themselves close to their nearest competitors in their respective conferences, the Lakes and Celtics may have put themselves in position to try and pick their first round poisons. While this wouldn’t be advisable for almost any other team in any other league, surely these Lakers and Celtics believe themselves professional enough to be up to the task of engineering the playoff brackets themselves by turning “it” on and off at will. Each has certainly shown themselves capable of that in recent seasons at least.