Eastern Conference recap, Western Conference preview, draft babble

Let’s start with the Celts disposing of Detroit in Game One of the Eastern Conference finals. The ESPN color crew was clearly in the tank for the Pistons during the pregame, on the supposition that having a week off after playing a numbskull Orlando Magic team was better than finishing off a grueling seven-game battle with the Cavs just 48 hours before. They were wrong, of course: If the Celts are going to be hurt by the war with LeBron and company, it will be later, ’round about Games Five, Six and Seven, and the erosion will be as much mental as physical. I expect the Pistons to play much better in Game Two. I also don’t think the world will end for the Celts if they lose at home. They’ve never *had* to win a game on the road yet, and if they do I think, at least in this series, they will.

As for Game One itself, let’s understand that the dynamic has shifted for the boys in green since the Cavs’ Game Seven: Paul Pierce is the clearcut igniter on offense, be it passing, shooting, tempo, whatever. This is all to the good for Boston because it gives their next two offensive threats, Garnett and Rondo, the freedom to play off Pierce’s decision-making. For KG it is a welcome luxury–he can concentrate on defense, where he almost never makes a bad decision, never mind choking, and still remain a guy you have to double-team in the low block at the other end. As Jeff Van Gundy pointed out last night, the pick and roll with Pierce and KG was very effective, and unless Jason Maxiell hits that extra gear like Paul Millsap occasionally achieved in Utah, it can be a Celtic bread-and-butter throughout, freeing up Pierce and KG for jumpers and drives, and almost guaranteeing the availability of safety valve dishes to Rondo. For Rondo it is luxury not to have to handle the ball all the time, which likewise frees him up for stellar defensive energy and open outside looks. You know all those shots Ray Allen is either missing or turning down? Give them to Rondo and Eddie House, especially if Billups is dinged up.

It was a joy to read Doc Rivers proclaiming his faith in Rondo in Marc Stein’s Daily Dime at ESPN.com today. I’ve been waiting for people, but especially Rivers, to lavish praise and heavily massage Rondo’s ego, rather than that idiotic comment he made in the Cavs’ series about avoiding "heroic shots." But I understand I’m repeating myself here, so I’ll let it go at that. Ray Allen? Lose all expectations for the guy, because he is pressing, and pressing hard. He is intelligently doing the other things to minimize his inability to stick the outside jumper, including ball movement, penetration, and decent defense. The Celts just have to consider him a 4th or 5th option right now, and muck along. And consider this: If the law of averages works itself out and Allen returns to vintage form with a vengeance, Boston has a viable shot at a championship. In fact that about the only way I see them beating either the Spurs or the Lakers.

Before we get into Lakers-Spurs, I want to harp back on the original point: Cleveland did Boston an enormous favor by pushing them to the brink and forcing them to configure different options and adjustments, and, most importantly, to determine a pecking order. These post-Cavs Celts are no longer democratizing the Big 3, and if the question were posed to them about who should take the game-ending shot to win or lose, both Pierce and KG wouldn’t simultaneously say "Ray" as they did before the Atlanta series. Meanwhile, Kendrick Perkins is no longer having to fend off tag teams of bigs like Z and Wallace and Smith and Varejao and coping with LeBron knifing down the lane. Detroit can still win this series, of course: They are experienced and resilient and synergistically talented. But this Celtics team has found its groove through adversity, which makes it a lot tougher, and more complicated, for the Pistons to triumph than it was a couple of weeks ago.

Breaking down the Spurs versus the Lakers, it looks to be an immensely enjoyable, high-scoring affair. How does LA defend Tim Duncan, with Gasol, Odom, or mix-and-match? (This is when a healthy Andrew Bynum would really come in handy.) Do the Spurs really think Bruce Bowen is going to contain Kobe? Derek Fisher doesn’t have the foot-speed for Tony Parker (and doesn’t know the Spurs’ sets and tendencies the way he knew Deron Williams and the Jazz), and at the offensive end, Odom will be his usual matchup nightmare. Lots of points are to be had here, especially considering that both teams are very adept at turning turnovers into buckets.

After watching the Spurs the last three or four years, plus the regular season this year, I made up my mind I’d pick them in every series until they lost or held the trophy. Before the playoffs began, I realized that if any team was going to test that faith, it would be the Lakers. They’ve got a cold-blooded closer in Kobe, a beautiful mixture of size, speed, and depth, and one of the few very coaches as wise and playoff-wizened as Pops. In my eyes, this is the real finals.

It’s a cliche to say about any close, competitive series between two very deep teams, but the role players really do have a chance to tip the balance here. Ime Udoka seems to be as viable an option on Kobe as Bowen, and when Bowen inevitably gets toasted and/or in foul trouble, it will be interesting to see how Udoka fares. On the other side, Sasha Vujacic seems like the latest in a long line of players to pattern his game after Manu Ginobili, and if Vujacic can indeed hit those dagger treys and become the foul-drawing pest that is Manu the Great, it is a big lift for the Lakers. It is also not that far-fetched.

Kobe and Duncan are not only going to get theirs, they’ll make sure their teammates share in the wealth. But can the Thomas/Oberto tandem stop Gasol, or hold him to mid-teens in points? How aggressively will Phil Jackson wield the Odom mismatch–I’d pound Odom off the dribble and in post-ups until San Antonio makes clear their response, then freelance off of that via Kobe and the three-point shooters. If Odom goes into one of his mental funks, it will be a huge problem for the Lakers; he really is the biggest wild card either way in this series.

San Antonio in 6 or 7. But the Lakers in 6 or 7 wouldn’t exactly shock me.

Longtime readers know I basically punt the draft lottery and defer to other, wiser, observers of the college, high school, and international game. My guess/advice for the Wolves in the last column was to prioritize their draft options as Rose/Beasley/Mayo/Lopez/trade down. Now that the ping-pong balls have given them a #3 pick, my excitement and interest goes up a notch. Taking a player you think will be at least the third best performer who is eligible for the pros this season is a big, big chip. I know the conventional wisdom is that it is a two-player draft, and I have no reason to dispute that. But here are the #3 picks from 2000-2007:

2000  Darius Miles

2001  Pau Gasol

2002  Mike Dunleavy

2003 Carmelo Anthony

2004 Ben Gordon

2005 Deron Williams

2006 Adam Morrison

2007 Al Horford

The only flop is Morrison, and he still has a shot at redemption. Miles was a chucklehead, but when healthy, oh could he play. Dunleavy showed signs of becoming a player this year, while the stock of Gordon and Melo fell a bit from some lofty heights. Gasol, Williams and Horford are cornerstones. That’s a pretty good historical record. And remember, that’s just the #3 pick. If we look at the third best player taken in the first round from 2000-2007, it goes like this:

2000: K-Mart of Mike Miller (behind Pryzbilla and Turkoglu, bad draft)

2001: Gasol (behind Tony Parker and Tyson Chandler)

2002: Tayshaun Prince or Caron Butler (behind Amare and Yao)

2003: Bosh or Melo (behind LeBron and Wade)

2004: Luol Deng or Iguodala (behind D Howard and Jefferson)

2005: Bynum (behind Paul and Williams)

2006: Rudy Gay o
r Rondo (behind Roy and Aldridge)

2007: Kevin Durant (behind Horford and Oden, although you can flip ’em)

Okay, enough covering up my lack of detailed knowledge about these picks with thumbnail history. The abiding point is, this third overall pick is a very valuable commodity. It is hard to totally screw it up, and possible to resurrect your franchise. Kevin McHale says he likes eight people in this draft and others have said it is very deep. If true, the Wolves should consider a trade, especially if the guy(s) they like is somewhat under the radar. With that, I’ll let my smart commenters take over.