- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Lakers should conclude their business with the Celtics in five games, six maximum.

This assessment of the NBA Finals comes with the usual disclaimer: If my crystal ball was as reliable as I would like it to be, I would not be tapping on a keyboard. I would be in Las Vegas betting the house, bank accounts, automobile and collection of tattered T-shirts on the Lakers to defeat the Celtics in five games.

Or I would be retired by now from past winnings, and I would be resting comfortably on a sandy beach while sipping from a glass that has a paper umbrella sticking out of it.

Back in the real world, the nod to the Lakers starts with Kobe Bryant, the best finisher in the NBA today.

It was Bryant who left Bruce Bowen and the Spurs looking like so many chumps in Game 5 last week. It was Bryant who scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and dispatched the Spurs to the offseason.

It is Bryant who roasted the Jazz and Nuggets before the Spurs. It is Bryant who is averaging 31.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists, plus shooting 50.9 percent in the playoffs.

The Celtics have no genuine answer for Bryant. No team does. The Celtics can run a second defender at him. They can bump and jostle him on his journeys to the basket. It will not matter. Bryant has seen every defense imaginable in his 12-season career, and finally, at age 29, he has learned how to utilize his teammates.

The Celtics have no one to defend Bryant.

Not Ray Allen. Please. And not Paul Pierce. The alliterative Rajon Rondo? Too small. Kevin Garnett? Not at this point in his career. And Kendrick Perkins would look like a whale stuck in shallow water if he had to chase Bryant on the perimeter.

So Bryant is destined to have his way with the Celtics unless he suddenly dons a dunce cap and makes a series of bad decisions in game after game.

Or maybe he comes down with a rare flu that is untreatable.

Perhaps that is the defensive plan of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, the newly appointed genius whose job status was in doubt after he presided over the tanking of games in 2007.

The Lakers also have the Zen Master in their favor. He is the coach who looks more and more like Col. Sanders with each passing season. You can note that he has won his nine championship with the tandem of either Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Bryant and Shaquille O´Neal. And that is the point.

The Zen Master rarely messes up a strong hand, with the exception of the NBA Finals in 2004, when Karl Malone succumbed to a knee injury and Bryant was firing away to demonstrate it was his team. And so the Pistons fashioned an upset in five games.

Bryant has no such demons now, with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom all too willing to be subservient. It is not their team. Why, they are just happy to be living in Bryant´s world and included in the team photo.

And the Lakers have the Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic factor, which will manifest itself in a flurry of 3-pointers in one of the games.

And the Lakers still have Chris Mihm, in case you were wondering what happened to the team´s designated clapper on the bench.

The Celtics cannot allow the game to be close going into the fourth quarter. If so, they can expect the worst. That would be the best of Bryant.

He is at the peak of his powers, ready to claim a championship free of O´Neal´s shadow. It must irk him that his ex-teammate beat him to that with the Heat in 2006.

Yet Bryant and these remade Lakers are in a position to be in the championship mix in the seasons ahead.

And Bryant will not be stymied by the flawed Celtics.



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