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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 9:37 AM

It's easily the greatest rivalry in NBA history. These teams battled throughout the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain years...then battled again throughout the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson years...then ran into each other AGAIN when Kobe Bryant and company ran into the big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.

Those stars will be on the floor again Thursday Night when the Lakers visit the Celtics on TNT. But, you get the feeling that the glory days are gone for both. In fact, rather than being championship threats...these teams could be seeded as low as #7 or #8 in their respective conferences come playoff time this season!

  • If the playoffs started now, Boston would be a disappointing #7 seed. Nobody sees them as being in the same class as Miami or Chicago. Age has them trailing younger, deeper teams like Philadelphia and Indiana this year. And, it's hard to separate the likes of Atlanta, Orlando, and Boston in terms of postseason potential at the moment.

  • Oh, we should mention that Boston has played a very home heavy schedule so far. After tonight's game with the Lakers, they'll have 25 road games left and only 16 home games. There's a buffer in the East because the 8th and final seed could go to a team with a losing record. Boston is in danger of dropping down to .500 or worse when the home/road split equalizes.

  • The Lakers were in a logjam with several other Western Conference teams heading into Wednesday Night's action (games finishing after publication deadlines). At the moment, the differences between the 4th seed and the 8th seeds are negligible. In fact, the 9th and 10th teams in the race are right there too! Los Angeles may not even make the playoffs!

  • Like Boston, the Lakers started out with a home friendly schedule. That's equalized with their current road trip...a road trip that already has them losing games in Utah and Philadelphia. This hasn't been a good road team this year...which means they haven't passed too many important tests in terms of playoff potential.

Characteristics the teams have in common:

  • Both teams play like they're old. Boston IS old in terms of their biggest contributors. Kobe's playing his 16th season, and Derek Fisher is a senior citizen by league standards. Even when young guys off the bench come in, the teams still look slow on offense and perimeter defense.

  • Both teams count on experience and savvy to overcome deficiencies. There's a point for all veterans where that's just not enough any more. This could be the year where both sets of management realize that it's time to get younger and faster.

  • Both teams used to intimidate the rest of the league...yet neither do now except maybe in the cases of the very worst teams coming to visit. Though, you get the sense on the very bad teams that those players are too dumb to be intimidated! Some of these guys just out of college don't even know how to play the game!

Let's check some of our favorite indicator stats to see if there are important differences that will show up tonight in this big TV game you're trying to handicap. The data comes from John Hollinger's team stats posted at ESPN's website.

Boston 2nd
LA Lakers 11th

This is scoring adjusted for tempo, which is a much better indicator for quality than just raw scoring. Boston is still amongst the class of the league when it comes to denying points. Yes, they're helped by playing a softer schedule in the weaker Eastern Conference. It still hurts if you try to drive the basket against them!

The Lakers have always been very good in this stat under Phil Jackson. Too many fans and media types didn't realize this because they were focused on Showtime stuff. When you adjusted for tempo, the Lakers played defense. A ranking of 11th is actually kind of disappointing considering that they hired a defensive minded head coach in Mike Brown.

Once you adjust for strength of schedule, this is probably close to being a wash. That may surprise you. But, Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA Today show the Lakers playing the 5th ranked schedule so far this season, while Boston is down at #30. That's the weakest schedule in the league. Given the emotions in this rivalry, you can count on these teams to play tough defense against each other anyway.

LA Lakers 2nd
Boston 22nd

If you watch a lot of Boston games, you've noticed that they don't crash the offensive boards very hard. In fact, they often send everyone back on defense when a shot goes up. The Celtics care more about defending their own rim. And, when you have sharpshooters like Ray Allen, it doesn't necessarily cost you to do it that way. The problem this year is that Boston isn't in the upper half of the league in defensive rebounding either.

Given the big edge here for the Lakers, AND their enormous edge in strength of schedule, the Lakers win this category by a big margin. Boston will have to shoot very well to win the game.

LA Lakers 13th
Boston 17th

This is scoring adjusting for tempo. Neither offense has been very good. But, you've heard so many gloom and doom stories about the Lakers offense that 13th actually seems great. Yes, Mike Brown runs a very simple offense. And, yes Kobe Bryant shoots too many guarded jumpers late in close games. In the big picture, things aren't as bad as they seemed in LA. The bigs do a good job. And, the team still gets respect from the refs in terms of free throws.

Boston isn't as scary as they used to be, but hasn't exactly fallen off the map either. Remember that Rajon Rondo has missed a lot of time because of injury. They'd likely rank higher if he was playing all the time. Of course, everyone in the league is losing people to injury! So, make everyone healthy...and Boston would still probably sit in the middle of the pack.

What does it all mean?

  • The Lakers look to be the better team right now on a neutral floor once you adjust for strength of schedule.

  • This game isn't on a neutral court, it's in Boston. And, the Lakers have mostly been a disappointment on the road this year.

  • Kobe Bryant is having another one of his stubborn streaks where he wants to take all the shots late in close games even if he's being double-teamed 25-feet from the basket. That's how the Lakers blew a late lead in Philadelphia the other night. That could certainly be a factor again here if the game is close in the final four minutes.

  • We don't see either team being much of a force in the playoffs this year. This game won't have a championship feel to it outside of the handful of champions who are still on the rosters. The TEAMS just aren't anything special any more. The Lakers are worse than last year's team...and last year's team was exposed badly by Dallas in the playoffs. Boston's not any better than last year, and they didn't measure up to Miami and Chicago last year.

We may or may not have a play for you in this game on the service (and the total is just as possible as the side in a game like this). There are three other games in the NBA, and a busy card in the colleges that will provide ample profit opportunities. If Lakers-Celtics isn't one of the best handful of plays on the board, we'll pass it and get you the BIG, JUICY WINNERS.

There is a chance it will qualify for a TV Parlay or TV Triple Crown along with games like Oklahoma City-Sacramento, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Illinois-Indiana, and St. Mary's-Gonzaga.

Game day releases always go up on the website a few hours before first tip. Call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453 to talk about longterm packages. You can sign up for all hoops through March Madness, or all hoops through the NBA Playoffs at great prices.

Back tomorrow to talk more NBA to get you ready for Friday Night Fireworks in games like Lakers-Knicks, Hawks-Magic, Clippers-Sixers, and Mavs-Timberolves. Then, Saturday, we'll be all over Michigan State-Ohio State in one of the biggest regular season college matchups this year. Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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