Celtics' struggle was easy to predict


Aside from Ray Allen's sweet shooting stroke, which is as good as ever, there are several reasons to sour on the Boston Celtics as it becomes more apparent their time near the top is expiring.

It's never wise to mess with Sasquatch or overreact to one NBA playoff game, so completely dismissing the Celtics and writing them off is a little premature. But if their postseason postmortem comes soon, don't be surprised.

It has been coming for some time, since late February to be specific.

"I'm not optimistic about Boston's chances in the series," Jim Kruger, VegasSportsAuthority.com handicapper, said before the Celtics fell 99-90 to the Miami Heat on Sunday in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinal showdown.

The Heat covered the 5-point line, and a game that was tied 6-6 midway through the first quarter somehow went over the opening total of 182. These playoffs have produced some weird point-spread and totals results, proving that handicapping is sometimes more about luck than science.

What is happening to Boston was sort of predictable. A lot has been said about canes and rocking chairs and the veteran Celtics' need for them, but that only applies to Shaquille O'Neal. The truth is the team's core players -- Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- don't need to use an age-reversing cream to rediscover their youth.

Boston is not succumbing to old age. It is feeling the effects of an ill-advised trade and a weakened supporting cast.

Ten days ago, I advanced Miami past Boston in the playoff bracket primarily because Dwyane Wade had taken over as the Heat's leading man as LeBron James settled into the sidekick role.

Wade scored 38 points in Game 1, and James added 22. Off the bench, James Jones threw in a needed scoring punch with 25 points on five 3-pointers. Miami finally is finding the winning formula that was so elusive during the regular season, when it won 58 games (under its win total of 64½) and lost three of four to Boston.

The latter fact is now irrelevant. After the Celtics traded center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City in February, they lost much of their interior defensive toughness, team chemistry and the edge they held against the Heat.

Early in the season, Kruger said, "Miami was three individuals with little clue how to play effectively as a team."

Boston is no longer the same team that held a 13-point third-quarter lead on the Lakers in Game 7 of last year's Finals in Los Angeles. The Celtics blew that lead, of course, but their bigger blunder was shipping out Perkins at a time when they were the league's best team.

Perkins, Tony Allen, Nate Robinson and Rasheed Wallace have been replaced by Jermaine O'Neal, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and Delonte West, and that's a definite downgrade.

It's why, even with Doc Rivers' significant coaching edge, Boston seems to be facing odds it can't overcome, and Miami was a minus-190 favorite in the best-of-7 series before taking the opener.

"I did bet the Heat to win the series," said Las Vegas handicapper Barry Holthaus of EOG.com. "The Celtics were so close to winning the title last year, but I feel they are a different team without Perkins."

Unless an injury sidelines Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls will advance in the East. But the series price of minus-900 on the Bulls is forcing bettors to look for value in the Atlanta Hawks.

"The Bulls' line is probably too high," Holthaus said. "An injury can happen. Any star can turn his ankle."

Look for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, minus-400 favorites, to get by Dallas in six or seven games. But Oklahoma City, a minus-350 series favorite going in, has a hole to dig out of after losing the opener 114-101 to Memphis, a 6½-point underdog.

Zach Randolph scored 34 points -- way over his proposition total of 21½ at the Las Vegas Hilton -- as the Grizzlies, who ousted San Antonio on Friday night, easily handled the quick turnaround to win on the road Sunday morning.

"What really impressed me is Memphis was able to shake off a devastating defeat to the Spurs in Game 5 and close them out. I think that shows some character," Holthaus said. "Randolph has been a beast inside. The Grizzlies took out the No. 1-seeded team in the West and didn't get much respect in the line."

The Celtics deserve respect. Allen, who fired away for 25 points and tried to lead a late comeback, gives them a shot.

The series just started, but Boston has been in big trouble for awhile.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the "Las Vegas Sportsline" weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

 

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