Bucket of confetti, Curly Neal might be Celtics’ only hope

With the ball seemingly on a string, Rajon Rondo runs an offense displaying a sleight of hand fit for the Harlem Globetrotters. Sometimes he should be playing to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

Yet this is when Rondo and the Boston Celtics are expected by many to play the role of the Washington Generals, the stooge team set up as a hopeless prop opposite the unbeatable Miami Heat.

Kobe Bryant and the dysfunctional Los Angeles Lakers met their inevitable demise, and Derrick Rose’s unfortunate knee injury made the Chicago Bulls an early casualty. But the NBA playoffs have delivered an almost ideal final four for commissioner David Stern.

It will be ideal if the Eastern Conference finals don’t turn into a mere formality. Miami is a minus-550 favorite to win a best-of-7 series that is unlikely to go the distance, only because the Celtics look too old and slow to keep up with the much swifter LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

“I think the Celtics have a chance,” Cal Neva sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “I don’t think it’s a pick up; it’s not stealing money. I don’t think Miami rolls through them.”

To be fair, Bogdanovich’s answer was to a question about whether Boston has “no chance,” and he’s not picking the Celtics to beat the Heat. Neither am I taking the plus-450 that’s offered on the underdog.

But I am tempted to make a case for the Celtics out of respect for the coaching leadership of Doc Rivers and an admiration for the toughness of Kevin Garnett. It’s a team all about winning through defense and grit, going seven games and earning few style points along the way.

“They can ugly it up,” Bogdanovich said. “Rivers is a good coach, and with all those veterans, the Celtics can make the games ugly enough that they can hang around. They are not going to lay down. If the series goes deep, LeBron and Wade might wear down, you never know.”

The absence of forward Chris Bosh is a factor, too, reducing Miami’s star trio to the Big Two. Boston theoretically has a Big Four, led by Garnett in the middle and Rondo at the point, but Paul Pierce is moving at the speed of a glacier and Ray Allen’s bad ankle is forcing his
3-point shot to go flat.

All four must be at their absolute best for the Celtics to win the series. While the Heat will miss Bosh, Boston might miss former Findlay Prep guard Avery Bradley even more. Bradley could defend Wade in a way Allen is no longer capable.

“With the injury to Bradley, Boston has no chance of winning the series,” VegasSportsAuthority.com handicapper Jim Kruger said. “Allen is injured, and he is playing poorly offensively. Giving him the responsibility of covering a rejuvenated Wade should make Wade’s numbers very impressive.

“With Bradley starting, and a healthy Allen, the Celtics had a second team that could score. But now they are relying on Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling. Boston does not have the inside offensive game to attack Miami’s soft-in-the-paint defense. Garnett was moved to center, and it has worked well for him, but Garnett has become a midrange shooting big. This is to the Heat’s advantage, especially if they don’t get Bosh back from injury.”

The Celtics did win three of four meetings with Miami, but one Boston victory was a throwaway game at the end of the regular season. The Heat, almost left for dead when they fell behind 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the semifinal round, wanted this matchup, and James and Wade are showing an increased ability to respond to challenges.

“Miami struggled offensively in its first three games against Indiana but made a 180-degree change in the final three and had exceptional offensive ratings in all three games,” Kruger said.

In today’s Game 1, Miami is an 8-point favorite. The total of 180½ is a low number that reflects the grinding style of basketball that is played in the East.

San Antonio roared back in the fourth quarter to top Oklahoma City 101-98 on Sunday night in the Western Conference finals opener. The score stayed under the total of 204½, but the pace of action was more aesthetically pleasing.

The Spurs, 2-1 favorites going into the series, failed to cover the 5½-point line when the Thunder’s bearded gun, James Harden, buried a 3 at the buzzer. That bad beat dropped the record for favorites to 12-3 against the spread in the past 15 playoff games.

“They are betting the Spurs with both hands,” Bogdanovich said before the game tipped off. “We wrote a ton of business for this series.”

According to Kruger’s records, NBA postseason favorites are 53-13 straight up and 38-27-1 ATS, with the over-under ledger at 30-36.

Can the underdog Celtics pull off a stunner in the East?

“I’m sure Stern and the NBA don’t want it,” Bogdanovich said, “because they want Miami in the Finals.”

And what Stern wants, he usually gets. Look for James and Wade to beat Boston in six, but the Heat’s opponent from the West won’t resemble the Washington Generals.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM).

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