Lakers, Celtics put on playoff faces

You know what's taken a worse beating in the playoffs than the Phoenix Suns? You know what's been slapped around more than the Orlando Magic?

Hint: It runs from Halloween to Tax Day and measures 82 games.

Right, it's the NBA's regular season. Often called interminable, it might as well be known as irrelevant, considering what we've seen this playoff season.

Just look at how the Boston Celtics have risen from the ashes of their 50-32 regular season, when they were only a .500 team over the final 54 games.

Then consider the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team with the league's best record for the last two seasons is sitting at home scared to death of LeBron James leaving in six weeks via free agency.

So, as we've seen, what a team does in the regular season sometimes has little bearing on what it does in the playoffs. Especially if it's got a title or two under its belt.

Despite their late-season struggles and sometimes inconsistent play while nailing down the No. 1 seed in the West, the Lakers have proven that championship teams understand what to do when the bright lights of the postseason come on.

Out in L.A., does anyone even remember that the Lakers lost seven of their last 11 games? Judging from the "We Want Boston!'' chant heard in Staples Center as they blistered the Suns in the first two games of the West finals, the answer's a resounding 'no.'

No, this isn't the same Laker squad that had the normal ups and downs of a championship team counting down the long days of the regular season until it could start the real season.

"What can you say? We can't slow them down," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after his team was outclassed for the second straight game. "Every time you make an adjustment to slow them down, they go somewhere else. There's a good reason that they're the world champs.''

Meanwhile, we're not going to get our first Kobe-LeBron Finals because the Cavs have shown they're a powerhouse of the regular-season variety only. They locked up the No. 1 overall seed again by winning 61 games, only to see it all go up in smoke with their stunning second-round collapse against the Celtics. The fact that the Cavs have won 127 games the last two seasons isn't going to save Mike Brown from getting fired.

After losing to Orlando in the East finals last spring, they regressed this spring, going down without a fight in their final three games versus Boston and again showing that championship experience often means more than regular-season success. The Cavs are just the latest example. For all of Phoenix's success during the Mike D'Antoni Era, including a No. 1 overall seed in 2005 and another 60-plus win season in 2007, the Suns never made it to the Finals.

"The regular-season record and having the best regular-season record two years in a row . . . sure it's important,'' said Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, after his team's exit. "But it doesn't guarantee success in any way.''

And it doesn't guarantee failure in the playoffs, either.

The Celtics aren't the first veteran championship team to mail in the regular season. After winning the title in 1994, the Rockets won only 47 games the next season. But when the calendar hit May, Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. regrouped and won their second straight trophy, posting a better playoff record than the previous season.

The Celtics raced out to a 23-5 start, then started to look their ages.

In a word, old.

While Doc Rivers always believed he had a title contender - "from the first day of training camp,'' he said - to most observers the Celtics' best days were behind them. Two years behind them, when the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen first joined forces and led Boston to its first title in 21 years.

Between injuries, Garnett's slow recovery from knee surgery and players putting personal agendas ahead of team goals, it looked as if the Celtics had hit the Green Monster. Heading into the playoffs, they were widely viewed as the East's fourth-best team after going 0-3 vs. Atlanta and suffering embarrassing late-season home defeats to the lowly Nets and Wizards.

"The things that were said about us were probably deserving,'' Pierce said. "We didn't play well. We didn't play consistent. So, a lot of flak we got we probably deserved.''

But now, with five straight wins, including four in a row on the road, they're only two wins from a rematch with the Lakers, unlikely as that seemed only a month ago.

"We hit our stride at the right time," Garnett said. "We're a veteran team, and we understand when it's time to lock in as a group. I think we did just that. I think, if anything, the experience has totally taken over versus anything else.''

And it only took 82 games to get there.

Read more of Mitch Lawrence's columns at the New York Daily News .