They've taken off the gloves in the East

The dream lives . . . barely.

The Lakers are two-thirds of the way to the Finals. The Celtics will be, too, assuming they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers today in Boston, in what promises to be another low-scoring East (gag me) thriller.

Of course, the next round may be even more excruciating for the Celtics -- assuming they see it -- with Detroit's veterans off for a week while Boston's big guys who seem to be aging by the moment finish their second seven-game series.

Anyone up for a Lakers-Pistons rematch?

Unfortunately for the Dream Scenario of Boston vs. the Lakers, this isn't the Celtics team that dominated the regular season.

Those Celtics won 66 games -- seven more than anyone else -- ranked No. 11 in offense, had the best road record (31-10) and went an amazing 42-2 against losing teams.

These Celtics are No. 12 in scoring among the 16 playoff teams, 0-6 on the road and had to go seven games to get out of the first round against the 37-win Hawks.

What happened?

Remember the Three Amigos or whatever Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen called themselves?

They're more like the Big Three Minus Two with Pierce at 16 points and 36% in this series and Allen at 10 and 35% while going four for 22 from three-point range.

Worse, the Celtics can't even get shots for Pierce and Allen. Pierce is getting 14 a game in this series, which he often used to have by halftime.

Allen is getting nine a game, fewer even than Rajon Rondo.

As expected, as soon as the playoffs started, teams walked away from Rondo, the 22-year-old point guard, daring him to shoot and using his defender to jam the middle.

Meanwhile, the Celtics aren't guarding Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao as both teams jam the other's offense.

The result is as B-O-R-I-N-G as watching mastodons butt heads.

In six games, the Celtics and Cavaliers have reached 90 points only twice (Cleveland in Game 3, Boston in Game 5) and have been below 80 six times.

This is the new, improved East?

Well, yes. It used to be even worse.

Unfortunately for competitive balance, the best East teams are not only up there in age, but they play slow, which looks more and more like yesterday's basketball.

Look at the rising young powers in the West: Lakers, New Orleans and Utah.

All are young, athletic and score a lot of points (Nos. 4, 5, and 9 in offense, respectively).

The best East teams, the Celtics and Pistons, are in their San Antonio not-as-spry-as-we-were phase.

What the East does have is legalized hooliganism with both Cleveland opponents, Washington and Boston, targeting LeBron James like bounty hunters.

The Wizards took the extra step of insulting him, too, with DeShawn Stevenson calling him "overrated," to which James replied, basically, who is DeShawn Stevenson?

When James portrayed it as a feud between a superstar like his friend, Jay-Z, and a lesser act like Soulja, it became the Series of the Rappers.

As detailed breathlessly in a Washington Post blog, Jay-Z dissed Stevenson in a rap played at a D.C. club. Stevenson announced a boycott of the club for disloyalty. Soulja came to a game. An aspiring rapper named Pro'Verb got air play in the D.C. area with a reply to Jay-Z that sneered at James, asking if James' mother or Jay-Z's wife, Beyonce, would attack Stevenson next.

Then there was the famous pizza promotion when Washington-area Papa John's gave out T-shirts with James' number 23 and the word "Crybaby," which Brendan Haywood called James . . . forgetting the chain has stores in Cleveland too.

With Cavaliers fans furious, Papa John's apologized with a 23-cent pizza promotion that drew lines around the block and some disorderly behavior.

Putting things in perspective, noted:

"There was one serious casualty, as Papa John's mascot Mr. Slice was found in a Toledo alley early this morning severely beaten and stripped of his toppings."

Meanwhile, the Wizards continued their assault on James, or as Coach Eddie Jordan put it, "We're not allowing him to drive and then we're going to foul him."

Of course, the real question, besides, "Whatever happened to playing basketball?" is "Why would anyone think they could intimidate someone who goes 6 feet 7, 260 pounds?"

That overrated crybaby, James, averaged 30 points, shot 48% and the Wizards fell in six.

The Celtics then took over like the second wrestler in a tag team, with the whole team eyeing James.

The highlight was Game 4 when Pierce twirled James into the stands behind the baseline where James' mom, Gloria, sprang up to deal with her son's assailant, whereupon James told her to "sit your . . . down."

Like a good son, James later apologized for using bad language in front of his mother.

Of course, if Detroit looks like the East's best, the legends in their own minds weren't looking so hot in the first round, themselves, trailing Philadelphia, 2-1, in the series and by 10 points at halftime of Game 4 before finally rallying.

The Pistons then dispatched Orlando in five games, cutting down supposed wunderkind Dwight Howard from 23 points and 18 rebounds in the first round to 15-13.

At this point -- four years into his pro career -- Howard, a scary athlete and a relentless worker, might want to look into learning some moves.

As you can see, the East is still entertaining, except when it comes to basketball.


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