NBA Finals: Celtics-Lakers Preview

It is another NBA Finals series in June.  So we should not be too surprised to see that the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics will, yet again, be facing-off for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  These are the last two NBA Champions; the Lakers will be seeking their 16th Championship, while Celtics look to hang their 18th banner over the Boston Garden.  These two teams have faced off for decades.  First, it was Chamberlain and West taking on the Celtics of Cousy and Russell.  Then, in the 1980’s, we saw a fierce rivalry between the teams led by the icons of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  Two years ago, in 2008, we saw a new generation Lakers’-Celtics’ Finals – led by the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett.  The Big 3 of Boston proved to be too much for Kobe and company.  Garnett and Pierce were still explosive scorers.  They had also had depth.  Their bench featured players like James Posey, Leon Powe, Sam Cassell, Glen Davis, and Tony Allen.  At this time, The Lakers still had not gotten new-arrival Trevor Ariza developed into the system.  Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, and Vladimir Radmanovic received too much playing-time for the Lakers to be effective on either end against the Celtics’ core group.  Doc Rivers’ group ended up celebrating their 17th title on the floor of the Garden.  The Lakers walked off the floor after undergoing a demoralizing 39-point defeat.

But now it’s the year 2010 and this is why it is going to be different:

  1. Ron Artest – He adds toughness and versatility to L.A. that they lacked two seasons ago.  Now, L.A. has a second perimeter defender to throw out there next to Kobe Bryant.  It is undeniably a step up from everything that Vujacic, Radmanovic, and Luke Walton brought to the table in ’08 against Boston.
  2. Andrew Bynum – the young Center typically breaks down this late into the season.  He was un-able to play in the 2008 Finals, but his sore knee will be drained and he will be there for at least some minutes.  And he will match-up well against Boston’s Kendrick Perkins, who also is suffering through a knee injury.  In ’08, Perkins abused Pau Gasol with his size and brute force on the low-block. 
  3. The Big Three None of these men (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen) are the same players that they were when they won the NBA Championship.  Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce don’t see many 26-point games anymore – like they did in the clinching Game 6 victory two years ago.  Ray Allen can still put on a fire works shooting display.  But as his speed off ball-screens has decreased, his shooting-percentage has as well.
  4. Depth – It was never only about “the Big Three.”  The Celtics featured the best starting 5 in basketball, at one point, and a bench that proved to be very underrated.  But they don’t have (that irritating guy) James Posey to bother Kobe Bryant anymore.  Nor do they have Leon Powe or Sam Cassell.  However, Boston made a nice gain by adding veteran Rasheed Wallace in the summer.  He has made clutch shots and defended the paint well for his entire career – he stretches the floor for Boston when he plays.  Boston still has Tony Allen and Glen Davis off-the-bench too.  L.A.’s bench still doesn’t look as good as Boston’s, although now Odom has settled nicely into a role with the second unit.  This provides the Lakers with a spark that they did not have before in the 2008 Finals.  And Shannon Brown is a guard that has size and athleticism – something Kobe Bryant definitely could have used back in time.
  5. Rebounding – The C’s now rank last (or near the bottom of the league) in rebounding categories across the board.  The Lakers will have an easy time getting second-chance looks now that they have the bigger bodies of Bynum and Artest as members of their front-line.  Gasol, Odom, and Bynum are taller and have much longer wing-spans (as a whole) than Perkins, Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis.  Rajon Rondo is the best rebounding point guard in the league because of his scrappy play, but Derek Fisher makes it a point to never miss a boxing-out assignment. 

Though, there are some advantages that favor the Celtics since their 2008 bout with Los Angeles:

  1. Rondo and Perkins – Both of these players have improved dramatically.  Rondo has developed and turned the “Big 3” into the “Big 4.”  He is arguably their team MVP.  Perkins played under 20 minutes per game in the 2008 Finals and is now a more central weapon for the Boston attack.
  2. Rasheed Wallace – Again – this guy is a proven championship magnet.  He makes plays on both ends when it matters.
  3. The Metal Edge – These group of guys beat Kobe and the Lakers before.  They are extremely mentally tough (not so unlike Phil Jackson’s teams), but are also bullies.  They have all been together as a unit for a long time and have developed team chemistry that is un-matched.
  4. Defense – To be fair to the Lakers, Jackson has overseen a vastly improved defensive team this year than from seasons prior.  But the C’s possess Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and an extremely solid cast of dedicated defenders.  Doc Rivers demands defense and it was his schemes on Kobe Bryant that thwarted L.A.’s chance to make 2010 a three-peat attempt.

Rajon Rondo will likely be guarded by Derek Fisher for most of this up-coming series.  Kobe Bryant could do it, but it would be energy-consuming to try to stay in front of Rondo all night long when he is also expected to put up 25-30 points.  Bryant will end up chasing Ray Allen off ball-screens, and will seek to contain him as much as possible (Fisher isn’t best suited to do that).  Boston is likely to throw a combination of guys at Kobe, but look for Tony Allen to defend him whenever he’s in the game.  Rondo is one of the best help-defenders in the NBA.  But if he roams at the wrong times, Derek Fisher will make him pay with his deadly three-point shooting in the clutch. 

Paul Pierce and Ron Artest is the key match-up of this series.  If one of these guys truly gets the best of the other, it could likely decide the winner of this series.  Both are tough, rugged defenders and rebounders.  They have very similar styles at the Small Forward position – but Paul Pierce is still Paul Pierce.  L.A.’s addition of Ron Artest means that Ray Allen and Paul Pierce won’t get nearly as many open shots as they did in 2008. 

Talk about the now deemed “Big Four” until your hearts’ content, but Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol may be the two best players in this NBA Finals.  The Lakers also have 5 of the best 9 players in this series.  Kevin Garnett may not be able to outrebound L.A.’s giants all by himself anymore, but he certainly has to make up for it by being assertive on offense by getting his share of shots and points. 

This should be a fun, exciting series to watch.  It would be easy to pick the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 or 7 games, now that they hold the home-court advantage in this 2-3-2 format.  But the Boston Celtics are a proven road team.  They probably need to (at least) split a pair in L.A. and win 2 of 3 in Boston to be in the driver’s seat in their quest for the Championship.

Boston vs. Los Angeles re-news their rivalry at 9/8 CT on ABC – in what should be the most evenly-matched series of these NBA Playoffs.

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