Although the NBA’s conference finals are not over, many fans, including commissioner David Stern, are dreaming of a Lakers versus Celtics finale. Inevitably, analysts will look to the 2007-2008 championship to compare these hated rivals and see who has the edge. But by watching either of these teams this season, it’s obvious this potential war would be a completely different matchup than when the Celtics brought their 17th title to Boston.
Let’s start in the frontcourt. In 2008, the Celtics ran with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, who owned Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol in nearly every facet of the game. The green triumvirate outmuscled, outrebounded and outhustled the three bigs in yellow and gold, who were all playing out of position. Radmanovic played defense like a matador, Odom’s laziness showed against a hungry Garnett and Gasol had not been in the triangle long enough and had yet to deal with the strength of someone like Perkins in the playoffs. And on offense, the C’s forwards outscored Vlad-Rad and Odom in almost every game, strictly by playing with a higher level of physicality.
But that’s all about to change. The Lakers knew they needed strength, so they signed one of the top physical defenders in the NBA in Ron Artest. Plus, they get to move Gasol back to his natural power forward slot and have Andrew Bynum, who played solid against Dwight Howard in the 2009 finals, deal with Perkins’ muscle. Garnett’s age has caught up with him a little bit, making him more of a jump shooter, so Gasol can spend more of his energy on offense, where he has been the most efficient offensive players in this year’s playoffs. While many people argue that Artest has struggled with top small forwards (i.e. Kevin Durant), note that one of the biggest differences between Durant and Pierce is their speed. Pierce is much slower, and Artest has the upper body strength to get him off his spots, something Radmanovic insisted upon giving to Pierce. And if Bynum can play solid despite the tear in his meniscus, he can neutralize Perkins’ rebounding effectively, something Gasol wasn’t strong enough to do in 2008.
Now to the backcourt, which has become extremely interesting in these playoffs, even it’s the same matchups. Any Larry, Curly or Moe can tell that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the series, but his game has evolved tremendously since 2008. He knows the Lakers’ greatest advantage is down low with the length of Gasol, Odom and Bynum and has become more of a facilitator in these playoffs, including setting his career high in assists in Game 2 versus the Suns. Unlike Lebron, the black mamba has teammates who actually score when he gets them the ball, so the Celtics can’t easily double him. And it doesn’t matter what Tony Allen, Ray Allen or any other Allen (I hear Tim is available after Toy Story 3) tries, Bryant cannot be stopped one-on-one.
But the real surprise has been the play of Rajon “Little O” Rondo. He may be a sadist, what with all the humiliation Mo Williams and Jameer Nelson have suffered, but he is the best player on the floor in green almost every night. Because of that, Kobe will be unable to drift away from him like he did so often to play centerfield in 2008. While Rondo still can’t hit a jump shot, any kind of window is enough for him to hit his always-moving running mate, Ray Allen, who is a part of the most important matchup on the floor against Derek Fisher.
Allen and Fish may both be old, but a lot of the Celtics’ offense is based on Allen coming off three picks for an open shot, and Fisher is one of the best in the NBA at drawing offensive fouls running through screens. If Allen gets too open, his jumper is the third guarantee in life after death and taxes, but if Fisher can chase him around and stay in his way, that’s another offensive weapon neutralized. And with more even matchups, the more the Lakers have the advantage with KB24.
Finally, to the bench, which is radically different on both sides. The Lakers kept Jordan Farmar, but replaced Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and Luke Walton with Shannon Brown and Odom. Some might say replacing three players with two leaves a big hole, but when three play as good as zero (see Vujacic getting abused by Ray Allen in all six games), it’s a massive upgrade. On the other pine, Rasheed Wallace joins Tony Allen and Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who played with Sam “Gollum” Cassell and Leon Powe two years ago. The C’s completely dominated the Lake Show’s bench in 2008, but with Odom moving out of the starting five, there isn’t a Celtic who can stop him, if he focuses, which is a huge if. Brown provides athleticism that Walton and Vujacic couldn’t, which will help against Rondo’s speed and Allen’s movement. But if Rasheed Wallace plays like he has in the Eastern Semis and Finals, Odom will have his hands full on defense, as he looks like he is playing with Detroit in ’04. The bench play will be critical, because both teams are known for their cold streaks once getting big leads, and without solid play from reserves, those leads can evaporate quickly.=
Yes, this preview is very early and disregards the fact the Lakers and Celtics have to finish off the Suns and Magic, respectively. But since the consensus is that Yellow and Green will hit the court on June 3 in Los Angeles, the comparisons will be all over ESPN and this piece will beat Jalen Rose, Jamal Mashburn and Avery Johnson to the punch. With all the changes over the last two years, don’t be surprised if the 2009-2010 NBA Finals is entirely new beast. Sorry Phoenix and Orlando, everyone’s waiting for these two bitter enemies to battle, so please step aside.