Lakers-Celtics XII: Breaking Down The NBA Finals
We've seen this one before, haven't we?
This will be a rematch of the 2008 Finals, where we saw the Celtics take home their record 17th championship in six games.
It's also a rematch of the Finals from 1959, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1984, 1985, and 1987.
In fact, the Lakers will be making their 31st Finals appearance, while the Celtics are returning for the 21st time.
Considering no other team has more than nine appearances (Philadelphia), and that there are seven franchises that haven't even sniffed the Finals, it's safe to say that this is one of the most storied rivalries in all of American sports.
The two teams have also combined for more than half of the 63 league titles ever won—the Celtics having won 17, and the Lakers with 15 banners to their credit.
So, you get it. This is really what we all wanted to see, right?
We should be getting ready for a couple of weeks of straight-up, hard-nosed, bang it out basketball.
There's no LeBron distraction, no Steve Nash's broken face distraction, no Manu Ginobili/Anderson Varejao flopping, and so on.
Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season at the perfect time, which should actually provide for quite the compelling series.
Considering how lackluster and unexciting these playoffs have been up to this point, Celtics-Lakers should give us exactly what we've been expecting all along.
So, what should we expect? Let's run through some things.
Typically I hate coaching comparisons, but since it was such a crucial point in the '08 Finals, I'll channel my inner Peter King and do it anyway.
Despite his 10 rings (nine at the time), Phil Jackson essentially had his backside handed to him on a platter by Doc Rivers in 2008. And this was before Rivers was as good a coach as he is today.
While Jackson is notorious for his tendency to try and let his team play through dry spells in order to work things out on the fly, Rivers has become confident enough in his instincts and has a good enough grasp on the game to make timely decisions.
So, while the Zen Master may be the owner of nine more rings than Doc Rivers, to say that the Lakers have an absolute advantage in that area would be inaccurate.
While the Celtics are likely the toughest team in the league in terms of physicality and on-court persona, this isn't necessarily something that is going to win you basketball games against a team as talented as the Lakers.
That being said, a finesse player like Pau Gasol has a tough time matching up against a frontline like that of the Celtics, featuring Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Rasheed Wallace.
While he still averaged about 10 rebounds per game, Gasol was held to just 14.7 points per game against Boston in the '08 Finals.
Obviously, the absence of Andrew Bynum due to injury during that series certainly didn't help Gasol's cause, as the Celtics were able to key in on him as the lone post threat from Los Angeles.
This means that the Lakers are going to need Bynum to re-emerge as an effective player down there, because he's been largely M.I.A. so far throughout the playoffs.
Last summer, each team made a move in an attempt to add toughness.
The Celtics brought in Rasheed Wallace, who was a disappointment throughout the regular season; the Lakers signed Ron Artest, who has been streaky offensively but has been a vital wing component for the Laker defense.
In this series, Wallace's main job will be to help defend Gasol and Bynum. He was frequently able to frustrate Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference Finals, and his presence will make the job for the Lakers' frontcourt all that much tougher.
Artest, who followed his game-winning tip in Game Five against Phoenix with a 25-point effort in the clinching Game Six, will likely be faced primarily with the task of slowing down Paul Pierce.
Pierce averaged about 21 points per game in the '08 Finals, and with injured No. 1 wing defender Trevor Ariza playing just 35 minutes total during that series, L.A. didn't really have an answer for him.
So, who's tougher?
The Celtics are tougher overall, but the gap isn't nearly as wide as it was two years ago.
Against the Suns, Kobe Bryant, for once, didn't receive enough praise for his performance.
For the series, Bryant shot a sizzling 52 percent from the floor while averaging 34 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists per game.
Remind you of someone?
Yes, those numbers are quite LeBronian.
Bryant's performance against Phoenix is causing many to revisit the ever-popular "Who's the best player in the NBA?" topic. And with good reason.
He almost single-handedly closed out the series with his array of dazzling moves and jumpers Sunday night, and the Celtics are going to have an extremely tough time dealing with him.
Gone from the Celtics' roster is James Posey, who gave Bryant fits during the '08 Finals, helping to hold him to just 40 percent shooting for the series.
Bryant will likely be opposed by a combination of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Tony Allen throughout this series.
As for point guard Derek Fisher, he found his shooting stroke in the final four games against Phoenix, when he hit on 53 percent of his attempts.
Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown will all see minutes running the show for Los Angeles, and they're faced with the incredibly tough task of trying to slow down All-Star Rajon Rondo.
Rondo has emerged as perhaps the best all-around point guard in the league, and is averaging 17 points, five rebounds, 10 assists, and two steals per game throughout the playoffs so far.
His quickness will prove to be very difficult for the Lakers' point guards to match; his court vision and passing skills are also top-notch.
There is a very good chance that the Lakers will try and throw Sasha Vujacic or even Kobe Bryant onto him at some point during the series in an attempt to prevent him from getting to the rim with ease.
Ray Allen has been essential to the Celtics' playoff surge, and containing him will also be a key part of L.A.'s attempt at defending their title.
His quick release and ability to shoot while coming off of the screen makes him extremely difficult to deal with.
While Bryant and Rondo are likely the two best players in this series, the title will be won with the frontcourt.
As we touched on previously, Gasol's past struggles against the tough interior defense of the Celtics will need to be overcome if the Lakers are going to win this series.
If he struggles again, the play of Lamar Odom, Bynum, and Artest becomes all that much more important.
Odom enjoyed a brilliant overall series in a supporting role against the Suns, averaging a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds per game.
His versatility and size at 6'10" makes him a tough match-up for anybody, and anything the Lakers can get from him offensively will be a bonus.
Artest can go from scoring 25 points one night to six points the next, and L.A. will need him to be steady. He has a tendency to take ill-advised shots, and will need to keep that habit under control.
The Celtics don't necessarily need much offensive output from Rasheed Wallace, and, like Odom for L.A., anything he gives the Celtics can be considered gravy.
A healthy Kevin Garnett has re-emerged as a solid weapon as well.
Essentially, the Lakers aren't going to win unless they get Pau Gasol some help.
He and Kobe can't do it all themselves, which makes guys like Odom, Artest, and Bynum all X-factors in their own way.
Despite his status as one of the greatest Celtics of all time, Paul Pierce often seems forgotten about. The '08 Finals MVP leaves it all out on the floor, and, despite an unorthodox offensive game, is still one of the most dangerous players in the league.
Los Angeles struggled to contain him two years ago, but Ron Artest seems like the perfect match-up to throw at him.
The Lakers bench primarily consists of Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton.
Boston has Nate Robinson, Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and small spurts of Michael Finley and Marquis Daniels.
Considering Odom typically plays more than Andrew Bynum and is always the option at the end of the game, it's tough to call him much of a reserve, but he is nonetheless.
Nate Robinson, who came out of nowhere to spark the Celtics' series-clinching victory in Game Six, is almost certainly going to be seeing more floor time in the Finals than he has throughout the rest of the playoffs.
He's an explosive scorer, and his energy is clearly contagious amongst his teammates.
Sasha Vujacic is the Lakers' resident irritant, as he showed with consistency towards the end of the Conference Finals, during which he repeatedly got under the skin of fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic.
In terms of consistency, the Celtics' bench likely has a slight edge.
So, to sum all of this up...
Keys for Los Angeles
1. Pau Gasol cannot be the only offensive post presence.
2. Rajon Rondo must be kept from getting into the lane with regularity.
3. Ron Artest and company need to slow down Paul Pierce.
4. At least one of the Odom/Bynum/Artest triumvirate needs to step up offensively.
5. Bryant can't shoot 40 percent again.
Keys for Boston
1. Frustrate Gasol with physicality.
2. Exploit the likely bench scoring advantage
3. Keep Ray Allen involved.
4. Use strength advantage to win the rebounding battle.
5. Try and find someone to at least limit Bryant.
If this series turns out to be anything other than great, I will be shocked.
This is a great match-up on paper, and it's almost certainly going to be much more competitive than its 2008 counterpart.
I've been horrible at picking winners throughout the playoffs, but here we go anyway...
Lakers in Seven.
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