Thursday, the NBA's two top franchises, the Lakers and Celtics, will square off for the 12th time in NBA Finals history and the second time in three years.
In predicting the series' outcome, some have turned to the Celtics' previous Finals victory over the Lakers others have turned to the Lakers status as reigning champions.
Some have cited the Lakers' home court advantage, others have cited the Celtics' impressive 9-2 Finals record with the Lakers.
Between teams and franchises as evenly matched as these, there are innumerable factors, but only a select few of these will ultimately sway the series in one direction or the other.
Within are the most critical factors the Lakers need to turn in their favor in order to defeat the Celtics, who remain the only team to beat them in a playoff series since the team welcomed Pau Gasol three seasons ago.
When Rondo poured in 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists against the Cavaliers about a month ago you knew the Celtics actually had a shot at sending LeBron home early—and eventually they did.
Rondo and the Celtics have never looked back since.
There’s no question that Rondo is infinitely more critical to the Celtics’ success than he was two years ago.
In fact, without a spectacular series performance from Rondo, the Celtics’ odds of winning are virtually nonexistent.
On the same note, the Lakers can’t afford to have Rondo dominating every aspect of the game.
Not only will Rondo’s assigned defender have to get back in transition after missed shots, he’ll need excellent help defense in half court settings when Rondo does eventually penetrate because Rondo is among the best in the league at finishing around the rim.
Also, the help defense will need to either swarm Rondo or block his field of sight while remaining prepared to rotate back onto their assigned man quickly.
The Lakers do not want to feel the full brunt Rondo's excellent distributing abilities—especially considering that Kevin Garnett is the most regular beneficiary.
On offense the Lakers will need to minimize, if not altogether discontinue their habitual occasional lazy/sloppy spurts or else Rondo, who led the league in steals during the regular season, will get into open floor, distribute and/or finish himself and things could get ugly for the Lakers quick.
Phil Jackson has shown great hesitancy in sending Kobe Bryant after speedy, athletic guards, electing to conserve Kobe Bryant's energy for offense,but Jackson will almost certainly have to anyway—at least in spurts.
When he eventually does, it should pay off.
Though the Celtics have scoring options in spades, they have no other legitimate play-making option.
If the Lakers are able to mitigate Rondo significantly, it will certainly push them towards their desired outcome.
Likelihood: 60/40 Advantage Lakers
As I said Kobe’s going to have to defend Rondo at some point, no other Laker can, but even then it isn't likely that Rondo won’t be completely muted.
Will Kobe be able to keep up with Rondo’s spry athleticism without it costing too much of his energy?
Its hard to imagine that the Celtics will have as much success guarding Kobe as they did last time when they held him to 25 points per game on meager 40 percent shooting, especially considering that James Posey isn’t even in the playoffs, but the Lakers will still going to need to alleviate Bryant’s workload as much as possible.
For that to happen, Bryant will need to be able to defer to more than just Pau Gasol. Lamar Odom has to get going and stay that way.
It's just that simple.
Besides, its not like there’s anyone else.
Andrew Bynum has been rendered ineffective by his knee injury majority of the post-season and its not likely that he’s in for a breakout series against the best defensive team he’s come across this season, maybe ever.
Most of Ron Artest’s role in this series will be defending Pierce, which we’ll get back to, but after him, there’s no one else.
The responsibility for serving as the jab to augment the Bryant/Gasol 1-2 punch falls solely on Odom’s shoulders and he’ll need to crash the boards and score the ball with far greater consistency than he had in the 2008 Finals, or even the playoffs’ previous round.
Game One of the Western Conference Finals saw Lamar Odom pour in a 19-point, 19-rebound effort that empowered the Lakers to a not-as-close-as-it-seemed win over the Phoenix Suns.
Since then, both Odom’s rebounding and scoring saw mountain highs and valley lows as Odom scored 17 points in Game Two and Five (Game Five also saw him pull in 13 rebounds, his second highest total of the series) but Odom scored only six points on 12 attempts in game six and he pulled in only six rebounds in game three.
The Lakers will need far more consistency from him to defeat the Celtics.
The Celtics are by far the most menacing, imposing, physical team they’ve faced since, well, last time and if other teams have realized how heavily the Lakers rely on Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the fourth quarter and adjusted their defensive scheme, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize what the Celtics are going to do.
If Odom can provide solid defense on Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace score in the low teens and consistently rack up double digit rebounds, he’ll have done everything the Lakers can ask.
Likelihood: 60/40 Advantage Lakers
Lamar Odom probably won’t be the wrecking ball 6th man in every game this series, every player has weaknesses—Odom’s just happens to be consistency.
Still, if he can give the Lakers his best in three or more games out of the series, that could easily translate into three or more wins.
Last time around, Kevin Garnett had recently captured a Defensive Player of the Year award and was the driving force behind a championship-starved group of veterans.
This year Garnett’s contributions have come as a surprise.
He spent much of the year either sidelined or weakened and his 14 points per game and 7 rebound averages during the regular season were both the lowest of his career, excluding his rookie season.
Though Garnett’s averages haven’t spiked in the playoffs, its easy to see that he’s regained more of a bounce in his step and his famously animated on court swagger.
The problem is he’s still not 2008 Kevin Garnett.
Ironically Pau Gasol isn’t 2008 Pau Gasol either, he’s better. Gasol today is infinitely more physical, takes more of his shots in the paint and is a far greater rebounder than he was last time.
Gasol not only averages two more rebounds per game than he did in 2008 and boasts a higher scoring average, improving from 16.9 ppg to 20, he even scores on a higher percentage (3 percent higher than his 53 percent field goal conversion in the 2008 playoffs.)
The kicker? Even in being outplayed in the 2008 Finals, Gasol still converted 10 percent more of his shots than Garnett did and ultimately that means that the Lakers simply need to provide him with more touches.
Look for the Lakers to get Gasol going early to restore his rhythm after his poor showing in Game 6 of the West’s Finals.
If the Lakers succeed in getting back Gasol’s groove early it should establish a rhythm that Garnett will be unable to squash as the series wages on.
There’s no denying that Gasol plays a greater role in his team’s success than Garnett, but that realization is a double-edged sword. While it is likely that Gasol wins the rematch matchup, he has to.
If Garnett somehow does outplay Gasol, the Lakers are without hope.
Gasol will need to hit—sometimes even surpass—the 20-point mark with regularity, crash the boards with the same vigor he’s provided all season long and bother Garnett’s jumpshot with his length.
Likelihood: 70/30 Advantage Lakers
Gasol will likely win this match-up—but by how much?
Again, Gasol has to win this matchup for the Lakers to have a real shot, but if he is able to do so by a sizable margin it could require the attention of more of the Celtics' front court and free things up inside for the rest of the Laker offense, particularly with Gasol's unique passing skills.
Everyone talks about the consistently ineffective offense of the Laker bench, but in actuality their biggest concern should be on the opposite end of the floor.
The Laker bench is comprised of athletic youth but is devoid of both consistent jumpshooters and effective half court plays, but in similar fashion to the Phoenix Suns, the Laker bench is at their best when they are able to defend effectively and get out on the break.
The problem is that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
The bench the Lakers’ second unit will face now is a clear cut above any they’ve faced so far, sporting talents like Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson and Glen Davis.
That said, those players are far from unstoppable.
The only real shot the Laker bench has at matching that of the Celtics is if they contest shots, get shooters Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic open corner shots from beyond the arc and find Shannon Brown cutting in the middle for those posterizing dunks of his.
Brown couldn’t stop Robinson from winning the 2010 Dunk Contest, but the contest of finding the rim the most in transition could be a real determining factor in the series outcome.
The Lakers bench will certainly need as many intangibles in their favor as they can get if they are to match a Celtic bench that has consistently given their starters solid boosts during their conquest of the Eastern Conference.
Likelihood: 60/40 Advantage Celtics
There’s no way the Lakers can claim the advantage here. Their bench has consistently been the team’s Achilles heel since the start of the season.
They were consistently rendered ineffective against Oklahoma City, consistently blew big leads against Utah, and were very spotty against the Suns.
Meanwhile the Celtics have received big lifts from Rasheed Wallace’s aggressive defense against Dwight Howard, occasional scoring lifts from the offense of Nate Robinson and have always been able to rely on Tony Allen for hustle plays.
The bottom line here is that the Celtics need the bench play to work in their favor—and by a sizable margin.
Though Derek Fisher does represent a defensive liability, the Lakers have favorable matchups at virtually every other position, the sole exception being small forward, though Ron Artest is more than capable of stifling Pierce.
With the Lakers sporting numerous advantages in the starting lineup battle and Kobe Bryant playing the best basketball of his life, the Celtics cannot afford to give the Lakers any additional ground.
The Lakers chose Ron Artest over Trevor Ariza specifically for challenges like these.
The thinner, lankier Ariza had significant problems in going defending the bulkier, equally athletic forwards like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
So far Artest has stepped into that role quite nicely and has been proving that the Lakers made the right decision.
His defense against Kevin Durant in the first round was stellar and his bulky, physical presence has enabled him to come up with key rebounds and put backs, none more important than the winning shot of Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals.
Irony and fate has dictated that the last matchup in Artest’s way is the same player who mirrors his physique the most, Paul Pierce. In fact, Artest and Pierce have a history of bad blood that can be traced back as 2003.
Pierce won those matchups with regularity, but he’s slowed quite a bit since those days.
Artest will need to stay in front of him and scare him away from taking three point shots because once Paul Pierce gets into a rhythm, things have a way of avalanching and the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.
Likelihood: 55/45 Advantage Lakers
My guess is that Ron Artest will prove to be a slightly bigger problem for Paul Pierce than Vladimir Radmanovic was in 2008—especially considering that Pierce isn’t nearly the consistent scoring force he was back then.
While his averages may look similar, he received a big boost from the Orlando Magic’s defensive lapse.
In the prior series, LeBron James had Paul Pierce hooked on a leash. Pierce was only allowed to score 20 points or more in that series one time and spent strong the majority shooting under 40 percent from the floor.
He never shot 50 percent or higher.
Artest won’t likely replicate LeBron’s lockdown in identical fashion, but the mere fact that any one was able to shows that Pierce isn’t the same scorer he was a few years ago.
Besides, Paul Pierce doesn’t have anything in his repertoire that Kevin Durant doesn’t.
Andrew Bynum’s job will be simple.
Bynum averaged 10 rebounds and 16.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting against the Celtics this year—but that was when he was healthy.
He'll continue to play fewer minutes and will need to just stay out of foul trouble and provide the Lakers with as much rebounding and sheer interior presence as possible.
Anything else he’s able to provide will be gravy.
Likelihood: 90/10 Advantage Lakers
The Lakers have already shown that they don't need monster games from Bynum to win. They do need him to be physical, which he inherently is, and for him to be a shot altering presence in the paint without drawing too many fouls.
One can be as confident that the Lakers medical staff will have Bynum's body ready as they can confident be that Phil Jackson will have Bynum's mind ready.
Besides, Bynum is playing for his livelihood. Chris Bosh wasn't at Staples Center earlier in the playoffs because he couldn't get a good reception on his television set.
If Bynum isn't able to perform up to par in the Finals and the Lakers lose, the 2010 Finals could well be his last series. How's that for motivation?
Last, but far from least, is Kobe Bryant and he has a job to do.
Nobody needs to remind him of what happened in 2008.
Nobody needs to remind him that with another championship he’d not only be transcending the top NBA careers of the present, but joining the most elite ranks in the game's history featuring Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and—dare I say it—Michael Jordan.
Kobe Bryant’s job during this series, will be the same as it is in every other, simply be Kobe Bryant.
His job description includes hitting those his impossible-to-make-if-you’re-not-Kobe shots, defending with vigor and intensity and stopping the bleeding when the Celtics make their eventual runs.
Likelihood: 100/0 Advantage Lakers
On June 17, 2008 the Boston Celtics sealed their fate.
(Wow, that sounded kinda catchy.)
Anyway, it's true.
Its not as if Kobe Bryant needs any additional to perform, particularly in a Finals series, but in running up the score in Game Six, the Celtics provided the Kobe Bryant and the Lakers with all the motivation they’ll ever need to win this series or the potential series in the years come.
When you consider that all but three of members of the current Laker team was there to personally witness that day (Ron Artest wasn’t with the team but in attendance), you know this is an opportunity that the entire Lakers have been waiting for to get for some time.
The Lakers denied that they enjoyed the 2009 Championship less because of Boston’s absence—and though I’m sure they enjoyed the title
tremendously, nothing is sweeter than the taste of revenge.
That motivation will prove to be critical as Kobe leads his Lakers to take this series—and their second consecutive NBA title—in six games.