I'm puzzled why some observers would choose to install the Los Angeles Lakers as favorites over the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals, especially considering the outcome of their previous meeting in 2008.
The Celtics humbled the Lakers in six games in 2008, and the 39-point defeat suffered by Los Angeles in the deciding game was the largest margin of defeat in the Lakers' long playoff history.
The Celtics' dominant run through this year's postseason would suggest Kevin Garnett's injury in 2009 was a legitimate excuse for Boston's failure to return to the NBA Finals, but that doesn't diminish the Lakers' championship that year.
Both the Celtics and Lakers still depend on the same primary cast of players from 2008, but there have been some significant additions and subtractions from each team.
Los Angeles looks to have center Andrew Bynum in the lineup, although there is no way to estimate how effective he will be due to a recent knee injury, and they added Ron Artest as a defensive presence in place of Trevor Ariza.
Boston has parted with James Posey and Leon Powe since 2008, and they have added the services of former NBA champion Rasheed Wallace to bolster their inside strength, and create mismatches on the perimeter.
The Lakers and the Celtics are a picture of contrasting styles, with the Lakers preferring to play more of a finesse game that emphasizes rhythm and precision, while the Celtics would prefer for the contest to be deliberate and physical.
But, the ability to force the tempo could become important for the Celtics, and if it does Rajon Rondo is the player who would instigate the switch, and the Lakers have no clear defensive answer for him.
Paul Pierce won the Finals MVP award of 2008, but it was Rondo's emergence in that series which propelled the Celtics to the championship, because of the way he impacted play on both ends of the court.
Rondo was already a decent defender in 2008, but in the Finals it seemed he grew into a great one, as did his confidence on offense when Rondo discovered none of the Lakers guards could stay in front of him.
The Lakers' decision to defend Rondo with Kobe Bryant came too late to affect the outcome in 2008, and as the Finals approach this season Rondo presents the same type of matchup problems for Los Angeles.
But, his role has evolved once again because Rondo's value as a player has increased as age has began to take its toll on Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Pierce, and so has his worth to the Celtics' chances.
In fact, Rondo's performance against Cleveland in the second round of the Playoffs should have served as a clear signal he had arrived as a legitimate NBA superstar.
Rondo averaged 20.7 points per game in that series and almost 12 assists, as he left little doubt as to who the series' most valuable player was, and his Celtics team left little doubt who was the better team.
There are those who would argue the merits of Garnett or Pierce as the Celtics' most important player, but Rondo is the player who makes Boston go, and his penetration skills and tough defense make him indispensable.
Even if the Lakers choose to defend Rondo with Bryant from the outset of the series, this would mean shifting Derek Fisher to Allen, and the Celtics could potentially benefit from the size disparity in that matchup.
Rondo can indirectly even cause the Lakers fits, and he stands out in a series that is virtually even position-by-position, with a slight edge going to the depth of the Celtics bench.
Pierce, Garnett, and Allen usually garner the majority of the recognition for the Celtics, and they remain primary players, but if Boston is able to claim their 18th NBA championship, it will be Rondo's play that leads them there.
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