When you look at the history of the NBA and the teams that have raised the Larry O'Brien (and Walter A. Brown) trophy you tend to find a common trend. The Boston Celtics and L.A./Minneapolis Lakers have won 32 of the 63 possible championships in the history of the NBA. The players and game evolves over time but nothing in the world of sports compares to this rivalry.
If you don't believe me, think about this. When the NBA made their 50 greatest players list, 22 of them played for either the Celtics of Lakers. Not to mention that when the NBA ranked their best teams of all time the winner was the 1965 Boston Celtics, and who did they best in the Finals...the L.A. Lakers.
As much as I like the Phoenix Suns and as a homer I had a soft spot in my heart for Jameer Nelson, I think the NBA has the greatest finals possible this year as the leagues biggest rivalry will go down with the Lakers and Celtics.
This year's edition hopes to live up to the legacy. It's the typical story, L.A. with its two superstars (Bryant & Gasol) versus the never say die Boston veterans (Garnett, Pierce, Allen). This is the 12th time these teams will face each other in the Finals, with Boston having a 9-2 edge (40-27) overall. These two teams have accounted for the last two NBA titles (Lakers '09, Celtics '08). Now each of these teams have changed immensely since each of the last titles and that's what makes this year's edition one of the hardest to pick EVER.
This series is really tough to call because both teams are very evenly matched. As far as the Celtics go they are returning the exact starting lineup they had when they won the title in 2008. As for the Lakers, this team is redesigned and drastically different from the team that took the title last year. So with that being said, let's go position by position and see how this year's Finals matches up.
Every playoff series the Lakers enter into, the biggest question mark they face is how Derek Fisher will match-up against the opposing point guard and this series is much the same. Rajon Rondo is the most improved player in basketball and has become the most balanced talent the Celtics have had in the last five years. The biggest task this series is figuring out how Derek Fisher will contain Rondo and his complete game.
Don't get me wrong, Derek Fisher is a talented point guard but with the way the Lakers set up, Fisher is not a key to his team's success. Derek Fisher has a very simple job in the Lakers' system: Bring the ball to midcourt, pass it to Kobe, then sit on the wing and hope for a three attempt. This is not a diss at Derek Fisher but with the way Kobe controls a tempo and the triangle offense Fisher is a second thought.
In the Celtics' system there is no player more important then Rondo. He controls the tempo, is the first option for them to score (he is one of the best at charging into the lane), and dictates the way the opposing defense mans up against the C's. With this being said and the way Fisher has played against similar point guards in the playoffs (he got destroyed by Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook) I think Rondo is going to have a field day and I expect to see Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic playing a lot of point in this series.
Ray Allen is one of my favorite players of all time but we all know that his game has become spotty, and if he doesn't get hot early or go on a scoring streak he becomes increasingly less effective as a series goes on. The contrast is Kobe Bryant as one of the best players in basketball and is the most important person in a Lakers uniform for head coach Phil Jackson. Kobe is the ultimate ball control shooting guard and runs the complicated triangle offense with ease.
Kobe knows the importance of this series and what this rivalry means. I am not saying the Ray Allen is a scrub, because that could not be further from the truth. Kobe is just too good and will have a strong series. With that being said I think if Allen can get a feel early he can drop huge numbers. In the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals Ray dropped 22 points, then nine, and finally 20.
Both of these guys are up there as some of the best shooting guards in the game and this is the one-on-one match-up that makes Lakers v. Celtics what it is. As much as I love Ray Allen there is no player more important and effective for their team then Kobe Bryant.
Once again this is going to be an interesting match-up. Paul Pierce is Mr. Celtic and every time people count him out he proves them wrong. On the other side the free agent signing of Ron Artest this last summer was a huge pickup for a Lakers team that would have been a struggling franchise if they didn't fill the gap of Trever Ariza, whom they lost to free agency. Artest is one of the most dominant defensive small forwards in the league, but his character issues cause some issues when it comes to a balanced team effort.
Pierce is the better shooter and off the dribble has the handling skills of a guard. So from the offensive side I think Pierce has the edge. As for the defensive end it's a hands down favorite for Artest. He is a monster on the boards and can be immensely physical in the paint. The only thing that does worry me is that Artest can't play all 48 minutes and the Lakers don't have a huge bench of defensive players to play in the low post.
This is the toughest match-up to call but when it comes down to head-to-head the edge has to go to Pierce. He is the master of the intangible and if the Celtics have a strong effort from the PF's Pierce will have an successful series.
This match-up is the biggest change since these teams faced each other in 2008. Kevin Garnett was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and was in the pinnacle of he reinvention in Boston. He was playing way beyond his years and with the generation of the Big Three he thrived. Oh how time has changed in two short years. Garnett has faced a huge bout with the injury bug and his ineffectiveness is obvious at times.
On the other side I don't think there has been a more improved talent in the NBA in the last few years then that of Pau Gasol. Formally a solid starter, the seven foot Spaniard has catapulted himself to a level many thought he would never achieve. Gasol has learned to control his size and presence and with the way the Lakers run the triangle offense, Gasol has been able to tinker with his skills to make him one of the most productive power forwards in the NBA.
I still think this is going to be a huge task because even thought Gasol has stepped up his game, Kevin Garnett seems to always have those games that you sit back and say "He's still got it." With desperation in the mind of Garnett and the rest of the Big Three I think he will put it all on the line in this series and I would not be surprised if he effects the outcome of a few games.
Andrew Bynum is still a talented center but his role has diminished since 2008 and even 2009 with the growth and improvement of Lamar Odom. We have even heard reports this week that Bynum has been consulting with team doctors and had fluid drained from his knee earlier this week which does not bode well for the Lakers. Bynum has suffered from the injury bug this season and with the type of low post game the Celtics present Bynum may have a difficult series.
When it comes to the center position and the Celtics I do not think it's appropriate to just discuss Kendrick Perkins. Sure Perk is the starter, but more then anything he shares time with Glen "Big Baby" Davis at the 5 so I think both should be taken into consideration. Both men have had a productive season and have learned how to become role players. Yes they both have a tendency to get into foul trouble and this is going to be something I am sure Phil Jackson is counting on and will be a big part of his defensive strategy.
Head to head the match-up is pretty solid but I still don't like what I hear coming out of L.A. and their injury situation. If Andrew Bynum was 100 percent I would have to call this a push, but with the tandem of Perkins and Davis, the Celtics have the clear advantage.
As much as I would like to say the bench is a point of debate in this series, it is a hands down win for the Celtics. The Lakers are just too thin when it comes to bench players and I have already talked about how Lamar Odom is pretty much their main source of production off the bench. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar will get playing time but both of them are point guards and will only be able to do so much in this series.
On the other side of the coin the Celtics have one of the deepest and strongest benches in the league and this was a huge part of the reason that the Celtics are where they are now. In the last few weeks of the season head coach Doc Rivers took time resting each Allen, Pierce, and Garnett and managed quite well with his deep pool of talent, specifically that of Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and the immensely productive Tony Allen.
Most of the guys on the Celtics bench could be starters anywhere else but realize that playing is Boston gives them one of the best chances to win a championship. I think if there is a major injury the Celtics would be able to manage better then the Lakers and that is why I have to give the bench to the C's.
When you think of the Lakers v. Celtics rivalry you think of one name...and no I am not talking about Larry, Magic, or Bill Russell. I am thinking of Red Auerbach. He was the winningest coach in the NBA and created one of the biggest dynasties in the history of this sport. Too bad Red has been retired for many years and the man that is creeping up on his legacy is still in the game...and coaching the Lakers.
Phil Jackson has won more titles then any other coach in NBA history and has this uncanny ability to make a team win a title. He is the ultimate wildcard and would nullify everything I have written so far just because of his ability as a floor general. His players trust him and they want to win for him.
Don't get me wrong, Doc Rivers is a Hall of Fame coach, an incredible student of the game, and a class act, but no matter how good of a coach you are, when you face a legend and a pantheon-type guy there is a level of respect that needs to be given.
Whatever the outcome of this series, I think this will go down as one of the best NBA Finals in recent history and beyond anything this will help the NBA and the game of basketball as the league's two greatest rivals face off. Sad thing is as a Sixers fans and a fan of the team that could be considered the third greatest franchise in league history it hurts...that being said, Celtics in 7.