Tomorrow night starts the latest version of the NBA's best rivalry: the Lakers against the Celtics.
Rarely in the last 15 years has the NBA had its true marquee teams face each other in the finals. Both teams appear evenly matched. As basketball is often determined by how teams exploit mismatches, let's explore how the teams attack might attack each other.
The Lakers on offense run the triangle offense most of the time. It is a simple concept of continuous movement to create open shots. However, it requires smart players who pass well. These Lakers excel at it.
What the triangle offense does best is allow its best players the chance to shoot against single teams. So, let's discuss how the Celtics defend it.
First, the Celtics are the team most ideally suited to defend against the Lakers. Kendrick Perkins is a physical center who can keep Andrew Bynum out of the paint. Kevin Garnett has the size and skill to match up with Pau Gasol anywhere on the court.
Rajon Rondo might be the best defensive point guard in the NBA and he gets to harass Derek Fisher and play the passing lanes.
However, the real intrigue is on the perimeter. Paul Pierce has frustrated LeBron James and Vince Carter in successive series. If matched up, Pierce will be uniquely able to do the same to Kobe Bryant.
On the other hand, the idea of Ray Allen trying to guard Lamar Odom or Ron Artest is a problem. Both can post up Allen easily. The downside for the Lakers is that they would be trying to get their scoring from notoriously unreliable players.
The end result is that the Lakers will definitely have a mismatch on offense to exploit.
The Celtics on offense run a more traditional offense with pick and rolls and a high post offense. It relies heavily on weak side picks to free up Ray Allen and the creativity of Paul Pierce and Rajan Rondo to create open shots for teammates and themselves.
The Lakers are well equipped to handle the Celtics starting big men. Perkins is mostly a garbage man. So, Bynum should have no real problem guarding him. Garnett is a shell of the MVP type player he once was. So, Gasol and Odom should be able to effectively guard him.
The real issue is who does Kobe guard? The Lakers have been hiding Kobe by assigning him to guard the other team's weakest perimeter player to save Kobe's legs. However, the Celtics do not have any weak perimeter players.
If Kobe guards Pierce, then he guards the only player in the NBA with better footwork then himself and Pierce is physically stronger. Ron Artest is better suited to guard Pierce.
If Kobe guards Ray Allen, then Kobe is going to get physically punished by Allen running Kobe through screen after screen. If this happens, then Kobe will have trouble closing games. Better to let Fisher guard Allen. This has the effect of letting Allen get clean looks at the basket on virtually every shot as Fisher is just not big enough to guard Allen.
So, that leaves guarding Rondo. Kobe will still deal with screens on the pick and roll, but those are easier to deal with. Kobe will still have to expend a lot of energy on defense. And, Rondo still has the quickness advantage. Kobe is an excellent defender, but this match up favors the Celtics.
The next aspect of this match up is the bench. While the Lakers have the best bench player in Lamar Odom, the Celtics have the better overall bench. The Celtics bench could probably win 30 games as starters. The Lakers bench would have challenged the Nets for worst record, even with Odom.
The Celtics can throw two legitimate big men at the Lakers in Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace. And, if the want to, they have another 12 physical fouls to use in Shelden Williams and Brian Scalabrine.
The Celtics even have real scoring punch off the bench from the perimeter. Nate Robinson has the ability to score in bunches against any team. Michael Finley can still shoot and Tony Allen is a tough athletic defender who finishes well around the rim.
Aside from Odom, the Lakers use Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown at guard. Both are solid role players, but neither has the potential to change a game in the way that Nate Robinson can.
Sasha Vujacic can shoot and Luke Walton can give the Lakers some effective minutes, but the Lakers could easily have a problem if Gasol gets into foul trouble. Meanwhile, Rasheed Wallace can easily give Gasol fits defensively.
It is hard to say that any coach is as good as Phil Jackson, as he has won more titles than any other coach. However, he lost the last two times he faced a quality veteran team in the finals.
Doc Rivers, meanwhile, has been nearly flawless in managing this Celtics team. He got his aging players enough rest to be fresh for the playoffs and with Tom Thibodeaux, he has found ways to defensively beat his opponents by taking away what they do best.
So when analyzing this great match up, I base my prediction on which mismatches are more compelling, Artest and Odom on offense or Rondo and Allen. I have more faith that Rondo and Allen will win games for the Celtics than Artest or Odom.
So, Celtics in 6.