NBA Finals Prediction: Celtics & Lakers Can Only Be Unlucky to Not Meet for #13
The Celtics and Lakers have defined NBA prestige for the majority of the league's history. The latest bouts that have brought about two match-ups in the last three year that have had all the excitement and anticipation of the historic clashes of the 1980's.
There is no doubt that a ticking clock exists on the latest round of Celtics/Lakers battles, but barring some major mishaps, we will at least be able to witness a rubber-match at the end of the 2010-11 season.
One the surface, this seems like a risky yet warranted assumption, but there are a plethora of reasons for why it is more than obvious.
Riding The Clutch
Pierce's Buzzer-Beater Vs. Heat 2010 Playoffs
Reliability is more than an asset when it comes to playoff time, it can define destiny. The Celtics and Lakers have big time shooting in spades.
Kobe Bryant is the game's greatest cooler, and has been for years. His ability to come through has only increased with age. He knows when to spot up, when to penetrate, and when to dish out. That is where the role players come in.
Derek Fisher may not be nearly as fast as he once was, but his rainbow three-pointers are as timely as ever, making him invaluable even at age 36.
Shannon Brown and new additions Steve Blake/Matt Barnes all have the ability to shoot the three ball and can be increasingly relied upon to hit it when they're open. Rashard Lewis' poor shooting throughout the playoffs last year for the Magic is proof of the damage that can be caused by not being able to hit the open shot.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett all have the ability to take over the game down the stretch. The Celtics can usually rely on feeding whichever of the big three has the hot hand. When they need a huge shot Paul Pierce has proven to be lethal of the dribble his entire career.
The same thing as the Lakers applies in terms of the bench. The acquisition of Delonte West brings a starting-caliber shooter to the bench, creating a dynamic duo of shooting capabilities with Nate Robinson. Glen Davis has also demonstrated he can hit a big shot. Sorry, it's true.
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Pau Gasol could eventually go down as one of the best skill-scorers of all NBA big-men. With Andrew Bynum frequently out due to various injuries (postponing surgeries for World Cup visits), Pau has picked up nearly all that was left behind. Gasol is averaging just over 21 points and 11 rebounds so far this year, the highest of his career in both categories.
The stats won't last once Bynum returns, but the Lakers will have back their strong inside presence that was so key in last year's championship win over the Celtics. Lamar Odom has also filled a piece of the physical disparity, and brings that off the bench when Bynum is present.
The Lakers are leading the league in boards so far this year.
The Celtics didn't just add Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal to make up for the temporary void left by Kendrick Perkins, but to develop a stronger inside presence that hinder penetration by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade come playoff time. Guess what? It's working.
The Celtics have gone 2-0 on the Heat this season in dominant fashion, and their defense has frequently sent James and Wade into isolation situations. The rebounding seems to be gradually improving from last year, particularly with the spring Kevin Garnett clearly has back.
Once Perkins returns around February, having at least five players above 6'9” getting moderate to significant minutes will cause extensive problems for opponents trying to enter the lane.
Stars Shining Brighter
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It's hard to imagine Kobe Bryant somehow playing better after leading his team to a championship just a season ago, but that is exactly what is happening thus far. Although his knee is still not at 100% post-surgery, as he has said, it is much better than it was a year ago (along with his torn finger ligaments).
While Kobe's PPG is a point below average from last year, he is also averaging over five less minutes; his attempts are also lower than they have been in any of the last six years. However, his free throw attempts are higher than they have been in three years. No player knows his body like Bryant, and his pursuit in attacking the rim is a clear indicator that he fells better than he has in quite some time. He undoubtedly looks faster.
Call it work ethic mixed with some luck. Call it whatever you want, but Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are experiencing similar improvements.
So far this season, Pierce is posting his shooting the highest field goal percentage in his career (51.6) and is averaging his most points since the big three was formed. He has quicker acceleration to the hoop, is more involved on the boards, and is getting higher percentage shots at will. The ankle and back problems seem to be well behind him.
Garnett is now averaging a double double again for the first time in four years. The biggest difference in KG's game is his mobility, which looks better than it has since the 2007-08 championship run. Modern science did its job with Garnett's knee surgery and his determination for completion rehabilitation has been more than evident in his game thus far.
Off The Bench And On The Board
The benches for the Celtics and Lakers have been a staple of their success for years. With the amount of energy that is exerted throughout the playoffs, having a reliable bench can be a key success factor. Still, they were two of only a few teams that went out and significantly improved their bench this off-season.
The additions of Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal added some height – a weakness that Celtics desperately needed to fill, especially with Perkins out. They also added some fill-in height with 7'0” Semih Erden out of Turkey. Erden has been useful early during a few nagging injuries for the O'Neal's.
The Celtics have already implemented new acquisition Delonte West seamlessly, and West, along with Nate Robinson, serve as a formidable backup to Rajon Rondo.
The best aspect of the Celtics pickups is that they usually firmly address a sore spot, and the Lakers are no different. With an aging Derek Fisher, and players like Jordan Farmar simply not fitting the puzzle, the Lakers needed to make some moves to boost both bench scoring and defense. Again, they were successful.
Last season, Shannon Brown cemented himself as a rising talent with less of a ceiling than Farmar. The addition of Steve Blake after his short stint with “the other team in L.A.” has already proven to be a very effective piece of the Lakers puzzle. Blake is 39.5% from three on his career and is shooting close to 50% this season.
The Lakers also bolstered their bench by adding free agent Matt Barnes. Barnes has been a traveling man his whole career but may have found a place in L.A. as a defensive specialist with scoring potential. He brings energy and stability to a young second unit, especially while Lamar Odom plays with the starters.
Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic aren't exactly consistent off the bench, which is probably one of the Lakers few weak spots. Still, Walton knows how to make a solid defensive contribution while Vujacic sucks up cap space.
Could the Celtics/Lakers benches contend with lowly teams like the Raptors or Wizards? Possibly. While much less is required of some of these former starters, their jobs remain just as important.
The Veterans Coach
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A major problem in professional sports sometimes lies within the coach's ability to not only motivate his players, but to treat different groups of players with varying mentalities according to their needs. Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson have perfected this.
Being handed a group of cagey veterans is an ideal situation for any coach, but knowing how to pull it all together is an art acknowledged not nearly enough.
Rivers and Jackson both use a similar tactic of letting their veterans ride out strong oppositional spurts rather than calling a timeout. For an experienced squad, this is an intelligent strategy to build confidence while a younger squad would likely need a timeout to stop the bleeding.
Both coaches (especially Jackson) execute with a cool and collected demeanor , knowing that exhibiting a great deal of emotion is unnecessary for a group of players that have been there before. This demeanor also leads to their decisions being greeted with more receptiveness.
Rivers and Jackson are very disciplined in regards to resting their players when deemed necessary. Rivers made the mistake of bringing Paul Pierce back a bit to early from injury last year and it wound up holding back Pierce's progress. That mistake will not likely be made again, especially with the depth the Celtics have this year. The philosophy has already been executed for the O'Neal's and most recently Rajon Rondo.
Kobe Bryant claims he can play with nearly every nagging injury in the book, and Jackson has done a good job of limiting Kobe's minutes while communicating with Bryant regarding the severity of any injuries.
I Think I've Seen This One Before
With the addition of Pau Gasol, the Lakers got a top skilled player on the inside that put them over the top in the west. The combination of Gasol and Andrew Bynum solidified the Lakers interior for what would end up being two bouts with the then newly formed big three, with a Dwight Howard containment plan in between (thanks to Garnett's season-ending injury).
There's no doubt that these physical match-ups have manufactured a new toughness in Gasol, and both teams know how how to grind out the grueling 2+ months that are the NBA playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs of the early 2000's had the same mentality. Overcoming obstacle after obstacle en route to an NBA finals in no easy task, but the Lakers and Celtics are battle-tested with leaders that motivate their followers to overcome the physical and mental exhaustion.
We find ourselves in another era of glory days in the NBA and regardless of your opinion, the trio in Miami has only piled on the interest.
There is likely to be only one or two more times that the public might be able to witness the latest clash of future Hall Of Famers representing these storied franchises. If it occurs, it will undoubtedly live up to its billing once again.