This Sunday the most storied rivalry in professional basketball heads back to L.A. as the Boston Celtics square off against the Los Angeles Lakers in a rematch of the 2010 NBA Finals.
This is the first time the two teams will have met since last year's classic Game 7, giving the Celtics a shot at revenge and the Lakers a chance to put another exclamation point on their championship victory.
Both teams are well on their way back to potentially meeting one another in the finals, as the Celtics sit atop the standings in the East, while the Lakers are second in West behind only the San Antonio Spurs.
The successes of both teams should come as no surprise, as each squad returns the top two-thirds of its roster, keeping its core intact—not needing to add too much to their repertoires in the offseason.
That said, there are some newcomers and updated factors that will decide the outcome of Sunday’s epic matchup.
Let’s break down the two teams, piece by Pierce, and see how they stack up against each other this season.
Key Additions: Shaquille O’Neal, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody
Key Subtractions: Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen, Brian Scalabrine
Los Angeles Lakers
Key Additions: Matt Barnes (INJ), Steve Blake, Joe Smith, Devin Ebanks, Derrick Caracter
Key Subtractions: Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar
The new additions each team made in the offseason are significant enough to help round out each roster, but they’re not necessarily game-changers, and the standout acquisitions of Shaquille O’Neal and Matt Barnes may have no impact in Sunday’s game due to their respective injuries.
Barnes has been ruled out after knee surgery earlier in the month but has recently resumed basketball activities. O’Neal made the trip to Los Angeles but will be a game-time decision. If healthy enough, Shaq will most certainly want to see some floor time, as he always looks forward to competing against Kobe Bryant.
When you look past the two big offseason acquisitions, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody, Steve Blake and Joe Smith won’t make significant impacts in this game. Blake and Erden will be the only ones to see meaningful minutes, as Smith and Harangody’s roles are to eat up some clock time to give the starters a breather (Caracter and Ebanks are potential DNP-CDs).
Even after that, the former two won’t be lighting up the stat column. While Blake’s role has expanded over the past two weeks, making him an X-factor, expectations for any of the newcomers should still be held in check.
Edge: Push (Lakers if Shaq doesn’t play)
Boston Celtics Key Members
Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Kendrick Perkins
Los Angeles Lakers Key Members
Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton
The beauty of the bench battle is that both sixth men, Glen Davis and Lamar Odom, will cover one another at some point during the game, showcasing the talents of each team’s second unit. Both players are playing far better than last season, which only heightens this matchup.
Bench play will come down to specific attributes and intangibles. How will Davis fare taking charges and grabbing offensive rebounds? How will Odom create mismatches with his ball-handling and ability to draw defenders out of the paint?
For Davis, he needs to draw fouls and disrupt the Lakers' interior plans. With Kevin Garnett’s lack of an interior presence since returning from injury, the need for Big Baby to clog up the paint is imperative. The same holds true on the offensive end, as Davis needs to chip in second-chance points if the outside shooting of the Celtics breaks down.
That said, if Odom can draw Davis and Garnett away from the ball, the Lakers will be able to secure second-chance points of their own via Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Not many people of Odom’s size possess the inside/outside skills he has, and his 50-plus percent shooting from downtown over the past 10 games and 10 RPG for the season are going to be an issue for the Celtics.
The other components off the bench will look for some brief moments in the spotlight, but neither team should be counted on to go too deep into their rotations for serious production.
Nate Robinson could be a factor with his energy and three-point shot, but he doesn’t match up very well against the Lakers, which should translate into more minutes for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce throughout the game. Robinson averaged only 4.9 PPG during the NBA Finals last season, which is a good indicator of what to expect this time around.
Marquis Daniels will be looked upon to fulfill Tony Allen’s role as a defensive stopper, but while a decent defender, Daniels is not the lockdown type, which will diminish his role. Still, if Allen cannot keep up with Kobe Bryant, Daniels will get a shot to prove his worth in a potential NBA Finals matchup.
The last piece to the Celtics bench is the surprise return of Kendrick Perkins. Perk wasn’t thought to be ready until February, but his early return has Boston breathing a much-needed sigh of relief, since injuries to Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal have opened up holes in the Celtics' inside game. His minutes will be monitored, but Perk has made an immediate impact since returning and will be needed to supplement Semih Erden against a more physical Andrew Bynum.
Like Steve Blake, Shannon Brown is another X-factor for the Lakers. Brown’s explosiveness can singlehandedly ignite a crowd, which is something the Celtics will have to be weary of. Brown’s production has taken a bit of a hit lately, despite Matt Barnes’ injury, but if he can throw down a dunk or two and rally the crowd, it’ll be just what the Lakers need to keep the crowd lively.
The rest of the Lakers’ bench won’t be involved in the game enough to make contributions, since they play with only a nine-man rotation compared to the Celtics, who have been going 11 or 12 deep of late.
Luke Walton’s experience in big games will garner him some minutes, but like the newcomers who will register DNP-CDs, Walton won’t be relied upon for anything out of the ordinary.
NBA Finals Numbers
Bynum: 7.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.0 APG
2011 Season (Through Wednesday)
Bynum: 11.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 0.8 APG
O’Neal: 9.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.7 APG
While Andrew Bynum will be the noticeable fixture in the middle for the Lakers, the Celtics may employ any number of four to five players at the spot over the course of the game. Bynum’s consistency will be the difference maker in this battle, as the Celtics may have difficulty with their own chemistry in the middle.
Bynum’s numbers have soared in January after being worked back into a full workload during December. As a result, he’s been putting up double-doubles every other night and blocking plenty of shots for the Lakers.
The return of Kendrick Perkins will aid Shaq if O’Neal plays and also allow No. 36 to employ a unique game plan. Shaq will play the role of enforcer for the Celtics on Sunday. He won’t have to be concerned about his points or minutes because of Perk’s availability.
If the Celtics want to send a message to the Lakers, they should allow Shaq the liberty of letting the Lakers interior know that they are in his house, despite the Celtics being on the road. After that, Perkins can come in and play a more reliable defensive style, maintaining a physical balance throughout the game.
NBA Finals Numbers
Garnett: 15.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.0 APG
Gasol: 18.6 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 3.7 APG
Garnett: 15.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 APG
Gasol: 18.6 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.9 APG
The numbers that immediately jump out at you in the Pau Gasol/Kevin Garnett matchup are the rebounding numbers. Gasol simply dominated Garnett in the NBA Finals.
In Game 7 alone Gasol had 18 rebounds (nine offensive) to Garnett’s three. The resulting Lakers win in Game 7 should be expected again if those numbers repeat themselves.
The way Garnett has been rebounding since coming back from injury isn’t a reassuring statistic for Celtics fans either. Garnett has only averaged 4.8 RPG in the five games since his injury. While his minutes are down, it’s still five unaccounted rebounds in only five less minutes of play.
Even though Gasol has the stigma of being “soft” to East Coast fans, he’s too good to warrant that designation. He moves, passes, scores and rebounds as well as anyone in the league for his size and will look to expose Garnett who doesn’t look to be 100 percent back to form, despite playing acceptable ball right now.
NBA Finals Numbers
Pierce: 18.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.0 APG
Artest: 10.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.3 APG
Pierce: 19.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.3 APG
Artest: 8.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.1 APG
Anyone who has been paying attention to this year’s Boston Celtics knows that Paul Pierce is having a career year—not in points per game or assists, but in field goal percentage. Pierce’s shooting is up an astonishing 70 percentage points over his career average.
He’s a large factor behind the entire team shooting over 50 percent from the floor, a number only matched by one other team (Phoenix) since 2000.
Enter Ron Artest into the picture. Artest will be on Pierce most of the game, a challenge Artest stood up to last season, holding Pierce to only 44 percent shooting during the Finals.
But Artest hasn’t been the type of player NBA fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the past. His offense is nonexistent, and his defensive numbers are down as well. According to 82games.com, Artest has the worst effective field goal percentage allowed for anyone on the Lakers who garners significant minutes.
This bodes well for Pierce. If he’s shooting a career best and Artest’s defense is suffering, The Truth should be a huge benefactor and lead the Celtics in scoring on Sunday.
NBA Finals Numbers
Bryant: 28.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.9 APG
Allen: 14.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.7 APG
Bryant: 24.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.8 APG
Allen: 17.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.1 APG
While Gasol versus Garnett is the key to the game, Kobe versus Ray is still the premier matchup on Sunday. It’s two future Hall of Famers duking it out over who can hit more clutch shots—or at least it’d be nice to see that.
Kobe will outplay Ray on most nights, so that most likely will hold true again on Sunday. If last year’s Finals are any indicator, then Ray is in for a tough afternoon.
Kobe owned Ray in the finals last year. Not only did Kobe put up 28-plus points a night, he also held Allen to 37 percent shooting, including 3-of-14 in Game 7.
Kobe’s scoring may be down this season, but if he can lock down on Allen and hold him to another ugly shooting game, it’d be just another testament to why the Lakers took Game 7 last year.
Like Pierce, Ray has been shooting lights out in 2011, so he’ll need to continue his ways, while shaking off Kobe’s tight defense, if the Celtics are to win.
NBA Finals Numbers
Rondo: 13.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 7.3 APG
Fisher: 8.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.0 APG
Rondo: 10.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 12.9 APG
Fisher: 6.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.0 APG
Derek Fisher will always play at a level higher than what’s reflected in the stats column, but make no mistake about it: Rajon Rondo will eat Fisher alive on Sunday. This isn’t a new phenomenon either, as there was talk of Kobe having to cover Rondo in last year’s finals to try to stop the Celtics point guard.
Rondo has only improved his pure point guard skills this season, dishing out dimes at a pace not seen since the days of John Stockton. It’s Rondo’s ability to find the open man and Allen and Pierce’s ability to hit their shots that will keep the Celtics in this game.
Rondo’s detractors harp on his low free throw shooting numbers, but free throws aren’t crucial to his game. It’s passing, penetrating and defense where he makes his name. Derek Fisher won’t have an answer for Rondo on any of these attributes, and the Lakers will have to adjust.
The game will most like be close, so look for Fisher to play off the ball more and take on a lesser role. He won’t be a factor in the game, while Rondo will more than likely try to carry the team on his shoulders to make up for last year’s Game 7 loss.
After all of the individual analysis, it’s a tie between the two teams at three points apiece. So who will win the game?
It’ll come down to discipline. Cooler heads will prevail. Don’t be surprised to see Gasol and Garnett mix it up a bit underneath the hoop at one point. Will either one buckle, if only for a moment, allowing the other to step in and control the tempo?
The game will be a close one as the teams feel each other out as they reignite their age-old rivalry. Look for the Lakers to pull this one out in the fourth quarter after a back and forth game for the first 36 minutes.
The Celtics will then even the season series in February at the TD Garden.
Either way, it’ll be a can’t-miss matchup for the NBA.
Prediction: Lakers 98-93