The Lakers and Celtics are responsible for each of the past three NBA championships and 33 total in NBA history. So it would come as no surprise if these two teams met again in the 2011 NBA Finals.
The Celtics rolled into Staples Center the day before New Year's Eve and pounded the Lakers 109-96, despite a 41-point performance from Kobe Bryant. Then the Lakers returned the favor during a road game in Boston six weeks later, winning 92-86.
These two teams are about as evenly matched as any in the history of basketball. But even tho the superstars are the same today as they were three years ago, the role players around them are different.
So how do the Celtics and Lakers match up today?
Fisher, 36, was washed up about five years ago, but the Lakers icon has been able to hang on to a starting job. He's not nearly the same player he once was and can't stay with quicker guards. But he generally makes good decisions on both ends of the floor and is still a serious threat at the three-point line. He also has a bit of a reputation for hitting the clutch shot.
Unfortunately for Fisher, he's exactly the kind of player Rondo dominates. The Celtics young point guard uses his elite quickness to get by defenders and drive to the basket. He may not be much of a jump shooter, but if his defender can't stay in front of him then it doesn't really matter.
Rondo will get whatever shot he wants against Fisher and likely will shut him down on defense. Fisher has experience, but he doesn't have the legs to stay with Rondo.
Rondo: 37.9 mpg, 10.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 12.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 50.6 field-goal percentage, 32.3 three-point percentage
Fisher: 27.3 mpg, 6.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.3 spg, 39.0 field-goal percentage, 40.0 three-point percentage
You wouldn't know it by the way they act off the court, but Bryant and Allen are bitter rivals. They played against each other for over a decade when Allen was still in the Western Conference, and there's hardly a single player in the NBA who plays Kobe harder. Still, this is a mismatch.
Kobe is the complete package. He's an elite shooter from anywhere on the floor, he can get whatever shot he wants and he's a lockdown defender. The raw athleticism that made Kobe such a good player in his early days is gone (no more earth-shattering dunks), but he's adapted by adding an endless arsenal of moves.
He will find a way to beat you, one way or the other. The only possible weakness in his game is that he can be too selfish at times, but a bad shot by Kobe still beats a good shot by just about anyone else.
Allen, 35, is pretty good in his own right. He's probably the best shooter in the history of the NBA and is especially lethal from the corner. He can run for days and does a good job creating separation between him and his defender, even if it's just an inch. Allen's an above-average defender who, when committed, can really make a player work for his shot. But no amount of three's will put him on Kobe's level.
Allen: 36.2 mpg, 17.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 0.95 spg, 50.5 field-goal percentage, 46.5 three-point percentage
Bryant: 33.8 mpg, 25.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.14 spg, 45.9 field-goal percentage, 32.0 three-point percentage
Allen and Bryant may be bitter rivals, but Pierce vs Artest is an even better matchup. The two have been going at it since Artest was suiting up for the Indiana Pacers, and he remains one of the few players who can get under Pierce's skin.
Artest, 31, is one of the NBA's premier defenders. He's a physical beast at 6'7" and 246 pounds with the aggressiveness of a bull. His offensive game is limited, and he has a knack for taking the worst shots at the worst moments. But he's not someone you want to leave open either, or within earshot of your children.
Pierce, 33, doesn't have the athleticism anymore to blow by defenders. But the 12-year pro has picked up a few more offensive tricks and is today one of the most complete scorers in the league. Pierce uses an incredible arsenal of body fakes to get his shot and is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.
He's a capable ballhandler and a strong defender when he wants to be, but he's at his best with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. Artest may make him work for his points, but Pierce will get his shots eventually.
Pierce: 34.9 mpg, 19.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.05 spg, 50.1 field-goal percentage, 38.0 three-point percentage
Artest: 28.4 mpg, 8.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.42 spg, 40.0 field-goal percentage, 35.6 three-point percentage
Garnett, 34, is best known as a defensive player. He's got great court presence and elite shot-blocking ability. But Garnett is dangerous on the offensive side of the ball as well, with a polished mid-range game and above-average passing instincts. He's still good enough to beat his man one-on-one, but the 6'11" Garnett does most of his damage stretching the defense and hitting open shots.
Gasol, 30, is about as good of a power forward as you could ask for, at least on offense. He can score facing the basket with a good mid-range shot and an unblockable hook shot. He can score with his back to the basket and punish his defender down low. He consistently puts himself in a good position on the court and racks up points and rebounds. He holds his own defensively.
We may not have seen this matchup at its best yet, considering Garnett was injured most of 2009 and was a shell of his former self last season. Now, both players are having great seasons. Gasol is the better offensive player, and Garnett is the better defensive player. Who wins out?
Garnett: 31.7 mpg, 15.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.49 spg, 0.8 bpg, 52.7 field-goal percentage
Gasol: 37.1 mpg, 18.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 0.61 spg, 1.6 bpg, 52.5 field-goal percentage
It's taken a few years, but it looks like we're finally seeing why everyone in Los Angeles was so crazy about Bynum. The 7-footer is having a monster season, and he's still only 23.
Bynum is unbelievably big and strong, with a rapidly improving low post game. He earns his paycheck with suffocating defense and elite rebounding. If he stays healthy, it won't be long before Bynum has the complete package.
O'Neal, 38, is the oldest player in the NBA with the expected lack of quickness and lateral movement. But Shaq's game has never relied on his ability to outrun his opponent. His defense is lackluster at times and he won't win any agility or conditioning drills, but Shaq is still good enough to put up a double-double on any given night.
There's still only a handful of guys who can muscle up to him in the post, but unfortunately for the Celtics, Bynum is one of them.
This matchup features a whole lot of man (nearly 600 pounds), but odds are the 23-year-old is going to have an easier time throwing it around.
O'Neal: 20.7 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.17 bpg, 66.2 field-goal percentage
Bynum: 26.4 mpg, 11.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.95 bpg, 56.9 field-goal percentage
On any other team, Odom would be a starter. You might be able to say the same about Davis, but Odom is one of the best all-around players in the NBA.
The 6'10" forward can play multiple positions and is an impressive ballhandler for his size. He's not a great shooter, but he has range out to the three-point line and can score from anywhere in the post.
Odom, 31, is also an exceptional rebounder and an above average passer. He filled in for Bynum when the Lakers center was out of with an injury but seems to play better off the bench like some other stars (Manu Ginobili).
Davis, 25, was a leading candidate for NBA Sixth Man of the Year before suffering a knee injury last week. But odds are he's more worried about adding a different trophy to his mantelpiece.
Davis has been the first forward off the bench for the Celtics all season and for good reason. He consistently knocks down jump shots and has an impressive arsenal of post moves. He's surprisingly agile for a man of his size, which helps make him a good defender who is among the league leaders in charges taken. Davis has next to no vertical so he's a poor rebounder for his size, but he's big enough to more than hold his own down low.
Davis: 29.4 mpg, 11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.97 spg, 44.8 field-goal percentage
Howard: 32.4 mpg, 14.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.9 apg, 0.58 spg, 54.3 field-goal percentage, 38.2 three-point percentage
There are probably several Lakers fans who think it's time for Brown to take over as the starting point guard, but he's not quite good enough yet. The 25-year-old is a phenomenal athlete and one of the best dunkers in the NBA. But the rest of his game is fairly limited.
The jump shot is average at best and he's not a particularly good ballhandler. He does a lot of little things well, but his game relies more on raw athleticism than it does actual ability at this point.
West, 27, is on his second stint with the Celtics, and he was brought back to bring some energy off the bench. He's capable of doing just that, with a solid skill set that lets him do a lot of different things on the basketball court.
He's a good shooter, a good defender, a good ballhandler and a good distributor. But there's not a single thing that he does exceptionally well so his main value to Boston is to give the starters a breather.
Brown and West fulfill pretty similar roles for their respective teams. But I'm giving the slight edge to West because he's more experienced and can play the point if needed.
West: 17.9 mpg, 6.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 0.88 spg, 44.7 field-goal percentage, 33.3 three-point percentage
Brown: 19.5 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.89 spg, 43.8 field-goal percentage, 36.3 three-point percentage
Green, 24, is a jack of all trades. His size (6'9") lets him play power forward where he can use his speed to blow by defenders. His athleticism lets him play small forward where he can shoot over opponents. He's even a strong enough shooter to get some minutes at shooting guard, and he can defend at least three positions. His game doesn't really have any weaknesses and he's only getting better.
Barnes, 31, is the prototypical role player. He's a hustle player who leaves it all out on the floor and brings great energy off the bench. He's developed into a pretty capable scorer with a strong three-point shot and enough speed to slash to the basket. His best asset is probably his defense, which is good enough to allow him to defend some of the top small forwards in the game.
Both Green and Barnes are valuable players, but Green is capable of being more than just a role player. He's essentially a starter coming off the bench and is skilled enough to fill in for Pierce at the 3 without the Celtics losing too much. What would the Lakers look like with Barnes starting instead of Artest?
Green: 35.8 mpg, 14.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.8 spg, 44.1 field-goal percentage, 29.9 three-point percentage
Barnes: 20.5 mpg, 7.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.69 spg, 47.2 field-goal percentage, 35.3 three-point percentage
The Lakers signed Steve Blake knowing that Fisher couldn't handle a full-time role. What they didn't know is that he couldn't handle a part-time role either and now looks like the latest victim of the triangle offense.
Blake, 31, has generally been regarded as a good NBA point guard. He has good vision, makes good decisions and consistently finds the open man. He's a much better shooter now than he was when he entered the league and is even a three-point threat.
But the Lakers triangle offense hides those skills and has made Blake into an ineffective player. His only noticeable contribution is his defense, which is above average at best.
Arroyo, 31, has bounced around the league for a few years and spent all of 2009 out of the NBA. But when he has gotten playing time, he's been reasonably productive. He's a good ballhandler with a strong mid-range game. He's not known as much of a defender or an outside shooter, but he's having a career year from beyond the arc and is steady enough to handle point duties for the second unit.
Arroyo: 20.3 mpg, 5.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.3 spg, 45.8 field-goal percentage, 43.8 three-point percentage
Blake: 20.4 mpg, 4.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.52 spg, 36.1 field-goal percentage, 37.4 three-point percentage
Calling Walton a deep threat is a little like calling Nate Robinson a post threat, but there's not much else the small forward brings to the table.
Walton, 30, is a smart player (as he should be considering who his father is), and he knows his place on the basketball court. He's a good passer and is fairly versatile, but he's lacking in most other areas. He can't rebound, he can't defend and he can't really shoot. But if he has to launch one chances are it will be from three-point land.
Murphy, 30, is an outstanding rebounder who is a lights-out shooter from beyond the arc (career 39.0 percent) and isn't afraid to put the ball on the floor. He's not really strong enough to do much in the post, but he's definitely capable of stretching the offense.
Murphy leaves quite a bit to be desired on the defensive end, and he's having an awful year shooting the ball. But playing on a team with guys like Allen, Pierce and Garnett should get him some better looks.
Murphy: 15.7 mpg, 3.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.1 bpg, 31.3 field-goal percentage, 15.4 three-point percentage
Walton: 9.0 mpg, 1.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.2 spg, 35.6 field-goal percentage, 26.9 three-point percentage
The Lakers acquired Joe Smith from the New Jersey Nets in December to give their frontline some added depth as they awaited the return of Andrew Bynum to the lineup. But Smith has barely stepped onto the court this season so this matchup is kind of a no-brainer.
The 35-year-old has been around the league for a long time and has always been a nice player. He has a good mid-range shot and is not afraid to push his weight around in the post. He's also always been a smart defender and a fantastic rebounder. But all those minutes have finally caught up to him and Smith now struggles to stay on the court for more than a few minutes.
Krstic, 27, is quite gifted offensively, with a gentle touch around the basket and a feel for the ball. He can hit some short jump shots, but he's at his best backing down his defender in the post. Unlike Smith, Krstic is not a particularly strong defender and can get intimidated by more aggressive players. That won't matter if Smith can't get onto the court.
Krstic: 21.9 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.4 bpg, 49.7 field-goal percentage
Smith: 8.4 mpg, 0.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.57 bpg, 20.0 field-goal percentage
O'Neal was supposed to be a big part of the Celtics rotation as a scoring big man who could also rebound and defend. Ratliff was supposed to give the Lakers some depth at center in the likelihood that Bynum would miss some games. But injuries have kept both players on the bench for the majority of the season, and there's no telling whether either will be able to contribute any significant minutes the rest of the way.
O'Neal, 32, was an unbelievable player not too long ago. He could beat his man off the dribble, back him down in the post or just simply shoot over him. For nearly a decade he was one of the league's best shot blockers and an explosive scorer. But that explosiveness is gone now, and O'Neal's offensive game has regressed to a crappy jump shot with little, if any, hustle.
Ratliff, 37, was also once one of the NBA's best shot blockers. He was never particularly good on offense, but he got his hands on enough balls to get the occasional put back. He recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and will likely miss the rest of the season after suffering a setback during his rehabilitation.
O'Neal: 18.1 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.24 bpg, 44.7 field-goal percentage, 17 games played (5 starts)
Ratliff: 8.4 mpg, 0.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.63 bpg, 16.7 field-goal percentage, eight games played (0 starts)
None of these players figure to see much action in the playoffs, if any at all. But in the event a starter or a role player goes down with an injury, it's possible these men could be called upon to step in.
Wafer, 25, is a good shooter who brings some energy off the bench and can get to the basket against slower defenders. Pavlovic, 27, and Bradley, 20, are both strong defensive players who are limited offensively. Bradley, in particular, has a chance to see some minutes against Kobe even though he's just a rookie.
Ebanks, 21, is a big, versatile forward who can knock down the three. He could be a good player one day (maybe in the Jeff Green mold), but as a rookie he still has a lot to learn. Character, 22, is roughly the same size as Ebanks but without any legitimate NBA skill. Neither rookie has played much this season.
The Celtics group of players wins out here because they provide specific skills that coach Doc Rivers could utilize at the appropriate time. The only way the Lakers duo of rookies sees the floor is if Ron Artest and Matt Barnes both collapse.
Wafer: 8.8 mpg, 2.9 ppg, 0.5 apg, 0.3 spg, 42.4 field-goal percentage, 27.3 three-point percentage
Pavlovic: 15.2 mpg, 3.2 ppg, 37.0 field-goal percentage, 33.3 three-point percentage
Bradley: 4.5 mpg, 1.3 ppg, 0.3 spg, 28.9 field-goal percentage (22 games played)
Ebanks: 5.9 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.20 spg, 41.2 field-goal percentage, 40.0 three-point percentage (20 games played)
Character: 5.4 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 49.2 field-goal percentage (39 games played)
EDGE: Wafer, Pavlovic, Bradley