While Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are gearing up for their third consecutive run at the NBA championship trophy, select other elite teams are planning their own ways to the throne.
If the Lakers are going to solidify yet another three-peat, and earn Bryant his sixth championship ring, they will have to dominate a few key marquee matchups across the league. Each of the following contending teams has their weapon(s) that will help them navigate deep into the playoffs, and the Lakers are no exception.
The question is whether the Lakers can once again outlast every other team's deadliest strike. Here are the matchups the Lakers must dominate if they are going to win another championship.
Manu Ginobili's lethal jump-shot
If the Lakers end up facing the San Antonio Spurs sometime in playoffs, I believe the key matchup that will determine either team's success is how effectively the Lakers can contain Manu Ginobili.
With Andre Bynum healthy, and Lamar Odom coming off the bench, the Lakers should have no problem equaling or overwhelming the inside presence of the Spurs. Bynum, Gasol and Odom make the Lakers a better rebounding team, which will allow outside shooters to take shots off open looks, knowing that the odds of an offensive rebound and putback are in their favor.
Where the Lakers need to be concerned with the Spurs is Ginobili's excellent outside shot. Ginobili's numbers this year are above his career average, averaging two three-pointers and 17.8 points per game.
Late in a game, Ginobili possesses similar attributes to Bryant: If you don't defend him on the perimeter, he will hit the outside shot; if you take the bait that he is going to shoot, he will drive and score at the rim.
The Lakers must find a way to keep Ginobili from getting hot in three-point territory. If they can control the perimeter, either with Artest or Kobe, they should have no problem defeating the Spurs.
Kevin Durant towering above LeBron James for a three-point shot
Kevin Durant is the one player from the Oklahoma City Thunder the Lakers need to be concerned about this postseason.
Sure, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins are extremely effective players and pose a great threat the Lakers' livelihood. But as much as Westbrook and Perkins can do, they cannot beat the Lakers without Durant.
Ron Artest did an outstanding job Durant during the first round of the 2010 playoffs, and if the Lakers and Thunder meet again this postseason it will be up to Artest to once again shut down the NBA's leading scorer.
Without a sizable scoring contribution from Durant, the Thunder will simply not be able to keep up with Bryant and the Lakers, who are averaging 102 points per game this season. With Artest effectively defending Durant, the Lakers will once again defeat the Thunder in the postseason.
The question is, then: Has Durant improved enough that Artest's defensive strategy from last season will no longer contain the premiere scorer? Take a look at the picture above, and notice how ineffectively LeBron James contests a Durant three-point shot. As good a defender as Artest is, Durant might just be impossible to defend this postseason.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer of the Chicago Bulls
At this point in the season, it seems fair to say that Derek Fisher will have no chance of effectively defending Derrick Rose if the two teams meet in the playoffs. While Fisher is an expert at taking the charge, Rose is no less skilled in evading defenders on his way to the rim. If the Lakers decide to have Bryant defend Rose, they run the risk of getting Kobe into foul trouble.
So what is the Lakers' key to beating the Bulls? Dominate the paint.
Joakim Noah is a powerful center with superb rebounding skills, but lacks any outside shot. The Lakers need to have Bynum boxing out Noah as much as possible and grabbing more rebounds than Noah if they want to take him out of his element.
The Lakers forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom must do the same thing to Carlos Boozer, including effectively defending his mid-range jump shot.
If the Lakers can contain the Bulls' duo of dominating big men with their own dominating trio of big men, they would not have to be as concerned about Rose. Control Noah and Boozer, and Rose becomes something of a loud afterthought.
Chris Bosh getting dunked on
Forget the Big Three.
There, I said it. The Lakers need to be concerned with only one player on the Miami Heat: Chris Bosh. What? I know you're thinking I'm crazy by now, but hear me out.
First of all, Artest will go to work on LeBron James, and Kobe will do the same to Dwayne Wade. If these two teams end up meeting in the NBA Finals, these matchups, both offensively and defensively, will be a joy to watch.
Personally, however, I'm not concerned with what damage LeBron and Wade can do to the Lakers. If anything, I would hope that the Lakers aren't too concerned either, and decide not to waste too much of Kobe's energy trying to defend Wade.
The player the Lakers need to focus on controlling is Bosh. He is the Heat's only big man threat in the paint, versus the Lakers powerful trio. If the Lakers can diminish Bosh's contribution to the Heat's scoring and rebounding, I don't think it will matter very much what LeBron and Wade do.
With losses to teams like the Celtics and Clippers, both with a large inside presence, the Heat have very little chance of doing much damage with just their two all-star scorers.
Now that Bynum is healthy and Gasol is starting in PF, with Odom coming off the bench, Bosh will have some tough nights versus the Lakers.
The Boston Celtics have an extremely balanced team, and pose the greatest threat to the Los Angeles Lakers this postseason.
If the Lakers want to take down the Celtics for the second year in a row, they are going to have to do more than play great basketball. The Lakers must take the Celtics far away from their comfort zone in the following ways:
First, the Lakers need to get Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett angry. Both players have flaring tempers, and the Lakers need to exploit this potential weakness.
For example, stick Artest on Pierce, and completely stymie his outside shot. Or give him a hard foul if he heads to the rim. Or, for good measure, keep Artest on him even if he's due for a rotation out. Send Pierce the message loud and clear: We are taking away your jump shot.
If the Lakers want to win, they'll have to do the same thing to Garnett. When Garnett gets used as a small center during rotations, keep Bynum in, and have him guard Garnett with all his might. I'd like to see how quickly Garnett gets a technical after Bynum rejects him a few times at the rim.
The Lakers must also control the tempo of the game. Veteran players on the Celtics love to dictate the speed at which they play the game, disrupting the flow and rhythm of many teams. If the Lakers want to beat the Celtics, they're going to have to control the tempo and throw the Celtics off their game.
Once the Celtics' hot-heads are out of their comfort zones and they lose control of the pace of the game, the Lakers will be able to keep calm and utilize their many weapons to bully the Celtics.
Have your own take on what the Lakers need to do to win the Championship this season? Let the round table begin!