One of the most unheralded elements of success in the NBA postseason is the vital role matchups play in determining the outcome.
NBA analyst Kenny Smith likes to use his two-time champion Rockets teams as an example of what can be accomplished by a team that plays the postseason drawing largely favorable matchups.
"There was one team in the NBA we just could not matchup with, that was the Seattle Supersonics," says Smith. "Their trapping defense was very successful at taking Hakeem Olajuwon out of his offense game, and we struggled as a result. We were 0-8 versus the Sonics the two years we won the title. But they were upset in the first round both years so we never had to face them."
The next year the Rockets did face the Sonics in the playoffs-- in 1996--the Sonics won the series 4-0.
Last year, the Lakers were also lucky to play only favorable matchups as neither the (Thunder 1-3 against LA last season) Jazz (1-3 also) or Suns (1-3) created the types of problems for the Lakers that the Spurs, Nuggets or Trailblazers had. Granted, the Lakers had matchup issues with the Celtics, but having homecourt advantage in game 7 obviously benefited the team. (Imagine if game 7 was in Cleveland or Orlando?).
Which brings us to today, the Lakers are sitting on a 55-24 record. They will be heavily favored in the first two rounds regardless of who they play, although if they face the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals they would be forced to win their first postseason series without homecourt advantage since 2004.
But if the Lakers do advance to the finals, what matchup would they deem the most favorable? Which Eastern Conference team are they best equipped to beat and which one do they not want to face?
Let's answer this question by looking at the three most likely Eastern Conference Champions.
After losing to the Lakers in game 7 of the finals, the Celtics came into the season on a mission to not replicate the experience. They started the season 33-9, injuries have taken hold (especially to the O'Neals) and the team has not been playing quite as well of late losing nine of its last 19 games and basically surrendering the East's top seed to Chicago.
The Celtics have experience and motivation on their side, and despite their recent struggles are still the team to beat in the East. But the Lakers would not be too concerned about facing the Celtics in the finals. For one thing, the Celtics traded away Kendrick Perkins, leaving Boston arguably weaker in the post. Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal would play in the series, but both centers are past their primes and neither would present a significant problem for the Lakers vaunted frontline of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Rajon Rondo has greatly improved his perimeter shooting, but is hardly a marksman.
The Lakers can play Kobe on Rondo as a free-safety helping out Fisher with Ray Allen. Ron Artest played inspired defense against Paul Pierce in the finals last year and will be looking to duplicate the performance again this year. The Celtics bench last year was much deeper than this year's version. Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson were all key contributors to the Celtics run last year.
This year, players like Jeff Green (who is still learning the Celtics system) and Nenad Krstic (who doesn't have half the toughness of Perkins) will be expected to make big plays when it counts, a tall order to ask of relatively new players. Pau Gasol has gotten the better of his recent matchups against Kevin Garnett in their most recent meetings (in fact, outscoring KG 20-10 in the previous regular season meeting) and he simply become the better player of the two at this stage of their careers.
I think the Celtics would be the team the Lakers would most want to see in the finals. Sure it would be great to send Shaq (because of the Shaq-Kobe history), KG, and Allen off without a ring. But it would also add to the sweetness for the Lakers to equal Boston for most titles won at 17 at the expense of the Celtics. The Lakers matchup very well against Boston.
The Bulls have taken the league by storm and surprised many pundits by securing the top seed in the East and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. In fact, some are saying that the Bulls have a chance to win the franchises first title since Michael Jordan's famous statuesque pose in Utah 13 years ago. Coach Tom Thibodeau has infused a defensive philosophy into this team and they have become one of the leagues best teams.
But how do the Bulls matchup against LA? Let's see.
The one big problem the Bulls would have against the Lakers, is at the shooting guard position. Whether it's Keith Bogans or Ronnie Brewer, neither is a significant offensive threat (both score under 7 ppg), which would allow Kobe Bryant to rest on defense. At this point in Kobe's career, you want him to have to work hard on both ends of the court and expend energy. Neither guard can accomplish the feat, allowing Kobe to focus on getting his 30. Meanwhile, at power forward, there is yet another mismatch with Carlos Boozer versus Pau Gasol.
Gasol is the absolute worst player for Boozer to play against, because Boozer struggles against tall, agile bigs with long wing-spans. Boozer's post game has always been neutralized when he plays Gasol and I would expect that to be true again. Plus, Boozer's lack of size and quickness allows Gasol's offensive game to not be impacted by Boozer's defense. Joakim Noah is a solid center in the NBA, but his lack of a consistent post-offensive game makes life a bit easier for Bynum would would win that matchup.
Obviously, Derrick Rose would be huge in the series and the mano-a-mano between he and Kobe could be something to see. But he will not be able to score as easily in the paint against the Lakers frontcourt. If the Lakers can force Rose to stay perimeter, where his still improving jumpshot is still one of the weaker aspects of his game, they can keep him under control. The Artest versus Luol Deng matchup could be fun. Both play a physical style of defense and both are huge X-Factors for their respective teams. But Artest would certainly consider a matchup against Deng preferable to one against LeBron or Pierce.
Bottom line: I think the Lakers face more trouble against the Bulls than the Celtics, but with matchup advantages at virtually every position, I see the Lakers winning a series against Chicago.
This is the team I believe the Lakers would least like to see in the NBA Finals. Before I get inundated with comments about how they lack a center or bench, just hear me out. The Miami Heat is the only team in the East that boosts a shooting guard that Kobe would actually have to defend. The more you make Kobe work on the defensive end, the better off your team will be. Plus, if there is a shooting guard in the league that plays against Kobe on both ends of the court as well as Dwyane Wade, I haven't seen him. Wade's athleticism and suffocating defense causes Kobe problems. Even in games where Kobe outplays Wade, he has to work hard for his points.
Then there is the Pau versus Chris Bosh matchup. Bosh has been called "overrated" and "soft" but one thing that he can't be called is "dominated by Gasol." Bosh has generally played well against Gasol throughout their careers and the athleticism and size of Bosh has caused problems for the slower Pau. The LeBron versus Artest matchup will definitely be a physical one and certainly worth the price of admission to watch the series. But while Artest's rough, strongarm tactics have garnered success against players like Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron is bigger, stronger and responds to physical play exceptionally well. If Artest cannot hit the three with regularity in the series, LeBron can really rest on defense and use his athleticism against the Lakers decidedly slower frontcourt.
I know what you're going to say: "But the Heat have no center or point guard. The bigs are going to have a field day inside because they lack a center." Well, the Lakers have Derek Fisher and Steve Blake at point guard. Neither athletic or able to penetrate the defenses like a Chris Paul or Derrick Rose can. So, as long as the Heat are not double teaming and leaving them open, they can live with whatever either does. As for the center matchups, this is where perception and reality can sometimes be totally different things. The Heat don't have an elite center to man the paint so people assume that they can't guard the paint. But Miami defends the interior by using it athleticism to bother the post games of elite bigs and are, quiet as it's kept, one of the leagues best interior defensive teams.
In both meetings against the Heat during the regular season, Bynum was largely ineffective, Gasol was outplayed by Bosh and Lamar Odom shot miserably even though most of his shots were in the paint. The Heat's interior defense has been very good despite the persistent myth to the contrary.
I think the Lakers would much rather face the Celtics or Bulls and prefer not to see the Heat in the finals. The Heat, I believe match up the best against the Lakers and would present the most difficulty in their bid to 3-peat.