But a lot has changed since these two franchises battled for a championship two seasons ago.
Gone are key cogs Trevor Ariza, James Posey, and P.J. Brown. Present for this edition of the Finals are Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest, and Rasheed Wallace. The starting fives largely remain intact (out are Vladimir Radmanovic, in is Andrew Bynum), and the respective coaching staffs are in place as well.
Certain players have elevated their games, others have seen production fall off somewhat through age and injury. The bottom line is, this is not going to be a carbon copy of the 2008 Finals.
The following is an assessment of multiple factors that will play a major role in deciding the outcome of the 2010 NBA Finals.
1. Home Court Advantage Now Belongs to the Los Angeles Lakers
In 2008, the Celtics had the best record in the league at an eye opening 66-16 mark. It was the first year Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Boston stalwart Paul Pierce. The Lakers had just acquired Pau Gasol three months prior, and won a respectable 57 games.
Consequently, Boston had home court advantage in that series, and it played a massively important role. Boston won three games at home, including a 39-point annihilation in the deciding Game Six.
So, rather than traveling into a hostile arena hoping to steal one of the first two games, the Lakers get to enjoy the comfort of home-court advantage for the first two and potentially set themselves up to close the series out at home, if need be.
Thus far in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the Lakers carry an extraordinary 8-0 mark at home. An opponent has to play a near perfect game to come in to the Staples Center and walk away with a victory.
Two years ago, Boston was very competitive with the Lakers in L.A. They won Game Four, and both Games Three and Five came down to the last few possessions.
On the other side of the coin, the Celtics boast a 5-3 road record in this year's playoffs. The Celtics are 7-2 at home in this postseason. The Lakers' road record in the playoffs is 4-4, but it should be noted that they have closed out each of their three series on the road.
As a side note, had the Orlando Magic or Cleveland Cavaliers earned a trip to the Finals, each would've had home court advantage over the Lakers.
2. Andrew Bynum Will Play in This Year's NBA Finals
It has been written ad nauseam that the the Lakers were bullied and got pushed around by the Celtics in 2008. A common belief is that Andrew Bynum would've made a difference and would've given the Lakers the physical presence they were sorely lacking.
Perhaps the Lakers' greatest strength is their length. With seven-footers Bynum and Gasol, coupled with 6'10" Lamar Odom, who will log big minutes in the series, Los Angeles can present a colossal lineup. This makes their defense all the more respectable, particularly their help defense as the paint is often times clogged.
But if there is one team that can legitimately counter the Laker's length, it's the Celtics.
The Lakers technically have the height advantage at almost every position, but Boston is reasonably hulking as well. Both 6'10" Kendrick Perkins and 6'11" Kevin Garnett anchor the post, while 6'8" Paul Pierce mans the small forward position.
Back to Bynum—he is coping with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has said that he doesn't feel his knee is progressing adequately. The knee has been getting drained of fluid throughout the Lakers playoff run.
He is far from 100 percent, but his presence alone will make an impact on this series.
3. The Evolution of Rajon Rondo
In 2008, Rajon Rondo was a wide eyed, inexperienced point guard charged with managing the game for this veteran club, much the way a QB with a great defense is asked to play in the NFL.
Rondo has evolved into quite an impressive player since then. He was named an Eastern Conference All-Star and earned a spot on the All-NBA First Team Defense.
Rajon Rondo has enjoyed a banner 2010 playoffs. His statistical averages are up across the board from the regular season. Rondo had one of the best performances in Boston Celtics playoff history, with a superb 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist performance against the Cavaliers on May 9.
The former Kentucky Wildcat is supremely confident and aggressively penetrates to get into the paint. He is an accomplished defender and has a mastery of getting his teammates involved. Rajon's gradual improvement will play a major role in deciding the 2010 champion.
4. The Boston Celtics Faced a More Challenging Road To Get to the Finals
After an underachieving 50 wins, the Boston Celtics limped into the 2010 playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They were considered too old to be a viable contender for the championship, with most analysts predicting the No. 1 seed Cavaliers or No. 2 seed Magic to represent the East.
As time went on this postseason, the Celtics found themselves as a team and have played their best basketball all year.
On their path to the NBA Finals, they knocked off the Miami Heat (47-35), the Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21), and the Orlando Magic (59-23). Conversely, the Lakers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder (50-32), Utah Jazz (53-29), and the Phoenix Suns (54-28). Regular season record doesn't mean everything. The Celtics are a prime example of that themselves, but it should be mentioned.
Therefore, the Celtics faced a combined 167-79 (.678 winning percentage) in these playoffs, including the two best teams in the entire league (Cleveland and Orlando). The Lakers competed against a combined 157-89 (.638 winning percentage) this postseason.
After two rounds, the Orlando Magic were a perfect 8-0 in the postseason and were considered world beaters as they prepared to play the Celtics. It could be argued that the Magic were affected by the fact their first two opponents, the Bobcats and Hawks, didn't present a sufficient challenge in contrast to what the Celtics faced the first two rounds.
I believe we could see a similar set of circumstances in the Finals.
Another important element stemming from this Celtics playoff run is that they've encountered two of the three best players in the entire league in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James already.
The third in that trio is obviously Kobe Bryant, and they will match wits with him for the right to the 2010 championship. The fact that they've matched up against someone who is as immensely talented as Kobe Bryant twice already bodes extremely well for the Boston Celtics.
Look at it from this angle as well. Had the Phoenix Suns made it to the Finals, I believe either the Orlando Magic or Boston Celtics would've been overwhelming favorites.
The Suns are a good team, no question. But would anyone be surprised if the Suns only win 42 games next year? They didn't even make the playoffs in 2009. I believe the Magic and/or Celtics would've squashed the Suns.
Bottom line: The Lakers have not faced the same challenge that the Celtics have in these playoffs, and it could hurt them.
5. The Celtics and Lakers Are Both Strong Defensively, but the Celtics Are Better
The Boston Celtics (.438) and L.A. Lakers (.437) allow nearly identical field goal percentages to their opponents in these playoffs. Both of their three-point field goal percentages allowed are excellent as well, with the Lakers yielding .325 and the Celtics allowing .329.
Thus far in the 2010 postseason, Boston grants a paltry 91.4 points to their opponents. Conversely, Los Angeles concedes 101.7 points per game to their opposition. Boston has outscored their opponents by an average of 5.2 points per game, while the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 4.0 points a game.
Furthermore, the Boston Celtics force an NBA-high 16.4 turnovers per game, while the Lakers pressure opponents into 11.9 turnovers per game.
Gone are the days when the Lakers are going to score 115 or 120. The Lakers are going to be challenged to score more than 100 every game by this elite Celtics defense.
6. Ron Artest Will Limit Paul Pierce
Do you remember what Ron Artest did to Kevin Durant in the first round? Artest held the gifted Durant to 35 percent shooting and 28 percent three-point shooting. He will make Paul Pierce work in a similar manner.
There are a few players the 260-lb. Artest was put on this earth to defend: Caron Butler, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul Pierce. Each are small forwards who can't necessarily out-quick Artest and will settle for contested jump shots.
Paul Pierce is one of the reasons Ron Artest is a Laker in the first place. Los Angeles brass understood Artest's physical defensive presence would play an important role in their title defense. They anticipated matching up against some of the bigger small forwards mentioned earlier, including Paul Pierce.
The Celtics have proven that they can survive without Paul Pierce enjoying a strong series. In the Cavaliers series, Pierce struggled mightily. He scored 13.5 points per game, and did so rather inefficiently. His field goal percentage (.345) and three-point field goal percentage (.308) were abysmal.
Despite this, Boston still topped the Cavaliers.
7. Who Will Kobe Bryant Defend?
In 2008, Kobe Bryant guarded Rajon Rondo rather than the natural matchup of Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. I have written a column at length regarding this matter specifically and Kobe's incessant coasting on defense, so I won't get into the past.
As previously stated, Rondo has grown leaps and bounds as a player. He is no longer the "easy" assignment on defense.
Lakers fans will point to the fact that Kobe defended Russell Westbrook in the Thunder series, and he did. But in actuality, Bryant did so sporadically. When he did choose to expend his energy on defending Westbrook, he was incredibly effective.
Is Kobe Bryant capable of defending Rajon Rondo? Absolutely. Does Kobe Bryant want to exert all of his energy on defense chasing Rondo around? Hell no.
No chance Kobe defends Paul Pierce for any length of time in this series either. That's Ron Artest's job.
That leaves Ray Allen. Allen has enjoyed a solid postseason run. He is without question one of the premiere three-point shooters in the history of the NBA.
What all this means is Kobe Bryant won't be able to relax on defense.
He'll be charged with the tasks of denying Allen the ball, chasing him around the court, and fighting through the network of screens that will inevitably be set for the sweet shooting guard.
Kobe Bryant is a stellar on-ball defender when he is willing to give the effort, but most of the time he prefers to wander. In last year's Finals, Kobe defended Courtney Lee. Lee was a good three-point shooter, but wasn't considered a massive threat, the way Ray Allen obviously is.
This enabled Bryant to roam and help freely on defense. Kobe Bryant will not be afforded the same luxury in this series. If Ray Allen gets an inch of daylight, he will pull up and swish a three without hesitation.
Kobe's defensive focus will be paramount in this series.
8. Who Will Defend Kobe Bryant?
In 2008, the enormous task of guarding Kobe Bryant fell mostly on the shoulders of Paul Pierce and James Posey. With Posey now a New Orleans Hornet, the assignment will be that of Paul Pierce.
The truth is, no one man is going to defend Kobe, including "The Truth."
Despite his various ailments, Bryant remains one of the most unguardable forces the NBA has ever seen. However, the Boston Celtics boast one of the strongest defensive units in the league, including one of the brightest defensive minds in assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau and Rivers conjured up a brilliant defensive strategy in the 2008 Finals, which dared Kobe Bryant to shoot contested outside shots, and dared Paul Pierce and James Posey to challenge Kobe without sending him to the foul line.
Paul Pierce has the length and defensive wherewithal to do battle with Bryant. He knows Bryant's tendencies and is familiar with his sweet spots. Pierce won't be bullied by Kobe in the post, as he is both taller and heavier.
Kobe Bryant is going to get his, but it won't be done with tremendous efficiency.
Another aid in defending Kobe Bryant is the fact that he will have to work on defense himself in this series. Even the best players in the league are affected when they must play at both ends. Look no further than LeBron James and Paul Pierce from the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when they defended each other, and each of their offensive games suffered consequently.
In closing, I think this is going to be a tightly contested series.
The Lakers owning home-court advantage is massively significant. Having a defender like Ron Artest readily available to defend Paul Pierce will be huge. Pau Gasol is clearly a better overall player now than Kevin Garnett, and you couldn't say that in 2008.
The Lakers looking to exact a measure of revenge from their 2008 Finals loss will also play a big role.
However, I am picking the Boston Celtics to win the series in seven games.
Lakers fans certainly wanted revenge on the Celtics, but they didn't want to face this team. The Boston Celtics are an intimidating bunch that is playing their best basketball of the season at precisely the right time. Lakers fans wanted the Magic, a considerably easier route for a second consecutive championship.
I believe the Boston Celtics play better team basketball. They play with absolute unselfishness offensively. I worry that when times get tough (and they will) for the Lakers, Kobe will play right into Boston's hands and force difficult and untimely shots.
I cite Rajon Rondo's exponential improvement since the 2008 Finals. I look at the fact that, statistically, the Celtics defense is even more suffocating than it was in 2008. I look at the laundry list of injuries that are hampering Kobe Bryant. I wonder how effective Andrew Bynum can be with his persistent knee issues. I look at Garnett, Pierce, and Allen playing well despite their age.
But most importantly, I look at these two big factors:
1. The path the Celtics took to get to these NBA Finals. Knocking off the best two teams in the league, Orlando and Cleveland, and doing so rather convincingly.
In a way, this is the third NBA Finals the Celtics have played THIS SEASON.
2. The defense the Celtics are playing is incredibly intense. Their defensive ball rotation is crisp. Their perimeter defense is relentless, and their post defense is the best in the league. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are going to be hard pressed to get anything down low.
At the risk of sounding cliché, defense wins championships. And that is precisely how the 2010 NBA Finals will be won.