Familiar faces in familiar places
For the twelfth time in NBA history, the Los Angeles Lakers will meet their storied rival, Boston Celtics, in the NBA Finals. No matter which team wins this year’s incarnation of the rivalry the two opposite coast franchises (the Lakers were in Minneapolis before their move to the City of Angels) will account for 33 of the 64 total NBA titles. In their previous eleven meetings in the playoffs, the matchup between the two teams has been quite lopsided with the Celtics having won nine of those encounters. On a variety of levels, the Lakers are looking to seek some semblance of vengeance for history’s and posterity’s sake. Most recently the two franchises faced each other in the 2008 NBA Finals. For the Lakers, it ended in an embarrassing fashion as they were romped by the Celtics who won the series in six games. Once again the Lakers failed to accomplish the task set before them when matched up against their arch rivals on the NBA’s largest stage. The next season, the Lakers returned to the finals and were rewarded with the jewelry they had grown so accustomed to receiving in the first few years of the new millennia. Now they are back with a chance to redeem themselves, but these are not the same two teams that met two years ago.
During the regular season, the Lakers squared off against the Celtics twice, splitting the series. Each game was decided by a single point and neither team exceeded 90 points. Conventional wisdom states that regular season matchups bare no meaning to what will transpire in the playoffs. This year is no different. However, stats will be used from these games in the analysis of player performance, though at a minimal usage level. Thursday will mark the first time the teams have played each other since Boston beat Los Angeles 87-86 on 18 February. Both teams have taken completely different roads to the finals since that meeting. No matter what has happened though, record wise, is moot now. The Lakers have home court because they have the better regular season record. However this may not be as favorable as it seems because the Celtics are the first team in NBA history to make the finals with a better road record than home record during the regular season.
Returning to the finals, the Lakers relied on the player whom many consider to be the best player in the league if not the world. Kobe Bryant willed the Lakers to victory throughout the playoffs putting on one dazzling display after another. To this point in time, his performance during the last few minutes of game six against the Phoenix Suns has been the icing on the cake. Kobe, however, has a whole bakery at his disposal and there is no shortage of multi-tier cakes ready to be feasted on by players and fans alike. Doc Rivers will do everything he can to slow Kobe down. At this point, though, nothing and no one can do that. He will continue to drain buckets, especially clutch ones, at a rate comparable to the flow of oil coming out of BP’s burst pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no top kill for Kobe. He has his ‘sexy’ matchup which will give him a change for personal vindication and revenge. We know what Kobe will do. He will do everything and he will be remarkable. Coming into the finals, Bryant has averaged 29.4 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.2 assists while shooting approximately 48.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc. Never once has he been the issue. It has always been the players around him that have been the concern. This year it is no different.
Since 2008 and their last encounter with the Celtics in the finals, the Lakers have made very few roster changes. However, they have made one considerable move. The acquisition of Ron Artest has given Los Angeles the desired toughness that they so desperately lacked during the two teams confrontation in 2008. His mentality as a physical defender who is not afraid to bump, swipe, grind, grab, and pull are exactly why the Lakers got him. Surely Kobe and his teammates had had quite enough of him during the Western Conference Semifinals in 2009 when he was with the Houston Rockets. Playing with him is much more desirable than playing against him. Now they have Ron Ron and despite what people have been saying about Trevor Ariza (i.e. he is a better fit for the Lakers and so forth) they will quickly be proven to be yet more nameless faces among the hoards of fake and uneducated fans. If Ariza is truly better than Artest, then Artest looks to average less playing time than Ariza logged in the previous meeting of the last two NBA champions. Ariza averaged seven, yes seven, minutes per game against the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. In fact, Phil Jackson thought so highly of Ariza that he gave Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Walton the main defensive assignments against Paul Pierce, the player that Artest will draw defensive duties against. What do you want to bet that Artest maintains his 36.8 minutes per game average so far in the playoffs? Ariza is not Artest, and for the Lakers that is a very good thing. It is an even better thing that he is not Radmanovic.
In the first round of the playoffs, Artest held the NBA’s scoring champion, Kevin Durant, to 35 percent shooting. Durant went 43-123 from the floor during that series. Ariza is still better right? In the Western Conference Finals, Artest won the two games that clinched the series victory for the Lakers. He hit the game winner in the final second of game five after what had been a poor shooting night. In game six he exploded out of the starting blocks as he dominated the first quarter on his way to 25 points for the game. After that it was Kobe’s game. No other Laker put up significant scoring numbers. Artest came to Los Angeles to play for a championship and now he is getting that opportunity because of his contributions on the court during the playoffs.
Artest will now take his place as the second most important player on the Lakers’ roster during the finals. His role, however, will not be important for his scoring abilities but more for his defensive capabilities, which is why he was brought to L.A. in the first place. He will be assigned to guard twelve year Celtic and Los Angeles native, Paul Pierce. Pierce simply torched the Lakers in the 2008 finals as they had no answer for him. Now, with Artest, they do. Over Artest’s career in the NBA, his ability to shut down some of the NBA’s best scorers has molded itself into part of his reputation if not an entity entirely of its own. Paul Pierce is no exception to the rule although he has not been as adversely affected as some over the course of his career against Artest. Pierce’s career averages, through the 2008-09 season, were 22.9 points per game on 44.3 percent field goal shooting, 33.6 percent from downtown, 6.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 7.8 free throw attempts, and 3.1 turnovers. Against Artest his averages are 21.3 points per game on 43.6 percent field goal shooting, 39.3 percent from behind the arc, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 7.1 free throw attempts, and 3.4 turnovers. Essentially these numbers are fairly consistent with a slight drop in scoring and rebounding with an increase in shooting accuracy from the three-point line. These numbers are nothing notable to really write home about.
However, this season, when matched up against Artest, the story is quite different. This year Pierce averaged 18.3 points per game, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, shot .472 from the floor and .414 from downtown, with 6.1 free throw attempts, and 2.3 turnovers. His scoring production is the lowest it has been since his rookie campaign but with the emergence of Rajon Rondo it is not at all surprising because he no longer has to carry the offensive load for the Celtics. There were two meetings between the Lakers and Celtics occurring on 31 January and again on 18 February. During these engagements there is quite a noticeable difference from his season averages. He averaged 13 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, shot 40 percent on field goals and 36 percent from behind the arc, with four free throw attempts and 2.5 turnovers. That is a dramatic difference from his averages and the Lakers can thank Artest for it and they will certainly be looking for similar production in the finals.
Unlike the first three rounds of the playoffs, Los Angeles’ frontcourt will actually be challenged. Sure Paul Milsap went off on them as did Amar’e Stoudemire at times but neither of those players is a consistent threat to dominate the interior both offensively and defensively. (Carlos Boozer was too banged up to even be a factor). The Celtics have player who excel at just that. With Andrew Bynum playing on an injured knee which he just had drained (draining it produced more than two ounces of fluid, that is a lot) and will inevitably have to have surgery on this offseason the Lakers must get as much production from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as they can. Boston just battered Dwight Howard for six consecutive games making him look like an untested rookie for much of the series. How do you think they will treat a hobbled Bynum? They will make mincemeat out of him. Gasol and Odom are the only two legitimate frontcourt options the Lakers have.
Gasol has been the second best Laker thus far in the playoffs averaging twenty points per contest while pulling down 10.9 rebounds. When on the court with Bynum, Gasol will play his natural four position and therefore be matched up against power forward killer, Kevin Garnett. Garnett has shut down every player he has matched up against this postseason. There is a reason that the likes of Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis were rarely, if ever, heard from in the second and third rounds in the East. In this season’s playoffs, Garnett’s defensive rating is a 99 so for Gasol to have any chance of success he must be at the top of his game rather than enjoying a siesta. He took the brunt of the criticism after the 2008 finals debacle and does not need an encore performance. In the eyes of many he is still a soft player. Instead of saying that the final’s loss motivated him, he needs to come out and prove that he is a better player than he was then. If he does not, he will be shown to be as soft as flan against the Celtics’ frontline bruisers.
Point guards have run wild against the Lakers. How will Rondo shape up in what is becoming his best playoffs yet?
An interesting set of matchups will also take place in the backcourt. Throughout these playoffs the Lakers have been continually tested by some of the league’s best point guards. This series will be no different. After facing Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash, all of whom torched Los Angeles, they must now face Rajon Rondo, who is developing into the face of a franchise. Derek Fisher is no longer the defensive player that he once was and is not able to keep up with young quick guards who probe and slash through the painted area. For this reason, expect Bryant to pick up the defensive assignment on Rondo leaving Fisher to fight through curls and screens while defending Jesus Shuttlesworth. For the Lakers to be successful they must not allow Rondo to continue to average ten assists per game, Kobe knows this which is why he will place the onus on himself of defending Rondo.
Los Angeles has some favorable matchups when their most productive lineup is on the floor. The lineup that is most effective for the Lakers is when Gasol shifts to the center position and Odom comes in at the four with Artest at three and Kobe and Fisher in the backcourt. This would have the effect of putting Gasol against Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, or a more likely matchup with Rasheed Wallace, who is notorious for pestering the league’s power forwards. It will be imperative that the Lakers physically establish themselves down low if they are to have any chance. However, after that the Celtics have the clear advantage in depth. For the Lakers to remain NBA champions the must execute (partially regret using such a cliché word) at their highest level as a whole. Continuing subpar performances from any of their players not named Kobe will not be tolerated by the Mamba and result in an uphill struggle. Their bench is totally impotent, as we have discussed ad nauseam, in the face of what the Celtics can call on from the bench. Yet, it is always unwise to underestimate the determination and will of Kobe Bryant.
Underestimating the Celtics has become a fool’s game in these playoffs. Time and again they have mustered the spirit of a championship caliber team that knows what it needs to do to reach its end goal. As in 2008, the Celtics’ return to the NBA finals has resurrected old ghosts and fond memories of days past. (The NBA is quick to embellish the historical ramifications of this year’s finals matchup to boost ratings.) Iconic sights and sounds are everywhere in our memories: the smell of Red’s cigar and physical play of Parish, McHale and Bird all come to mind. However, this season’s incarnation of the Celtics is not the same as the teams and players of old. Alas, this is a very different Boston team. A different swagger and different goal drive these green men even though it all comes down to hoisting the trophy as the green shirted and shamrock touting peons of the Garden plan on where to hang the next banner.
Will the Celtics fill the empty banner that hangs in their practice gym?
As opposed to the Celtics of old, these boys are not playing to highlight a dynasty but rather they are trying to establish one. We all know they won in 2008 but without a ring this year, that season will become a more and more superficial memory of the super-loading done by a team with players desperate not to go down in history as this generation’s Ewing, Barkely or Malone. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Peirce all had careers in desperate need of rings but now, a dynasty is the next step and only one ring after the heavy-spending summer of 2007 will not make this group very memorable (or favorable) in the years and decades to come. Certainly they do not want their championship to be viewed in the same light as Miami’s. They would be looked at as a team put together for one banner as opposed to a group put together for all-out dominance.
To win the series against the Lakers, the Celtics have a lot to work on. First, Doc Rivers and the starters need to prepare for a long haul. This rest should help but it is going to be a long series and in order to beat LA they are going to have to be ready to control the tempo and bang on the inside with the big men. Kendrick Perkins has been a ghost during this postseason but in the two games against LA early this season, he has fared well with 10 points and 12 rebounds a game. His goal should to stay on Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum in the post to avoid easy buckets when Kobe attracts the double or even triple team. This is one thing that killed the Suns.
Next, Rajon Rondo says that he is not playing at 100 percent. Boston needs him in top form to be successful. During the Eastern Conference Finals, he suffered from muscle spasms and a hurt back. Rondo has been a monster during what is proving to be his best postseason yet. He was once considered the weak link in this starting rotation but now is averaging 15 points and 10 assists in the playoffs. His athletic ability is opening up a lot of possibilities for this team to score in several different ways. He is playing with more confidence than before and is not looking to Doc Rivers with wondering puppy eyes anymore for guidance. The reins are his.
Boston’s bench also has to be as big of a factor as possible even if it does not show up on the scoreboard. The Celtics are not going to get a lot of consistent or big numbers out of their bench but the effort and hustle that they provide is vital to Boston’s success on the court. Nate Robinson, Rasheed, Tony Allen, and Glen Davis have shown that they can show up but never on the same night. However, they can still be affective in two ways. Defensive stands are key while the Boston starters are resting on the bench. They will need to get in there and pester whoever is on the floor for the Lakers and help maintain leads or prevent further damage. This will not be easy against L.A.’s starters but should be very easy against their bench. Try and name four important rotation players off of Los Angeles’ bench that will come up big. Odom does not count, even though his combined numbers for one game can be the total of four other players off the bench. Predicting the future is an endeavor for Marty McFly and Dr. Brown but when it comes to the Lakers’ bench it is easier than building a flux capacitor. Bynum should be a non-factor in this series due to his knee. This will shorten Phil Jackson’s rotation so hopefully they will get to see more Luke Walton than even Bill Walton would like to see. L.A.’s bench is embarrassing and the Celtics will have a chance to wear down the starters and hopefully get a chance to beat down some of those second team players.
Lastly, exploit the mismatches. Artest and Kobe are some of the best defenders in the league but they cannot guard everyone. Depending on whom they are covering, one or two other players will be open. Expect Lamar Odom and Gasol to stay low against Garnett in any sort of post play and Artest and Kobe on the outer fringe of the paint and perimeter. The jump shot will be challenged by these guys but with this matchup it will leave two players against weaker defenders at all times. Derek Fisher will not be a factor on defense and will give Rondo a chance to manipulate the court. Going outside, they will have to find the open man and trust me, there will be one somewhere. Look for the open three and if not, bang it to the inside. The refs have shown that they will call fouls on both Bynum and Odom. Force Phil Jackson to decide on where to place his defenders. This will always leave someone open. He will make adjustments over the course of the games themselves and the series. Track them and adjust.
Phoenix and Oklahoma City had speed. Boston does not. They forced the Lakers to play a full-court game as opposed the half-court style they prefer. Boston is a half-court offense as well. The Celtics will not be running an offense that will make the Lakers uncomfortable since that would force them to play outside of their style and for a team that is fairly old and beat up like Boston that would be suicide. Instead, play smarter and exploit the defense whenever possible. Mismatches will occur since L.A. has such a shortened rotation due to injury and sheer talent.
Last season, without Garnett, the Celtics found their human side in the Playoffs as Orlando steam-rolled them to gain a spot in the Finals just to lose to the blood-thirsty Mamba. This season, the Celtics were Orlando’s Kryptonite and they can easily be considered one of the hottest teams in the playoffs with series wins against Miami, Cleveland and Orlando. Outside of the Heat and their one-horse show, it is an impressive playoff resume, to say the least, especially since they only won 10 of their last 20 games in the regular season. Here at the Beef, we had the Celtics written off by February as their age was beginning to show and it was apparent that Rasheed Wallace was never going to be a factor in Boston. Now, they are playing for the title and since our predictions for this team didn’t work out before, we are going to throw out some more for this Finals because that’s just what we do.
Let’s just get it out there, Boston will win this series. I know it sounds hypocritical since we have been dogging this team nearly all season. But we do have our reasons for a change of heart. Simply put, Boston is hot. The pundits and King James himself saw Cleveland as an obvious favorite to win the East and the Finals. Cleveland lost the last three games in the series by a combined 51 points. They then went on to hand Orlando their first loss of the playoffs just to lose a commanding 3-0 series lead. They walked away with the series but not after a big scare. Boston is on a roll and we have doubted them all along. This ends here. No longer will our good name be besmirched by the boys in green.
Plenty of analysts and sports writers are commenting on how the series will be close. Some of the games certainly will be. However, the Lakers have had an easy ride in the playoffs and coasted into the finals. So far their toughest opponent has been the young kids in Oklahoma City. Los Angeles believes itself to be a tough squad but has done little in the way of showing it. They have two tough players in Bryant and Artest but other than them the determination and grit of the team is very suspect.
We are going to have to see the Doc outsmart the Zen Master if Boston plans on hoisting another banner. Yet it will not be up to Rivers or Jackson in the end. What it will come down to is the heart of the players on the floor. Boston has met and toppled each challenge they have faced. They have dethroned kings and taken down reigning champions. Their heart is beating faster as they near the summit but it will not give out. No player on that team will let it slow down or stop until they hold the Larry O’Brien trophy in their hands and are on their way to Disney World.