We are one day away from the match-up we've all been waiting for. A Christmas gift, from the NBA to you and me. Of course we've been enjoying our 19 game win streak, but spoiled as we are, it just isn't as fun to beat up on the onetime rival Sixers and Knicks as it is to stare down our greatest rivals. The same rivals that were favored headed into the Finals last year. The same rivals that got most of the preseason buzz.
The Celtics may be repeating the mantra that all the games are important, but none of that resonates with the fans. This isn't just big for us, this is big for all sports fans. The world will be watching and I can only hope that the team we know and love will show up and display their dominance over the Lakers.
I want all Laker fans to receive a huge lump of coal in their stockings in the form of a Celtics stomping. Of course it is nothing personal. As it happens, one of my favorite NBA bloggers is a Lakers blogger. Hey, if Larry and Magic can do it...
So as is our tradition, here are some questions I shot at Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold and his answers back to me. Enjoy.
1. So, clearly the Lakers are obsessed with the Celtics. Do you see this as a good or bad thing? Has it been a distraction or motivation?
What you're asking is: Obsessed in a good way, or obsessed like I am with Scarlett Johansson?
I my opinion it is the good way, they are focused on the Celtics because they lost in the Finals. There's a lasting scar from game six. (By the way, a lot of the consternation from Lakers fans lately is because they are still skittish after that game.)
Actually, let me clarify that last paragraph: It's good, if the team uses it as motivation to get better, to overcome obstacles. They have not done that of late — for the first 10 games or so they came out on fire, but from there they grew comfortable and (unlike your Celtics) they have been playing to the level of their competition. Of course, part of what has been going on is that when his teams struggle, Phil Jackson lets them. It's how his Bulls and earlier Laker teams learned to win.
But the recent struggles along with seeing a streaking Celtics team again should remind this team where it needs to get to if it wants a parade and a banner. It's December, the Larry O'Brien trophy isn't handed out for six months, so there is plenty of time to get where they need to be. But the work starts now.
2. Along the same lines, it sounds like the Lakers have discovered this thing called Defense that seemed to work out pretty well for the Celtics. How much of that is Ariza and Bynum and how much of it is simply a renewed dedication from Kobe on down?
Part of it is personnel (when said personnel is focused), but the biggest change has been scheme. Phil Jackson won nine rings playing straight-up man-to-man, but the change in how fouls are now called on the perimeter has changed what he wants to do.
What the Lakers have instituted is a defense where the help comes out fast and far to the strong side, essentially bringing and extra defender there and zoning off the weak side. They trap anyone along the baseline they can. I could bore you with plenty more detail, but I'd suggest reading one of two posts about this: Mine or better yet Kevin Pelton's.
What this defense does is take advantage of what is the Lakers biggest strength defensively, their length. Even someone like Vladimir Radmanovic, not exactly known for his defense (how is that for being gentle), can play in this system — he doesn't have to be a stopper, he just has to shade his man and get him to drive to help.
That said, players matter. A lot. Ariza has been a big boost for the Lakers, he has been maybe the third or fourth best player on the team this season, and one of the few guys who brings it on the defensive end nightly getting steals and thriving in a faster tempo. He likely will get some time on Pierce.
As for Bynum, he definitely is a boost in the paint, providing a shot blocking presence that Pau Gasol just cannot. That said, he is playing like a 21-year-old a lot lately — being timid and afraid of picking up fouls (then getting them for stupid things). His growth this season will be key to the team's growth defensively.
3. It would be a shame to miss an opportunity for a rematch (I'm still bitter we didn't get a chance to sweep you in 1986), but who is the biggest Western threat to your return to the Finals?
This may sound like I've been hitting the Christmas eggnog early, but the team that scares me is Houston. If they are healthy (and that is a big, big IF). I've watched them when they have Artest in the fold, with McGrady and Yao healthy, and it is a scary. They can defend very well, and they can score inside or on the perimeter. Health and them keeping it together are big questions, but if they can they are loaded with talent we have only seen glimpses of.
The two others just below them are the two you expect — New Orleans (because CP3 can win games in the end and has a nice compliment around him) and San Antonio (do I really need to go into them and say why). That said, I don't think, if both the Lakers and those two teams are play their best game, that they can't beat the Lakers. They just don't have the talent.
A healthy and focused Huston, however, could be different. If they can get there.
And, on a side note, I want to wish a Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all the CelticsBlog readers and fans. I hope your holiday is everything you hope (except for a couple hours in the middle of the afternoon).