Previewing the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals tip off Thursday night at 9:00pm on ABC. So, without further ado, let's discuss.

Sure, these two franchises battled for the title back in 2008, but let's not cloud the fact that these are two entirely different teams this time around. The Los Angeles Lakers of 2008 are not the Los Angeles Lakers of 2010, just as the Boston Celtics of 2008 are not the Boston Celtics of 2010. Let's just get that out of the way. There have been noteworthy additions and subtractions to both teams, which helps to nullify the comparisons between the two. 

While we're on the topic, let's take a look at those additions and subtractions.

Celtics

Key Losses: James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, Leon Powe

Key Additions: Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Michael Finley, Shelden Williams, Rajon Rondo (Sort of. 2010 Rondo is a significant upgrade compared to 2008 Rondo.)

Lakers

Key Losses: Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic, Ronny Turiaf

Key Additions: Andrew Bynum (did not play in 2008 Finals), Ron Artest, Shannon Brown

As you can see, quite a few bodies have moved around, which allows for an entirely new discussion. Sure, we'll revert back to the 2008 Finals on occasion (to point out potential differences more than anything), but overall, this is a whole new affair. 

Like the Orlando Magic, and unlike the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers are more of a team, with quality talent at every position, as opposed to a spotty group of role players thrown around a superstar. That's not to say the Lakers don't possess a superstar, as we all know what Kobe Bryant is clearly capable of. It's difficult to think about the Lakers without thinking of Bryant first, and appropriately so. 

Bryant posted some very impressive numbers in the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns: 33.6 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, and 8.3 assists per game, including a ridiculous number of immensely difficult and contested shots. He's incorporated a much improved post-up game into his repertoire, is still more than athletic enough to slice through the paint and finish in traffic, shot a very respectable 81.1 percent from the free throw line over the course of the playoffs, and (as evidenced by his numbers against Phoenix) is quite capable of getting his teammates involved while still managing to score on his own. He's the complete offensive package, yet, in these playoffs, he has yet to see anything resembling the defense the Boston Celtics will throw at him, both in terms of one-on-one defenders and help defense. While the Suns might have preached defense publicly, the Lakers eclipsed 100 points in all six games of the Western Conference Finals, so, for the most part, their talk was cheap. Boston will also preach defense, but unlike Phoenix, will more than likely be able to back up what it spits out. Tom Thibodeau will have had six days to prepare for one single opponent. Think about that. Given Thibodeau's history, I'm confident enough to say that I expect us to see results. Kobe will most likely still put in his points just because he's the great player he is, but the Celtics can, at the very least, make it more difficult for him, which will hopefully hinder LA's overall offense to an extent. 

Because of the offensive weapons surrounding Kobe, it's unlikely the Celtics will double-team him, but instead will most likely rely on the quartet of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Tony Allen, and Marquis Daniels (if he's healthy enough to play) to try and stymie his offensive groove. James Posey was certainly valuable in this department back in 2008, but hopefully a revitalized Tony Allen will help sure up the gap. Tony's been battling some minor ankle injuries the past week, but hopefully this is where the six days off in between series will prove useful. If TA can enter this series near 100 percent, we can only hope he'll be locked in, ready to give Kobe all he can handle. 

Much of the talk leading into Game 1 will center around the Celtics' defensive plans for Bryant, yet I'm actually much more curious about what Kobe will be doing defensively. If the Lakers decide to match up strictly by positions, then that would leave Kobe on Ray Allen, which means Kobe will be spending an awful lot of energy sprinting around the court and fighting through all of those screens - something Lakers coach Phil Jackson can't be too keen on. 

Then, of course, there's Rajon Rondo, who has so far been (arguably) the MVP of these playoffs for the Celtics. His impact has been substantial in each series so far, and given his importance, we'll more than likely see Kobe on him at some point. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, given Rondo's competitiveness and the general importance of this series, that Rajon's going to either throw down a triple-double in one of the first two games or come dangerously close (something like an 18-8-12, or a 17-9-13), prompting Kobe to go to Phil and say: "I want Rondo." The only problem there, is, guarding Rondo's no cakewalk, no matter who you are. How much energy will Kobe spend trying to stay in front of Rondo? The same amount as it would take to chase Ray around? Even more, considering how much Rondo handles the ball these days? Maybe just a little bit less?

That leaves Paul Pierce as an option as well, but here's where we need to bring Derek Fisher and Ron Artest into the picture. Again, if you assess this scenario strictly by position, Fisher would guard Rondo, Kobe would guard Ray, and Artest would guard Pierce. But, given the potential effects on Kobe's energy supply mentioned above, wouldn't a matchup with Pierce be the most economical for him? I'm going to go out on another limb and say Fisher isn't capable of containing Rondo one-on-one (not that many people are capable of such a feat) - not entirely at least. As for Artest, the rumblings have already started about the impact he could have on Pierce defensively, and how he wasn't present back in 2008. But is it a given that he'll spend the majority of his time exclusively on Pierce? 

Honestly, I could see Fisher, Bryant, and Artest all spending time on Rondo, Allen, and Pierce throughout the series. It could fluctuate quarter by quarter or game by game. I'm expecting to see all three chase Ray around screens at some point, all three try to slow Rondo, and Artest and Kobe (not Fisher) on Pierce. As for starting assignments, given the talent level of the point guards the Lakers saw through the first three series (Russell Westbrook, Derron Williams, and Steve Nash), I'm sure Fisher will start out on Rondo, Kobe will be checking Ray, and Artest will attempt to unsettle Pierce. Once the series begins to develop though, I'm expecting to see the different assignments touched on above. 

Moving to the front lines, one of the glaring differences between 2008 and 2010 will be the presence of Andrew Bynum in the middle. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Bynum might not be at 100 percent, as he's battling knee woes yet again - this time in the form of a torn meniscus in his right appendage. He still played against Phoenix in the Conference Finals, and put up modest numbers (7.2 points, 5.6 rebounds), hindered at times by both his ailing knee and inescapable foul trouble. Bynum's supposed to supply a certain amount of toughness that LA supposedly lacked back in 2008, but I'm sure Artest will help in that department as well. Kendrick Perkins is still fighting through some left knee issues of his own, but, strictly in terms of injuries, he has the advantage, given the fact that (as far as we know), nothing's torn or sprained or anything like that. Bynum's meniscus won't heal itself over the course of this week, but hopefully Perk's tendinitis will be brought under control over that time frame, and he can effectively contain what should be a somewhat limited Bynum once the series gets rolling.

There are a few different elements surrounding the Pau Gasol matchup, particularly the superiority of his offensive game compared to Dwight Howard's. There isn't much of a comparison regarding the offensive capabilties of each, seeing as how Howard relied mainly on that jump hook and lob passes, along with turning offensive rebounds into putback dunks. Gasol, on the other hand, can do it all inside: Hook shots, up-and-unders, drop steps, and jump hooks, along with the lob passes he's sure to convert into dunks occasionally. He's also capable of stepping out and knocking down a 16-footer if need be, and shoots 78 percent from the free throw line, which is pretty impressive for a big man. Needless to say, we won't be seeing any Punch-A-Pau during this series. He's easily the most talented big man offensively that the Celtics have seen throughout the postseason. Strictly in terms of baskets being converted around the rim, Howard was a cakewalk compared to Gasol.

But now, let's turn the tables. The Celtics, as we know by now, are an extremely physical and aggressive team defensively - something Gasol doesn't react very well too. He has yet to see a defense as physical as the Celtics', and will probably have a more difficult time putting the ball in the basket against the likes of Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and Kendrick Perkins (at times). While Glen Davis's bulk will be more than enough to throw Gasol off his spots down low, I'm definitely concerned with the height disadvantage. What's to stop Gasol from settling slightly farther away from the rim and tossing in hook shots? Howard might not have been capable of that, but Gasol will be. Keep an eye on that. 

Davis might be better suited to handle the always versatile Lamar Odom, who's impact could potentially swing this series in the Lakers' favor. Similar to how the Celtics become a different team when Rasheed Wallace is producing, so do the Lakers become that much more lethal when Odom's impact is felt. He definitely presents a matchup problem for the Celtics, and, it will most likely be up to Garnett and Davis to try and slow him down. He's probably too quick for Wallace, too versatile for Perkins, and too tall for Pierce or Tony Allen. Garnett and Davis are probably the best candidates available. If Bynum plays significant minutes, Odom could see more time with the second unit, which means the onus falls on Davis, but if Bynum is limited either by his knee or foul trouble, Gasol will probably switch over to the center spot, leaving Odom to fill in at power forward with the other starters, meaning Garnett might be seeing a lot of him. Odom averaged a noteworthy double-double against Phoenix: 14 points and 11.8 rebounds, while playing 34.3 minutes per game. Limiting his production is key, and if he sees significant time with the second unit, perhaps Davis's most important contributions this series will come on the defensive end against him. 

With the exception being Odom, LA doesn't boast a particularly daunting bench, as, alongside Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, and Sasha Vujacic have all split minutes. LA's particularly thin up front, with Odom serving as the only reliable backup big man. Josh Powell's been somewhat effective in the past for the Lakers, and if foul trouble creeps up he could be thrown into the fire, but so far, he's averaging just 3.2 minutes in the playoffs. 

Aside from Odom, Boston clearly boasts the superior bench, particularly if Nate Robinson can step in and contribute a few buckets each game. Depending on who's on the floor for the Lakers, Wallace's ability to stretch the defense could open the paint up somewhat for some of the Celtics' slashers. It's pretty much a given that Wallace will need to contribute offensively, and quite frankly, I'm not fully convinced the Lakers have someone capable of stopping him, particularly when he decides to post up down low. I don't want to discredit Gasol and Bynum defensively, but Rasheed's still got some left in the tank, and if he can rest that back this week and enter this series near 100 percent, you have to like his chances offensively. 

Tony Allen's value will most likely be highest on the defensive end against Kobe Bryant, and possibly even Ron Artest, but it never hurts to get six or eight points from TA off of various cuts to the basket, aggressive drives to the rim, and transition layups/dunks when paired with Rondo in the open court. If it's strictly a battle of the benches, TA should be able to limit anything Farmar/Brown/Walton/Vujacic want to do on the offensive end. 

Wow. I feel like I've written a lot. The funny thing is, I still feel like there's so much to say. I definitely didn't get to touch on everything. Here are a few last minute bullet points to consider:

  • Will the Celtics employ the zone defense that Phoenix used to bother LA at times in the Conference Finals?
  • Who's incentives are greater? The Lakers are looking to defend their title from last year and are most likely hoping to exact some revenge on Boston for what happened in 2008. Boston, on the other hand, having already tasted championship-level success once, wants a second helping. 
  • Derek Fisher has this truly nasty habit of hitting clutch jump shots at dispiriting times (if you're the opposition), even if he hasn't contributed much over the course of the game. Will he win a game for the Lakers with one of his miracle shots?
  • Could this series very well come down to who's healthier? Perk and Bynum are both battling knee issues, Garnett (when he wasn't karate chopping Dwight) looked somewhat ragged towards the end of the Conference Finals, Rondo appeared to irk his back on that nasty fall late in the first quarter of Game 6, Kobe has his knee drained just before the Conference Finals, Daniels is still recovering from his concussion in Game 5 of the ECF, and Rasheed's back doesn't appear to be in great shape right now. 
  • If Perkins picks up just one more technical foul, he'll be forced to sit out one game. Emotions will surely be running high, seeing as it's the Finals and all. Will the refs allow players to exude those emotions more freely this series? Perk definitely needs to be conscious of the dreaded double-technical, which has undoubtedly been a major factor in putting him in his current predicament. 
I'm considering this just a conversation starter. CelticsBlog has so much more on the way as we gear up for what should be a thrilling NBA Finals. As always, let's go Celtics.
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