Fan's Eye View: Where we are now...

. . . and why #18 is a reality

(We promoted drza44's previews against Cleveland and Orlando, and it seemed like things worked out okay.  Let's hope he can bring us luck one last time. -RH)

This feels like déjà vu all over again.  "The Celtics are strong, but not good enough against a transcendent superstar".  "Kobe is playing the best ball of his career, and will ‘will’ his team to victory."  "If Kobe (not the Lakers…Kobe) wins another title, can we re-open the Jordan comparisons?"  I could swear these are story-lines from 2008, but no, they’re the majority of what I’ve seen written for the upcoming 2010 NBA Finals.  These are what many media outlets seem to believe are the main things you need to know about the championship series.  Me, I focus on the game itself.  And when I think about the upcoming Celtics vs Lakers Finals, the first thing that comes to my mind is "chess vs checkers" with a dabble of baseball analogy sprinkled in.  Let me explain.

The Lakers are a fabulously talented team with two huge strikeout pitches: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.  They also have nice secondary pitches, with Ron Artest’s defense and toughness  combining with Lamar Odom’s much-larger-than-advertised game impact.  Even the role players can hurt you, with Andrew Bynum (knee) and Derek Fisher as wild cards that could be the difference on any given day.

The thing is, though, even with all of that talent the Lakers usually can only win in one of two distinct ways.  Either 1) they physically overwhelm their opponents with their bigs, or 2) they keep the game competitive and Kobe’s individual brilliance wins the day.  They very rarely switch philosophies on the fly, and their two strategies actually seem to have trouble co-existing as we’ve already seen some friction between the "pound them inside/Kobe’s shooting too much" and the "Kobe’s the best player in the universe, let him do his thing" philosophies this postseason.  In that respect they remind me of checkers players, as the overarching strategies are fairly basic and there are only two to choose from.  The Lakers rely on either brute size or brute talent, and need to overwhelm their opponents to win.

The Celtics, on the other hand, are different.  Their one huge "out" pitch is their defense.  It is consistent and pervasive.  It’s a 102 mph fastball that they build their entire strategy around.  But when you move to the offensive side of the ball, suddenly they have a large variety of ways they can win.  Paul Pierce and/or Ray Allen can get hot from the outside and shoot the other team off the court.  KG can take over the post, scoring and distributing all game long.  Rondo can blow by his man and break down the defense just about every possession.  Some combo of Pierce/KG/Rondo can run repeated pick-and-roll/pick-and-post/pick-and-pop all game long.  Boston has four players that, if they’re on, cannot be adequately defended  by one-on-one defense, and each can carry the offensive load for entire games at a time.  Similarly, the Celtics’ offensive scheme is flexible enough to actually use any of these (or other) strategies to take advantage of mismatches.  Against the Heat it was often Ray doing it.  Against the Cavs it was Rondo and KG.  Against the Magic it was Pierce.  And the thing is, this wasn’t accidental…the Celtics exploited these mismatches by design.

And that’s why, to me, they are playing chess on a level that very few teams historically have ever been able to do.  Their defense is a bullying beast, but their offense is almost a symphony.  They don’t have any one player on offense that just overwhelms every opponent.  But they have four players that can overwhelm 90% of their opponents, and there’s no one team that has enough individual pieces on defense to counter every strategy.  That pervasive defense with that multi-faceted offense is, among other intangible reasons, why the Celtics will be raising banner #18 this year.

As to how it’ll happen, I think we’ll see a lot of move, counter-move.  In ’08 the Lakers started off defending the Cs straight up, and Garnett shredded them in the first half of game 1 which prompted them to start shading Odom and eventually Kobe (who switched to Rondo/safety) over to double him before the entry pass.  This left the field open for Pierce and Allen to torch Vlad and Fisher, who had no chance against them 1-on-1.  Eventually the Lakers went back to a more straight up defensive approach, and Garnett murdered them again to finish the series.  I think we’ll see a similar story this season, but the question is: who do the Lakers try to take away?

With Artest in the fold, I expect him to get the primary call on Pierce and for them not to double.  Likewise, I think that KG will also be manned up by Gasol.  The biggest question is who do they put on Rondo, and how much attention do they tell their bigs to pay to stopping him?  I think that’s the key.  If the Lakers gear their defense to stop Rondo, Ray and KG will need to have big starts to the series to put them on their heels.  If, on the other hand, the Lakers try to play Rondo straight up then he has to explode and make them regret it.  The Lakers’ defensive strategy is IMO the first key question of the 2010 Finals, and whatever they choose the Celtics have to be ready to make them pay.

On the other side of the ball, I expect the Celtics to approach the Lakers the way they did the Cavs.  Kobe is going to get the man-plus-help defense, and I think that Perkins actually will get the main call on Gasol with Garnett spending more time on Bynum and Odom.  The main thrust will be to make Kobe score inefficiently and maybe get him frustrated, but there is some danger here because Gasol (unlike the other second options we’ve faced) is really good enough to win multiple games as the main offensive threat.  This is going to put a lot of pressure on Perk and Garnett, as it is vital that they keep the Lakers bigs under wraps and off the boards even as they keep one eye on Kobe.  It’ll definitely be a challenge, but this defense inspires confidence and I think they’re up to the task.

In the end, this match-up has a lot of similarities to the circumstances surrounding 2008.  The Lakers have been thoroughly dominant in the postseason, but against teams that a) play no defense and b) don’t have the personnel to match up with them.  Thus, it makes their actual ceiling a bit of a mystery.  They COULD be that good, or they could look better than they are.  The Celtics, on the other hand, had to go through teams of both the caliber and physical ability to best prepare them for the Lakers.  Plus, though both teams are champions with the Lakers’ the most recent, in their hearts the Lakers have to have a twinge of doubt…they’ve been measuring themselves against the Celtics from afar for two years and always sound like they’re trying to convince themselves that they are better this time around (just listen to their interviews, and their focus on toughness, and their statements about the Celtics teaching them to be champs, etc.).  On the other hand, the Celtics KNOW they can beat the Lakers.  Yes, there are some differences in the team, but you can’t convince me that in their hearts KG, Pierce and Ray don’t quietly have a "we own these guys" feeling.

This matchup could go anywhere from 5 to 7 games without shocking me.   My first thought is to say Celtics in 6, though it does give me pause that with the 2 – 3 – 2 format game 6 is in LA.  But 5 and 7 are the extremes of when I’d expect the Cs to win, and they’ve been beasts on the road this year anyway, so I’ll go ahead and say it.  Celtics in 6.  #18 is a reality.  Thursday at 9 EST can’t possibly get here soon enough.

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