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Breakin' It Down, Finals Style: Celts-Lakers

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It's been a week since the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the Western Conference title.  Our beloved Boston Celtics have been Eastern Conference champs for six days now.  We're less than 24 hours away from tip-off of the 2008 NBA Finals, and -- for fans of both teams, one would imagine -- it still feels surreal.

It's stunning to think about the travesty that was the 2006-07 Boston Celtics or the summer '07 version of Kobe Bryant.  But you've no doubt heard by now all about what these two teams have gone through to get here, and frankly, it's just as stunning -- and a heck of a lot more enjoyable -- to think about what lies ahead in these final two weeks of the professional basketball season.

No matter what happens in this concluding series, there will be an entire summer to reflect about the season that was.  No matter what happens for the next four to seven games, this will be a season for Celts fans to look back on with incredible fondness.

But for now, there is one more task ahead for the two teams remaining.  Well, four tasks, really.  So on the morning of the most anticipated Celtics playoff series in more than two decades, let's break out the preview for what could be the beginning of a Celts-Lakers rivalry for a new generation.

[Aside: Before we start, a hat tip to good friend and Columbia Missourian and Meadville Tribune reporter Bill Powell for out-performing me in the latest round of our friendly picks competition. Bill's pick of the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals was the difference.  Now, on to the preview.]

When the Lakers have the ball:  Undoubtedly, this is a Lakers offense with plenty of firepower.  Pau Gasol has been a huge addition in the middle, and the versatile Lamar Odom has had arguably the best season of his career.  Derek Fisher fits comfortably into Phil Jackson's triangle offense, and Vlad Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic have both given the Lakers better than 40 percent accuracy from three-point land.  And then there's the rather sizable matter of that pesky bugger from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania.  This team likes to run (sixth in pace) but can score in the half-court as well, and it's no accident that the Lakers finished second in basketball in offensive efficiency.  They move the ball effectively, and they have several viable options to complement the league's best go-to guy.

That said, if anyone can defend these Lakers, it's the Celtics.  The Celts will be the best defensive team the Lakers have run into this post-season, and oh yeah, they also just happened to be the best defensive team in basketball all season, allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions for the year.  Though some have questioned the team's lack of a Bruce Bowen or Andrei Kirilenko-type starter, it bears noting that these Celtics have gotten the job done as a team this season.  They aren't going to stop Kobe one-on-one -- although, for what it's worth, the C's do have one of the game's best individual defenders coming off the bench in James Posey -- but they are going to work as a unit to keep Bryant on the perimeter and to prevent the Lakers from getting easy buckets.  Paul Pierce had the best defensive season of his career and has only ramped up his efforts in the post-season, and he and Posey will carry plenty of the load against Bryant, though Ray Allen will get some work in as well. 

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Though much has been made of the fact that the C's held Bryant to just 32.6 percent shooting in two regular season meetings, of similar importance is that they only allowed him 3.0 assists per game, Bryant's second lowest average against any opponent in the league (disclaimer: Gasol wasn't a Laker for those two games, but both occurred before Andrew Bynum's season-ending injury).  The Celtics can survive allowing Kobe to get his points if he has to take a lot of shots from the outside to earn them.  It's when he starts getting in the lane with abandon that he can both work his way to the foul line for points with the clock stopped (he did get to the line 10 times per game against the Celts this year) and start opening passing lanes for looks to cutting teammates for easy buckets around the rims and wiiiiiiiide-open looks from the perimeter.  This isn't to say that the Celts will be completely successful in keeping Bryant out of the lane -- it's nearly impossible to do that -- but the Spurs showed that it can be done. When it is done well, it will allow the Celtics to make life very difficult for Kobe's supporting cast to get easy looks from the star, which could short-circuit the Lakers.  Kobe and his team will nearly undoubtedly have their moments offensively in this series, but the Celtics have as good a shot as anyone to keep the Lakers largely contained.

The real intriguing non-Kobe figure here for the Lakers is Lamar Odom.  Odom has a rare combination of size and skills as he is a 6-foot-10 power forward with beautiful passing vision and a soft touch.  But he is also maddeningly inconsistent.  It will be interesting to see what the Celtics decide to do with regard to Odom, as Kevin Garnett -- easily Boston's best defender for him -- could end up with his attention diverted to Pau Gasol.  In that case, Odom's quickness and length could cause difficulties for Kendrick Perkins.  Here's expecting the Celts to go with Perk on Pau and KG on Odom, but one way or the other, it bears noting that Odom's play -- which has hit both peaks and valleys throughout these playoffs -- could be a huge difference-maker in this series.

On the Boston end, if Kendrick Perkins can give this team anything similar to what he provided defensively and on the boards last round against Detroit, the Celtics will be in big-time business.

When the Celtics have the ball:  This Lakers defense has earned plenty of respect by finishing seventh in efficiency over the course of the regular season and checking in at fifth thus far in the post-season.  Kobe Bryant is still one of the best defenders in the game.  Derek Fisher plays smart basketball, and Lamar Odom's athleticism provides him the versatility to cause problems for all variety of opposing players.  Big man Ronny Turiaf adds size, toughness, strength and energy on the defensive end and the boards.  Even Pau Gasol, long chastised for softness inside, is blocking an excellent 2.47 shots per game in the post-season.  The Lakers are no doubt capable of getting stops.

But with all that said, the Celtics should match up very well with the purple and gold simply because they may have too many weapons.  Bryant is the only top-notch defender the Lakers have between the two guard spots and small forward.  There have been rumors of him possibly being assigned to guard Celts point guard Rajon Rondo early on, and even if he isn't, he can ony be responsible for one of the Celts' swingmen at a time. 

At least one member of the Ray Allen-Paul Pierce combo should be in a position to push the issue with a lot of good looks at the bucket throughout most of this series.  For Allen, the key will be maintaining the hot shooting stroke that he regained at the end of the Detroit series and attacking the basket aggressively when the Lakers give him that look.

As for the captain aaaaaaand The Truth, who will likely be asked to carry more of the defensive load when all is said and done, the key will be what it's been throughout the playoffs: not settling.  If Pierce is feeling weighted down by his defensive load, he will need to look to move off the ball and distribute the basketball when he has it rather than settling for deep treys.  But the best Paul Pierce is the one that looks to readily attack the rim and force defenses to react to him.  That Paul Pierce arrived at the end of the Cavs series and stuck around throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Celtics will need him again this time around.

The X-factor for the Celts in the back-court will once again be none other than Rajon Rondo.  Part of the theory regarding Bryant playing Rondo is derived from the fact that opponents throughout the playoffs have given Rondo's man roaming privileges in order to force Raj to beat them from the outside, and the Lakers may look to do the same with Bryant or Derek Fisher.  Like any 22-year-old sophomore, Rondo has had his ups and downs in this playoffs.  He has shown throughout the season that he can hit those mid-range jump shots, and he needs to be ready to take them without hesitation when he gets the looks. 

The big fear here regarding Rondo is how much his confidence around the rim has been affected by his experiences with the athletic shot-blockers from Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds.  He has looked much more tentative around the rim since the early portion of the playoffs, and the Celtics will need to see the fearless Raj they had earlier in the season in order for Rondo to be a difference-maker when he gets in the lane.  If the Lakers are wary of his explosiveness to the basket, it will only allow for easier looks to his teammates.  The likelihood is that just as in every other series, Rondo will vacillate between stud point guard and playoff rookie, but if he can remain confident, play smart basketball (no more lazy lob passes!) and avoid getting too 'schoolyard' and relying too much on his floater, he'll be huge for the Celts.  If the Lakers can force him into taking an inordinately high number of outside shots -- and if he doesn't handle it well -- the Celts will need to adjust in a hurry.

In the frontcourt, it's going to be all about aggression.  Kevin Garnett can most certainly score on Pau Gasol.  The question will be whether the Celtics make sure they feature him on the low block and whether KG will actively look to make the slower Gasol pay inside as well as from mid-range.  If the Lakers can push Garnett a few steps deeper than the spots from which he usually likes to shoot his mid-range jumpers, it will be a huge victory for the purple.  But if Garnett works to establish low post dominance early and then gets himself 15-to-18-footers that he wants to shoot, he'll be able to score at will.  At the other frontcourt spot, once again, anything close to the performances Kendrick Perkins put together against the Pistons would be a big bonus.

The benches: The complaint here isn't with the national praise that has been showered on the LA reserves.  They unquestionably deserve it.  Sasha Vujacic has turned into a supersub, shooting 43.7 percent from deep in the regular season and 41.1 percent from beyond the arc this playoffs while hitting better than 80 percent from the charity stripe.  Jordan Farmar has had a poor shooting showing in the post-season, but he has continued to add steady ball-handling, quickness and defense in the back-court.  Ronny Turiaf plays about as hard as anyone in this league and has no shortage of interest in diving after loose balls, crashing the glass and saving the ball out of bounds.  Luke Walton does the 'little things' well and is also hitting his threes at a 45 percent clip in the postseason.  These guys have been well better than serviceable for the Lakers all season and throughout the first three rounds.

But it would be downright foolish to discount the worth of the Celts' bench.  The aforementioned James Posey is an invaluable defender and a reliable three-point shooter.  He has also broken out the occasional drive to the basket this spring, and he adds a tough streak and some championship experience to this team.  P.J. Brown plays basketball as intelligently as anyone in this series.  He rotates well on defense, hits the boards hard, gives hard fouls when warranted and has provided an unexpected lift offensively at times as well. 

Somehow, the combinations of Leon Powe and Infuriated Infant Davis in the front-court and Eddie House and Sam Cassell at the back-up point have put forth just enough to get the job done.  In both of these cases, it will be up to Doc Rivers to find the hot hand and go with it.  As a bigger Cassell booster than most, I still believe that he was integral in the first two wins over Cleveland and that his finest hour as a Celtic could still be ahead of him if he has one more night of good shooting left in him.  That said, he has shown time and time again that if he isn't shooting well, he can't be on the court.  Eddie House has always been prepared and has performed admirably when given minutes, providing a special brand of energy in addition to his ever-present gunning.  With no Lindsey Hunter-type ball pressure defender around to haunt him this series, House could make a return to the rotation for the Celts.

Powe needs to execute defensive assignments correctly.  The Pugnacious Papoose needs to be taller.  But both have given the Celts energy and rebounding in spurts this post-season.  Powe can score inside, and Davis rotated extremely well on defense at times against Detroit.  If Doc can manage them correctly, they could both be assets to the C's once more.

The Lakers' bench has earned its accolades.  But that doesn't mean they will necessarily out-class the Celts' reserves.

Coaching: If the odyssey of Doc Rivers over the past two or three years has taught us Celts fans anything, it should be that no matter who the coach is, he invariably requires at least a reasonably high level of talent on the court to be successful in this league.  So please, let's not begrudge Phil Jackson the fact that he has coached superstars throughout his coaching career.  The man is a master of mind games and getting star-studded squads to play team basketball, and all in all, he is a heckuva coach.  He could coach my team any day, and I have nothing but respect for this man of nine titles.

Doc Rivers and his staff (led by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau) have done a commendable job in getting the team to this point.  While Rivers has made his share of questionable decisions throughout the playoffs, he deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done all season long.  From day one, he has gotten this team to buy into Ubuntu and to play team ball, and he has led them to the cusp of a championship.  In total, it's been an excellent campaign for him, and there's no shame here in admitting that he isn't Phil Jackson.   It's simply the truth, and it's backed up by their respective histories and Doc's occasional trouble with in-game adjustments.  But rather than worrying about out-coaching the Zen Master, if he can focus on getting the most out of his players and finding and riding with the hot hands on his team, he may just be all right.  But there's no question the Lakers have the edge here.

Intangibles:  The league's two most storied franchises.  Histories of championships and Hall of Famers galore.  Different buildings from the ones in which they won the vast majority (or in the Celtics' case, all) of their titles.   So, Kobe's singular level of desire to be the best or the tenacity of KG, The Truth and Ray Ray in pursuing a title?  Individual and triangular dominance or Ubuntu?  You make the call.

Bottom line: Given the factors listed above and the star power featured on these teams, this is shaking up to be an excellent series that will no doubt result in the crowning of a worthy champion.  Unquestionably, I could continue on here with a list of deal-breaking reasons as to why I'm going with the team I'm about to pick.  But there has no doubt been a clear leaning indicated in the space above, and for those familiar with my work, you likely knew how this would end from the moment it started.  Just as I wrote last week, Matt Watson of Detroit Bad Boys has coined the slogan I really wish I would have thought of myself: "Completely fair and unbiased opinions of 29 of the Association's 30 teams."  I've never professed to any greater objectivity than that.  There's only one way for this to end.

The Pick: Celtics in 7

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