Forget about all the blarney that's being bandied about in the media about the historic finals competition between these two storied franchises. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Jerry West, et al, are retired, the series will be played in the here-and-now, and will be decided by the Lakers' considerable advantage in the various matchups.
Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant Inevitably, the focus of both the media and the Celtics defense will be on Kobe Bryant. But, even though Boston managed to control LeBron James, subduing Kobe is an entirely different story. This is because, although LBJ knows how to accumulate MVP numbers, he still doesn't fully understand how to play the game.
Notice that virtually all of LeBron's passes are meant to be assists. Not simple reverse passes, or passes that lead to assist-passes, but only home runs. Also, aside from his shaky outside shooting and his powerhouse attacks on the rim, LeBron has no middle-game. Not to mention his dismal performances in critical playoff games.
Kobe, on the other hand, is the only player, alive or dead, who can reasonably be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness.
As such, there's no way that Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, or even Tom Thibodeau can hope to hamper Kobe's offensive explosions. In order to somehow dim Kobe's brilliance, the Celtics will have to come up with drastic defensive schemes. But doubling him -- whether on the catch or on the move -- is dangerous because he's such an unselfish and alert passer, and because the Lakers move so well without the ball. And playing a zone is heresy in Boston. The Celtics will simply have to overplay Kobe on one side or the other and try to force him into help areas.
At the other end of the equation, Kobe has the quickness and the determination to find his way around and over the perpetual screens that the Celtics must necessarily set to generate good looks for Ray Allen. Should Kobe get hung up on one of Kendrick Perkins' marginally moving screens, Pau Gasol has the length to reach into Allen's kitchen from a distance if a switch is called for. Plus, Perkins isn't much of a threat when rolling after screening, so LA's baseline rotations will be elementary.
Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest The Lakers' other lopsided matchup pairs Ron Artest against Paul Pierce. At age 33, the Celtics' money man has lost his million-dollar first step. Moreoever, his game is frequently reduced to chump change when facing a defender who's stronger, but still has quick feet and quick hands. Artest has all of these qualifications, along with a mean streak and an almost-maniacal desire to be the ultimate stopper. This means that Boston's routine top-of-the-key clear outs for Pierce won't yield the same dividends that they normally do.
At the other end, Artest can bull through Pierce on his way to the hoop and the offensive glass. The Celtics will smartly challenge Ron-Ron to knock down open shots while they point their defense at Kobe. And if Artest can repeat his Game 6 accuracy, the Lakers could sweep.
Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol Garnett is another Celtic who finds himself on the short end of a Finals matchup. Gasol has the size and the tricks to bury KG in the low post, while Lamar Odom is likewise taller, longer, quicker, and much younger. How much help can Boston afford to provide Garnett?
Meanwhile, Garnett is well past his prime and has been reduced to being little more than a jump shooter. He's certainly capable of dropping mid-range and turnaround springers, but he'll surely give up more points than he scores.
Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher Rondo has nearly every conceivable advantage over Fisher. Quickness, speed, rebounding prowess, creativity in the paint, along with an incredible defensive presence. But does any right-minded NBA fan still insist that Fisher is the Lakers' weak link?
Fisher's mastery of the triangle offense enables him to find open spaces from which to launch his super-clutch jumpers. And he's also the NBA's best position-defender at the point.
For sure, Rondo will wreak his usual havoc, but Fisher will also make his mark known. After all, on the heels of dealing with Steve Nash, guarding Rondo is a picnic -- one with lots of ants crawling all over everything in sight, but a picnic nevertheless.
In the end, the Lakers will dare Rondo to make jump shots. The question will be, can he make them?
Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum Kendrick Perkins is more polished than Andrew Bynum, who has exceptional hands but unexceptional footwork. Setting bulwark screens and boxing out are Perkins' primary duties on offense, while Bynum will get several chances to score in the pivot -- chances that Perkins will simply overwhelm.
However, guarding Gasol won't be quite so easy for Perkins. Yes, he bullied Gasol in 2008, but the Lakers' longsome center -- he's listed at 7-1, but by personal experience he's at least 7-3 -- had been with LA for less than half a season back then. These days, there are several more triangular options that Gasol can go to, including face-ups and operating from the high post.
Actually, Rasheed Wallace is better suited to properly defend Gasol. However, any potential Odom-Wallace pairing also favors the Lakers because LO is comfortable playing defense in 3-point territory and should also be able to escape Rasheed's clutches with his speed, quickness, and full-court versatility.
The Battle of the Benches Other important backup and/or off-the-bench matchups include the following:
- Jordan Farmar versus Ray Allen at the point, with the former being too quick and the latter being too smart. Also, Farmar's streaky shooting and penchant for making mistakes gives Allen the edge.
- Farmar versus Nate Robinson. Can Robinson be trusted to produce positive results at this level of competition? A few treys, perhaps, but he's sure to get discombobulated by the triangle offense.
- Shannon Brown is a wildcard at both backcourt spots. He's another spotty spot shooter, but he can jump and touch a star. Trouble is that Brown is so dunk-conscious that he commits too many charging fouls.
The Finals word In the long view, Odom's scoring potential trumps whatever points Boston's subs can manage. If the Lakers defense is most vulnerable against screen/rolls, the Celtics don't normally employ as many as either Phoenix, Utah, or Oklahoma City. The Lakers' younger legs will run them into more easy scores, but the longer periods between games will benefit Boston's high-mileage pedal extremities.
Boston's defensive rotations will have to be impeccable, and Ray Allen will have to shoot the lights out for the Celtics to play on even terms with LA. Both possibilities are well within the realm of probability.
But ultimately, there's no getting past the reality that Kobe has both the will and the way to dominate the series, which is why the Lakers will triumph in six games.