A Quick Preview of the NBA Finals
So I didn’t even bother with the last round. I made my prediction, I was only half right and because of an unusually testy transition from being an insurance agent to being a journalism student, I never found time to actually explain why I’d be insane enough to have picked the Pistons in 6. Well, that is all water under a bridge somewhere in Michigan because it doesn’t matter – the match-up is set: Lakers vs. Celtics.
I remember the 3rd phase of the rivalry… I was a very young child, obviously, but my dad was a huge Lakers fan (he was more or less a big supporter of Kareem for obvious reasons) and as a result I was definitely on the Laker side of the Magic vs. Bird chapter of things… back when it was still hot stuff. I mean, aside from having spanned three different eras of Basketball, the rivalry was so fundamentally grafted to the sport, that when EA sports first released an officially licensed basketball game, it was, unsurprisingly called Lakers vs. Celtics. I owned the game and played it practically day and night. I cultivated my understanding and love for the game of basketball watching these two teams play.
Let’s not be coy; everybody, David Stern especially, wanted this match-up in the finals. The NBA needed this PR move more than anything to save a sport mired in delinquency and scandal. This was probably the most exciting NBA season in some time and the playoffs served the league well by being both competitive, unpredictable at times and definitely engaging… as the two polar worlds of Boston and LA moved closer and closer together, a buzz building into an eventual hum as you’d expect it to.
So who’s to win this; the Celtics who amassed the best record during the regular season or the Lakers who practically stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies and shot up the rankings to the top spot in the? The Lakers are the heavy favorites around the sports world and while I also think they’ll win the championship, I’m not so certain that it’s as much of a lock as everyone makes it seem.
The first glaring matter at hand is that of the road to the finals, itself. The Celtics have literally played in two game 7s and barely escaped playing a third when they were able to come back from behind against the Pistons late in the 4th quarter at Auburn Hills. The Lakers on the other hand, outside of a couple of back-to-back losses to the best home team in the NBA (and maybe all of sports) in Utah, have handily dispersed everybody they’ve met. And we all know that common thought puts the eastern conference on a lower platform than the West so what gives?
Basketball, like all sports, is a match-ups sort of sport as much as it is anything else: in other words just as much as Atlanta was able to take Boston to 7 because of the way their run n gun style and home court play facilitated that, Detroit, a better team, could not make it past game 6. However, both Detroit and Atlanta were balanced teams… Cleveland was not. The Cavs were a team that ran their entire offense through Lebron and that is ultimately where the Celtics focused their attentions as Lebron’s supporting cast sometimes helped him out and more often, did not. Still, the Celtics played a smart team defense on Lebron James, forced him to either force shots or go to other guys and those other guys ultimately failed and the Celtics moved on.
Now they face Kobe and his supporting cast which is a lot better than Lebron’s was and Kobe, himself, is also better than Lebron is. This would spell doom for the Celtics if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve certainly found their groove in the past series as they’ve looked like a much, much better team than they had in the first two rounds. They are playing considerably better defense (remember they were the best ranked defense in the league during the season) and Ray Allen has finally found his scoring touch and as long as Perkins, Rondo and Posey do their thing in assistance to the big Three, they can now play like the Celtics team that beat the Lakers twice during the regular season.
I also think this series will go the distance only because it needs to. The Celtics have not come this far (and KG would never let this happen, by the way) just to be manhandled by the other half of this legendary rivalry. Remember that the Big Three are, all, All-stars. Outside of Kobe, no other Laker is and while Pau Gasol has been an All-star before, he is not KG. Lamar Odom can sometimes perform like an All-Star but most of the time is content being a cog in the system rather than the engine. The Celtics have three potential engines.
You better believe they’re showing up.
The nuts and bolts:
The two major areas of question will be how the Celtics defend Kobe and how the Lakers defend KG. As frontcourts go, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are certainly long and able to clog the middle up pretty well. That might serve them better in defending the Celtics backcourt rather than their frontcourt as Rajon Rondo, Terry Allen and Sam Cassell will find breathing difficult to attain. As for stopping KG, I’m not sure Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are energetic enough to do it consistently. Especially with a slashing Paul Pierce, added to the mix. This is when Laker fans collectively miss Andrew Bynum because the defensive intensity of the bigs is actually quite questionable and the only reason they were able to get by the Spurs with relative ease was in taking advantage of the age difference. The Celtics are a lot more active than the Spurs and with Perkins, Powe and Big Baby, have some formidable inside guys.
Still, the reason the Lakers have succeeded this post season is in part due to their team defense and the tenacious defense of their backcourt. Look for Trevor Ariza to get more playing time this series as the goal for the Lakers will be to keep Pierce and KG as far from the bucket as possible. Good lateral defenders like Ariza will be key to doing this as Fisher and Kobe are amongst the very best. As for backcourt scoring, the Lakers have the definite edge with the model of consistency in both Fisher and Bryant. This might be where the likes of Rondo are exposed, leaving a majority of the load, again, on the Big Three.
The bottom line in this series is going to be how the Celtics execute their team defense on Kobe. The advantage Kobe has over Lebron is in his supporting cast and I think the Celtics are soon going to find that out.
I wish I still had my Sega Genesis. I’d pop Lakers v. Celtics in and rip out a few ol school James Worthy moves in the lane. This series, as it starts on Thursday, will surely bring back a few memories for some of us who recall this rivalry in its younger stages… the beauty of it being that more than one generation will be able recognize the match-up. That is why this NBA Finals will be more special than, probably, any match- up in a decade.