The time has finally arrived. Tonight, the Lakers and Celtics tip off what has to be the most anticipated NBA Finals since Michael Jordan and the Bulls met Karl Malone and the Jazz in 1998.
While the NBA Finals have always been an event, the NBA’s dirty little secret is that the best playoff series usually happen before the Finals. The last time there was a Finals this evenly matched was 2005, when the Pistons and the Spurs went seven games. Before that? Go all the way back to that ’98 Jazz-Bulls series.
Finally in 2010, we have an NBA Finals that is completely up in the air. These two teams know and hate each other, they both wanted this rematch, and now we all get to enjoy it. While there have already been thousands of articles worth of in-depth analysis on this series, breaking down match-ups, offensive/defensive trends, fans, players, the 60’s and 80’s, and everything about this rivalry, this series simply breaks down into who dominates the keys to the series. With that being said, here are the top three keys to winning the NBA title and claiming bragging rights in the best rivalry in sports today:
1. Clash of Style
This is a matchup of two teams with very different styles. The Celtics are a defensive squad whose best chance at winning playoff games is to hold their opponents to 95 points or less. The fact that they’ve been playing defense so well has covered up the Celtics offensive struggles. Boston has scored over 100 points only four times this postseason, and none in the past seven games.
The Celtics are 11-0 in the playoffs when holding opponents under 95 points, as opposed to 1-5 in games in which their opponent goes over 95. The Celtics have to play great defense to win these games because their offense is not a juggernaut that will beat you in a shootout.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are the most offensively talented team in the NBA; any player in the top eight of their rotation has the offensive talent to go for 20 points in any game. They have scored over 100 points in ten straight playoff games, and are clicking on all cylinders right now. Lost in this is the fact that the Lakers are actually playing great defense as well.
Although the Western Conference Finals were a shootout, the Lakers are still ranked high in all the major defensive categories. In fact, they have held opponents to a lower field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage, and have a higher rebounding percentage than the Celtics. While the Celtics defense has gotten much of the media attention, the Lakers have quietly been playing just as solidly on that end of the court.
2. Battle of the Benches
Both of these benches have faced a lot of criticism throughout the season, oftentimes being overlooked and losing big leads their starting units had built. For Boston, the bench has basically been whittled down to a trio of reserves that get key minutes.
Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace, and Tony Allen all have had big moments in the playoffs so far. At times, Wallace has shown exactly why the Celtics went out and gave the aging forward a three-year deal, hitting big shots against the Cavs and Magic. Davis, although looking like he doesn’t know what’s going on most of the time, has contributed energy and a mid-range game coming off the pine. Allen has provided spectacular dunks and helped ignite Boston’s fastbreak game, which was especially important in the Cavs series.
While Boston’s bench may have received a fair share of criticism this season, there is no second unit in the league with as much scrutiny on it as the Lakers self-titled “Bench Mob.” The playing time of this unit has fluctuated throughout the season and, depending on the game, has settled on an eight- or nine-man rotation.
Lamar Odom is the Super Sixth Man who plays starter’s minutes, but his role in igniting the other bench players is a key factor in how this series is won or lost. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are a young guard tandem who can ignite the Staples Center crowd when they get out on the fastbreak and give the crowd some highlights, but they have at times struggled on the road and disappeared altogether.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but the X-Factor off the bench may be Sasha Vujacic. Since that embarrassing loss in 2008, Vujacic has never been shy about expressing his resentment for the Celtics. If Sasha can provide the Lakers with some unexpected three-point shooting and production off the bench, it will be a huge boost for LA.
3. Individual Match-Ups
Perhaps the most important thing about this series is who will win the individual match-ups. There are more than a few key battles that will determine who wins the title.
In the backcourt, Rajon Rondo presents a big problem for a Lakers squad that has struggled against other point guards this season. The most likely scenario is that Kobe Bryant will be assigned to Rondo and Derek Fisher will be assigned to Ray Allen.
A Bryant/Rondo matchup may work in the Lakers favor because Kobe is one of the most intelligent basketball players in the league and when he wants to be, he can be one of the best one-on-one defenders in the NBA. Rondo will definitely make Kobe work though, running at him and keeping him on the go, which will take Kobe’s energy away on the offensive end. When the Lakers are on offense, the Celtics will have Allen matched up on Kobe and provide as much help defense as they feel necessary, forcing other Lakers to hit big shots.
Switching Kobe onto Rondo will help the Celtics out in that Allen will now have Fisher chasing him through screens, which means he is more likely to get open shots. However at this point in the playoffs, the Lakers will let Ray Allen shoot all night if it means containing Rondo and not allowing him to get the Celtics offense rolling.
Last time these teams met, Lakers fans remember Paul Pierce being carried off the court in Game 1, taken in a wheelchair after exaggerating an injury, only to return and ultimately win Finals MVP. What many people forget is that during those Finals, Pierce was being guarded by Vlad Radmanovic and Luke Walton. One more time … Vlad Radmanovic and Luke Walton. Two years later, the Lakers have made a huge upgrade at the position as they now throw defensive specialist Ron Artest at Pierce. Artest is a physical defender who will hound Pierce all series long, whereas Radmanovic is in Charlotte and Walton is now buried at the bottom of the Lakers bench. If Artest is able to shut down Pierce, the Lakers will have a huge advantage all series long.
The last key matchup is what I like to call the Battle of the Trenches. Pau Gasol against Kevin Garnett will be the most intriguing pairing of the Finals. Garnett is an aging veteran who still plays physical defense and talks trash with the best of them. For most of his career, Garnett was the best or second-best power forward in the league along with Tim Duncan.
Gasol is a forward who is in the prime of his career, with an offensive arsenal inside that is unmatched by any power forward. With another title this postseason, Pau will have a serious advantage in the argument of best big man in the league.
The main advantage for Garnett is his physicality, something that Garnett has never lacked. The biggest knock on Gasol is the fact that he was pushed around in those ’08 Finals and is still called “soft” because of it. This is Gasol’s chance to redeem himself, to once and for all silence those critics who say that he can’t handle being pushed around. While this might seem a ridiculous argument after the way he handled dealing with Dwight Howard in last year’s Finals, the fact is Gasol will not prove people wrong until he can get through Garnett and the Celtics.
Which ever team can dominate these three keys on a game-to-game basis will be the team that comes out on top and stakes their claim as the best franchise in the NBA.
The Celtics want to prove last season was a fluke, that they would have won if KG had been in the lineup, and that they are still the cream of the crop in the NBA.
The Lakers are out for revenge, they want to prove that they would have won in 2008 if they had Andrew Bynum and a serviceable small forward to defend Paul Pierce.
Both of these teams have a lot to prove and a lot to play for, and the fact that they hate each other should make for a great Finals. At the end of the day though, the Lakers are a team that can play at any pace, and they will be able to force the Celtics to try and score to keep up at certain times, rather than stick with Boston’s slow pace. While the Celtics are a physical team that believes they can punch the Lakers in the mouth and not get any retaliation, the Lakers are out to prove they have grown and are not the team they were in 2008. Bottom line, the Lakers are too deep, too hungry, and too driven to lose what will be a classic series.
Lakers in 6
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a