By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted May 31 2010 9:05PM
Here we are at last. We've played 1,305 games over the course of seven months. We've sent 28 teams and 400 players on vacation. And wouldn't you know it? The two teams still standing are the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, who will face off in the Finals for the 12th time.
The Celtics' 21st trip to the Finals is a bit of a surprise, while the Lakers 31st was expected all along. But both teams have proven along the way that, when it comes to veteran teams with championship experience, regular season struggles should be ignored.
Boston was 27-27 after Christmas, L.A. was just the eighth best team in the West after the All-Star break, and they both dealt with several injuries along the way. But once the postseason began, they each refocused, got healthy, and turned away all the other contenders.
For both, this series will be their biggest challenge to date. In two weeks, we certainly won't be looking back and saying that one of the previous rounds was "the real Finals." The Celtics have yet to face a team as big and talented as the Lakers. And the Lakers have yet to face a team as tough and experienced as the Celtics. Appropriately, these teams split the season series, with each winning by a single point on the other's floor.
This is the fourth time in the 64-year history of the Finals that the champions of the last two years are facing each other. The Lakers are looking for some revenge for 2008, while the Celtics want to take back what's theirs.
Though L.A. has made 10 more trips to the Finals, Boston has two more titles and they've won nine of the 11 previous head-to-head matchups. In many ways, this series is all about history, but when these two teams step on the floor beginning Thursday, history will have nothing to do with who comes out on top.
FIVE QUICK QUESTIONS
1. How critical is home-court advantage? More critical than it was in the first three rounds. The team with the first two games at home has won 19 of the 25 Finals since the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 format in 1985. The Celtics have already won five road games in these playoffs, but the Lakers are 8-0 at home thus far at Staples Center.
2. What has changed since these teams met in the 2008 Finals? A whole lot. The Lakers have gained championship experience, Rajon Rondo has taken a huge leap, and the benches each have different contributors.
3. What did we learn from the two regular season meetings? That this series won't be as high-scoring as it was two years ago, when the average score was 102-94. The Lakers are better defensively this year and points will be tough to come by for both teams.
4. Can the Lakers stop Rondo? That will be a critical thing to watch early in the series. It's not just about who's guarding him. To stop Rondo, all five guys must get back in transition, protect the paint and recover to the Celtics' shooters on the perimeter.
5. Where would a fifth ring put Kobe on the list of the greatest ever? It's not like he's not surrounded by a ton of talent, but if Bryant gets a second ring without Shaquille O'Neal, it would be hard not to put him among the top five or six players in NBA history.
WHEN L.A. HAS THE BALL
The Lakers have been much more efficient in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. The improvement starts with Bryant, who has shot the ball much better (48 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range), scoring at least 30 points in 10 of the last 11 games. The Lakers' other wily veteran has also been key. When Derek Fisher is shooting well, the Lakers are much tougher to defend.
The Celtics will look to keep the Lakers out of the paint. Like they did two years ago, they will be physical with Bryant, with every defender ready to help when he posts up or makes a move toward the basket. And they won't mind if he tries to do everything himself. In order to keep the Boston defense off-balance, L.A. must look to move the ball through the air and not with the dribble.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
It doesn't matter who gets the shots. Rajon Rondo will have the ball in his hands, but the Celtics will ride the guy with the most favorable matchup. Against Cleveland, that was Kevin Garnett. Against Orlando, it was Paul Pierce. No matter what, the ball will move from side to side and find the open man. In each round thus far, the Celtics have worn down strong defenses with their ball movement.
With the addition of Ron Artest, the Lakers were actually a better defensive team than offensive team in the regular season. Artest gives them someone to stick to Paul Pierce, who had a few big games in the 2008 Finals. The key matchup will be on Rondo, and it may be Kobe Bryant who gets the assignment, with Derek Fisher asked to chase Ray Allen around screens.
IN THE CLUTCH
Is there any doubt who's going to have the ball for the Lakers down the stretch? Bryant showed in Game 6 against Phoenix that, at times, he can still beat your best defense by himself. Still, he'll need some help from his teammates. Fisher and Artest will need to hit shots from the perimeter, while Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will need to get free near the basket.
With Artest guarding Pierce, the Celtics' may need to go elsewhere on key possessions, but they still have a lot of options. Rajon Rondo will always look to push the ball and Allen can't be given any space when he comes off screens. If Odom is guarding him, Garnett will have a size advantage in the low post. Otherwise, look for him to set a screen and pop out for a jumper.
Artest's defense will make things tough on Pierce, but it's Artest's offense that may be the key to the series. With the Celtics' defense focused on Bryant, Artest can take some of the pressure off his teammate by making shots. He had 25 points in the Lakers' Game 6 win in Phoenix, and L.A. is 6-0 thus far in the postseason when he scores 14 points or more.
Rasheed Wallace was just waiting for the postseason to begin before he started earning that contract the Celtics gave him last summer. Wallace hasn't been consistent in these playoffs, but he's hit some big shots. If he's focused and shooting well, he's a matchup nightmare. Defensively, he played a part in keeping Dwight Howard in check in the conference finals and will be needed to do the same with Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post.
There are valid arguments for picking either team in this series, but none for thinking it will be over quickly. This isn't quite the offense vs. defense matchup that it was two years ago, but the Celtics are still the stronger defensive team. And in the end, defense wins championships. Boston in 7.
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