Thursday, June 3, 2010
Staples Center, 9 p.m.
RADIO: WEEI 850 AM
BOSTON -- Back in 2008, when the USA won the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, the team sported a starting five that rivaled the Dream Team. Not a single team in the world could defeat them -- including the then-World Champion Boston Celtics.
So instead of beating that team as a whole, the C's have opted to chop them down one-by-one two years later during the 2010 NBA Playoffs.
Boston has taken down the likes of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard in succession through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and now it's time to take on a fourth starter from that USA team, Kobe Bryant, in the NBA Finals. That's about as difficult a run as you can come up with, but the Celtics wouldn't have it any other way.
"If you want to win [the championship], it makes it better in some ways," says Doc Rivers. "So it's the perfect path, as far as we're concerned."
The Celtics will take the next step along that perfect path at 9 p.m. tonight in the Staples Center when they tip off Game 1 of the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Boston and Los Angeles will each be looking for their second championship in three seasons, while they're also playing against each other in the Finals for the second time in three years and 12th time overall. The Celtics knocked off the Lakers 4-2 in the 2008 Finals, while the Lakers knocked off the Magic 4-1 in the 2009 Finals.
Each team has had a pretty smooth ride through the playoffs, as neither has dropped more than two games in any series. The Celtics are coming off of a dominating performance against the Magic, where they led for nearly the entire duration of all four of their wins. The Lakers, meanwhile, ousted the Suns from the Western Conference Finals in six games with an average margin of victory of nearly 11 PPG.
The NBA schedule allows these two historic rivals to meet only twice in the regular season, but the fans got all they could out of both contests this year. The teams split those two meetings, with each team winning on the opponent's home floor. The average margin of victory in those games? One point.
Both contests were punishing defensive efforts, as neither team surpassed 90 points in either game. The highest point total for any player in those two games was Ray Allen's 24 during Boston's win on Feb. 18, and only once did either team have two players score more than 15 points (when Bryant and Andrew Bynum scored 19 apiece during the Lakers' Jan. 31 win).
The Celtics have to love that trend, as they may be the best team in the league at winning low-scoring affairs. They've done so once against the Lakers this season, but adding four more to the resume would cement their status in Celtics lore.
Statistically speaking, the Celtics are a far superior team to the Lakers defensively, as they are giving up 10.3 less PPG than Los Angeles in the playoffs. But don't let those numbers fool you -- both of these teams are fully capable at that end of the court.
Believe it or not, the Lakers are actually ahead of Boston in opponent field goal percentage by the slightest of margins, as they are limiting opponents to 43.7 percent shooting compared to Boston's 43.8 percent. The Celtics like to impose their pace on a game, while the Lakers are willing to oblige, so expect this series to be a relatively low-scoring affair with a much slower pace than Los Angeles has played thus far in the playoffs.
The one place where the Lakers might be able to grab some extra points, however, is on the offensive glass. That's an area Rivers is particularly worried about heading into this series.
"They're long," Rivers says of the Lakers. "And so offensive rebounding is (what) I'm very concerned by in this series. I think it's going to be one of the key things, key factors, in this series."
Keeping Los Angeles off of the boards is a daunting task. The Lakers have one of the longest rosters in the league, particularly their top five players outside of Derek Fisher. Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum are all averaging at least 2.7 offensive boards a game during the playoffs. Those three combine to grab more offensive rebounds a night (9.4) than the entire Celtics team (8.3).
The Lakers have grabbed an offensive rebound on 30.4 percent of their misses in the postseason, which is well ahead of any other playoff team. Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and the rest of Boston's frontline will need to work as hard as possible on the glass at both ends of the floor to limit Los Angeles' rebounds, which is exactly what they did against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals.
Boston's players have been praising Doc Rivers throughout this playoff run for his positive attitude and decision to stick to the plan despite the team's struggles over the final 54 games. Rivers has shown throughout his coaching career that he possesses an uncanny ability to pull his players together despite difficult situations, and this season has only hammered that point home.
But no matter what he's accomplished in his career -- which already boasts an NBA Coach of the Year award, an NBA championship and four Division championships -- he's not making a blip on Phil Jackson's radar.
Jackson is the most successful coach in the history of the NBA, with a ring to decorate each of his 10 fingers. He has led his team to more championships and conference championships than any other NBA coach. As the coach said himself Tuesday afternoon, he "doesn't know what a clear May or June" looks like because he's always coaching in those months.
With that being said, Rivers is 1-0 against Jackson in the Finals. Boston's coach has excelled at putting his players in position to make great plays and has also lived by the fact that he will not change his team to counter an opponent. We'll see soon enough if that coaching style can reel in another victory against the Hall of Fame coach on the opposing sideline.
When Rajon Rondo has played against inferior point guards during this postseason, he has absolutely run wild. Be prepared to watch him run wild again.
Rondo has the most distinctive advantage of any player in this series, as he will be facing off against the ever-aging Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. Although Jackson said Tuesday that as many as four Lakers could defend Rondo (Fisher, Bryant, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar), Fisher will most likely hold that task on the regular.
That's not a good thing for Los Angeles.
Rondo notched a double-double in each game against the Lakers this season, averaging 17.5 PPG and 11.5 APG while committing only four total turnovers. Fisher, however, averaged only 6.0 PPG and 2.0 APG in those contests.
If Rondo continues to dominate Fisher to that level, the Lakers will most likely turn to Farmar off of the bench, or Bryant, who checked him times in the 2008 Finals. But Famar played nearly 20 minutes per game against Boston this season and should fetch at least that amount during this series, too.
No matter what, though, Rondo must keep his eye on Fisher around the 3-point line, especially on important possessions.
We're going to watch two future Hall of Famers go at it every night at this position. Ray Allen is clearly the superior shooter, but Kobe Bryant is far and away the better playmaker of the two.
Bryant has been unbelievable this postseason, averaging nearly 30 points a night to go along with 5.1 RPG and 6.2 APG. He has been slicing up defenses with point guard-type assist totals lately, a trend the C's must stop in order to win. If he gets his teammates going in addition to his own effective scoring, Boston will be in trouble.
On the other side of the ball is Allen, who has had an impressive postseason shooting the ball and defending it. He will be guarding Bryant most of the time, which will most likely take away from his offense. Allen has played successful defense against Bryant in the past, but sometimes Bryant simply can't be stopped. Allen's goal will be to play the tightest defense he can, and fire in shots if he is left open at the other end. Expect the Celtics to mix it up at times and Paul Pierce may also spend time cloaking Bryant, as well as reserve Tony Allen.
The Celtics got an MVP performance out of Pierce in the 2008 Finals, but reproducing that type of series will be much more difficult this time around.
Los Angeles has brought in defensive stalwart Ron Artest to slow down their opponent's top wing player, and that will be Pierce in this series. These two players have had feisty battles in the past, including the Jan. 31 game in the Garden when things got chippy before tip-off. This series should be no different.
Pierce is a far better offensive player than Artest, especially with his ability to create shots, but is also outweighed 25 pounds in the matchup. Their numbers were nearly identical against each other during the regular season, and the Lakers would certainly live with that. Getting Artest into foul trouble, as Pierce did on Jan. 31, would pay huge dividends for the C's and allow The Truth to open things up offensively.
In what may be the most competitive matchup of the series, Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol will be facing off at the power forward position. These two forwards are the prototypical stretch-fours, who can nail a 20-footer and also bang down on the block. Each player possesses the ability to completely alter a game, although Gasol has been outperforming Garnett during this postseason.
Gasol is playing some of the best basketball of his career, putting up 20 points and nearly 11 rebounds each and every night. His relentless attack of the glass is something Garnett will have heightened awareness of throughout the series. KG struggled in the Conference Finals while defending Rashard Lewis all over the perimeter, but he should find his comfort zone yet again against Gasol during the Finals.
Both players made 11 field goals in two games against each other this season and were similar in rebounds, but Gasol got to the line for 12 more free throw attempts. Garnett cannot afford to send Gasol to the line again in this series, because that would force Rivers to put either the undersized Glen Davis or the slower Rasheed Wallace in to defend him.
Andrew Bynum may have two inches on Kendrick Perkins as well as a more refined offensive game, but it's not like the Lakers' 22-year-old 7-footer has been able to dominate Perkins in the past.
Perkins actually out-rebounded Bynum 24-20 in two contests this season and wasn't far behind in offensive production, either. Bynum put up 33 in the two games to Perkins' 22, but he needed 14 more shot attempts (28) than Perk (14) to get there.
In addition to a healthy Bynum's inability to dominate the shorter Perkins, L.A's center is now hampered by injuries. Bynum is dealing with a partial tear of his right meniscus, which caused him to have his knee drained earlier this week. He will be very limited in this series -- expect about 20 minutes out of him during each game -- so don't be surprised if you see Garnett vs. Odom at power forward and Perkins vs. Gasol at center for the majority of the Finals.
The Lakers have been regarded as one of the deepest teams in the league all season, but there isn't much factual evidence as to why. Los Angeles does boast the most prolific top-six in the league, but after that the production drops off dramatically. That's why Bryant and Gasol rarely got rest in the regular season and are both approaching 40.0 MPG in the postseason.
Odom, who is essentially the team's sixth starter, is averaging 10.6 PPG and 9.5 RPG off the bench for Los Angeles. He is the only bench player one would consider dangerous, as Brown and Farmar are very inconsistent offensive players. Concerning those two players, Boston should only need to worry about Brown's energy and Farmar's 3-point shooting.
On Boston's side of the ball, though, the Celtics have three reserves who are playing as well as they have all season long. Both Davis (48.2 percent) and Wallace (44.0 percent, 41.2 percent from downtown) are shooting the ball well and are contributing defensively, too. Tony Allen has played inspired defense in every round and will need to do so again against Bryant. He has also limited his turnovers and found scoring lanes off of back cuts.
The two teams have contrasting benches, with the Lakers reserves geared more toward the perimeter and the Celtics reserves on the frontline. Boston holds more of a scoring punch off the bench, but the Lakers are far more athletic when it comes to reserves.