Inside the Numbers: A Contrast in Styles
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
SECAUCUS, NJ, June 2, 2008 -- Celtics-Lakers.

For sure, it's an NBA tradition. For many of us, our first memories of the NBA are of a Celtics-Lakers Finals. For one generation, it might be one of the seven times they met between '59 and '69. For another generation, it might be one of the three times between '84 and '87.

There are plenty of memories to look back upon, and the occasion of the two teams' 11th postseason meeting is a great reason to remember those teams, those players, those games and those moments.

But for now, we're going to forget about the past and focus on the present. Because what happened 49 years ago or 21 years ago has nothing to do with what's going to happen over the next 2 1/2 weeks. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Gail Goodrich will have no influence on the result of the 2008 NBA Finals. Of course, Danny Ainge and Jerry West already had a hand in it as team architects (current or former), but it's out of their hands at this point.

Instead, this year's NBA champion will be determined by the current players and coaches. So, for a proper preview, let's look at how these two teams have played this season...

And though they both finished with the best record in their conference, both have a "big three", and both used home court advantage to their ... ummm ... advantage in the postseason, these two teams are very different.

Pace

The differences start with the speed at which these two teams play the game. The Lakers get up and down the floor pretty quickly, one of the fastest paced teams in the league. Meanwhile, the Celtics are pretty much a halfcourt team, taking advantage of the occasional fast break opportunity, but counting on their stars to do most of their work in the set offense.

POSSESSIONS PER GAME
TEAM REG. SEA. RK PLAYOFFS RK
Celtics 89.9 (19) 83.9 (14)
Lakers 94.6 (6) 92.9 (3)
But it's not like the Celtics can't play at a fast pace. They were 16-3 (including a Dec. 30 win in L.A.) in the regular season when the pace was 94 possessions per team or higher. And it's not like the Lakers can't play at a slow pace. They were 11-2 in the regular season and 2-1 in the postseason when the pace was slower than 89 possessions per team.

Offense

OFFENSIVE RATING*
TEAM REG. SEA. RK PLAYOFFS RK
Celtics 111.8 (10) 109.2 (7)
Lakers 114.8 (3) 113.9 (1)
*Points scored per 100 possessions

Offensively, the Lakers have been the most efficient team in the postseason, despite struggling on that end against the Spurs with just a 105.0 rating in the Conference Finals.

The Celtics are in the middle of the pack offensively, but that includes a series against the Cavs that was very short (downright ugly, in fact) on offense (101.4 rating combined). Against the Hawks (115.9) and Pistons (111.0), they were pretty solid.

The two teams were about even in assist-field goal ratio during the regular season. The Celtics assisted on 61.4 percent of their field goals, while the Lakers assisted on 61.7 percent of theirs. Both of those numbers were in the top seven in the league. But in the postseason, the Celtics' assist-field goal ratio has gone up to 63.1 percent, while the Lakers' has gone down to 55.7 percent. Boston is moving the ball more, while the Lakers are letting Kobe Bryant isolate more frequently.

What's interesting is that, over the course of their 97 games so far, the Lakers prove to be more efficient offensively when they are sharing the ball. When they have an assist-field goal ratio above their 60.8 percent average (counting both regular season and playoffs), their offensive rating is 118.5. When they have an assist-field goal ratio below their average, their offensive rating is 111.2.

A key for Boston in this series will be taking care of the ball. On a per-possession basis, only one team turned the ball over more than the Celtics (16.9 turnovers per 100 possessions) in the regular season. They've done a better job in the playoffs (15.1), but turnovers should be something to keep an eye on.

During the regular season, both teams were very good at getting to the line. The Celtics attempted 29.5 free throws per 100 possessions (sixth in the league), while the Lakers attempted 29.3 (eighth). But in the postseason, L.A. has stepped it up in this department, attempting 31.7 free throws per 100 possessions, while Boston has increased their number slightly (29.8).

Defense

DEFENSIVE RATING*
TEAM REG. SEA. RK PLAYOFFS RK
Celtics 100.4 (1) 104.0 (2)
Lakers 107.2 (5) 107.1 (5)
*Points allowed per 100 possessions
Defensively, we all know that the Celtics were the best team in the league in the regular season. Allowing barely more than one point per possession over the course of 82 games is incredible. Back in March, after the Celtics ended his team's 22-game winning streak, Tracy McGrady called them the best defense he's seen in his 11 years in the NBA.

They were almost as good in the first two rounds against the Hawks and Cavs, but their defensive rating against the Pistons was a relatively sieve-like 109.0.

By contrast, the Lakers' D was at it's strongest in the Conference Finals, with a very impressive 99.4 rating. While San Antonio was keeping L.A. somewhat under wraps, the Spurs themselves could not get anything going offensively at all.

Above, we noted how the Celtics turn the ball over too much. But those who giveth also taketh away. In the regular season, the Celtics led the league in opponents' turnovers per 100 possessions (17.7). They have been nearly as good (17.0) in the playoffs. The Lakers are in the middle of the pack in this department, forcing 15.1 turnovers per 100 possessions in the regular season and 14.4 in the playoffs.

The other thing the Celtics do well defensively is keep their opponent out of the paint. So far in the postseason, only 26.7 percent of their opponents' points have come in the paint. Adversely, the Lakers' postseason opponents have scored 43.1 percent of their points in the paint. The league average in the playoffs has been 35.6 percent.

The Boards

REBOUNDING DIFF
TEAM REG. SEA. RK PLAYOFFS RK
Celtics +3.1 (3) +3.3 (5)
Lakers +1.4 (8) -3.4 (14)
*Points allowed per 100 possessions
Where L.A. might have problems in this series is on the boards. The Lakers have been a bad rebounding team in the playoffs, falling off from their regular season numbers on both the offensive and defensive ends. In part, that's due to the frontline strength of their three opponents so far, but it's not like it's going to get any easier against the Celtics.

Boston killed Detroit on the boards in the Conference Finals, averaging 7.8 more boards per game than the Pistons. That included a +16 in Game 3 and a +17 in Game 5. The Lakers were +4.4 against the Spurs, but they were beaten badly on the boards by both Denver (-6.3) and Utah (-8.0).

Location, Location, Location

POSTSEASON RATINGS - HOME AND AWAY
  HOME AWAY
TEAM OFF. RAT. DEF. RAT. OFF. RAT. DEF. RAT.
Celtics 112.8 97.9 104.5 111.8
Lakers 117.8 104.5 109.5 110.0
Much has been made of the discrepancy between how the Celtics play at home vs. away. They're 10-1 at the TD Banknorth Garden and 1-7 on the road. And the numbers to the right just enforce the discrepancy. But it's not like the Lakers' play hasn't suffered away from STAPLES Center. They're 8-0 at home and 4-3 on the road, and obviously much sharper in L.A.

Looking Forward

Even with all the numbers we've thrown at you above, the keys to the series are not too complicated.

The Celtics probably want to play at a slower pace, and the Lakers probably want to play at a faster one, but the number of possessions isn't nearly as important as how they are used, because both teams have proven that they can play either style.

Boston needs to protect the ball. The Lakers need to protect the boards.

Kobe Bryant needs to get to get into the paint. The Celtics need to keep him out of it. But Kobe should also share the ball as much as possible, as the L.A. offense proves to be more efficient when their assists are high.

The Lakers need to get stops in Boston. The Celtics need to get buckets in L.A.

Enjoy the memories for the next couple of days, but on Thursday, we write a new chapter in the book of Lakers and Celtics. And you don't need to read the previous chapters to appreciate this one.

Monday
Oct. 26
Rosters set for opening day

Tuesday
Oct. 27
Start of 2009-10 regular season

Saturday
April 18
2009 NBA Playoffs begin


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