By Marc D'Amico
May 31, 2010
BOSTON -- The NBA will get a taste of deja vu when Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off Thursday night at 9 p.m. on ABC.
For the second time in three seasons and 12th time overall the Celtics and Lakers will be meeting in the Finals to determine the NBA's champion. And while we're two years removed from Boston's triumph over Los Angeles in 2008, many of the pieces remain the same.
Eight of the 10 starters who take the court Thursday night -- barring any unforeseen injuries or lineup changes -- will be identical to what we saw the last time these teams met in June.
Paul Pierce averaged only 13.0 PPG in two regular season games against Ron Artest and the Lakers during 2009-10.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty
One of those two new starters, Ron Artest, is flying solo in the "First Trip to the Finals" charter, and he may be the most important player in the series.
When the Lakers knocked off Orlando to win the 2009 NBA Championship, praise was handed to Lakers swingman Trevor Ariza for locking down the opponent's best wing player, providing energy and scoring big buckets. As his hype skyrocketed, so did his contract demands, and as his services ascended to a new level of worth, Los Angeles realized it could spend similar money on other, more established players.
That's exactly what they did when they signed Artest, a veteran wingman, for nearly the exact same price that Ariza eventually signed with Houston for.
In signing Artest, the Lakers chose size, versatility and physicality over the youth, speed and potential of Ariza. Those unique qualities that Artest brings to the table were a hot topic at Monday's practice in Waltham, as everyone realizes that Paul Pierce will be battling with the Lakers' mercurial forward all series long.
"I think that's the one thing that's been overlooked [about] them," Doc Rivers said, speaking of Artest's arrival in Los Angeles. "I've heard all year how Artest doesn't fit, hasn't fit, and I'm thinking, 'He's been perfect,' because it's allowed Kobe (Bryant) not to have to guard the best player every night."
In this series, that player will be Pierce, the Celtics' leading scorer in the playoffs at 19.1 PPG. Boston's captain is coming off of an unbelievable series against the Orlando Magic, where he shot a blistering 52.2 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point range en route to a series-leading 24.3 PPG.
Pierce knows that facing off against Artest for the majority of this series will be far different from the combination of Vince Carter and Matt Barnes that he faced in the Conference Finals, but he's ready to rekindle the matchup.
"We've been playing against each other in the playoffs since he was in Indiana," Pierce said. "Great competitor -- (a) guy who has been on the All-Defensive team, a guy who I've matched up with over the last 10-11 years.
"We've had some battles. It'll be a tough challenge. He's one of the great defenders the NBA has ever seen."
One of the reasons Pierce claims Artest is one of the greatest defenders of all time is because of his physical nature. Artest, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs in at 260 pounds, has a substantial weight advantage (35 pounds) on Pierce and will surely use that to his advantage throughout the Finals.
"He's the most physical player at that position, I would say, at the wing position," said Pierce. "He may play the forward and guard position, (but) he plays you like a power forward-center."
It's not like Pierce is anyone who will shy away from a physical brand of basketball. That's all The Truth experienced during the Conference Semifinals, when he checked LeBron James -- who has nearly a very similar build to Artest -- all series long. Pierce has also been in the paint grabbing rebounds at an excelled rate during this postseason (6.2 RPG compared to 4.4 RPG in the regular season), a clear indication that he's willing to get dirty and bump bodies as much as necessary.
Doing so in this series won't be a choice he has to make -- it's already been made for him.
Said Pierce of what he expects of Artest's defensive ploy during the Finals: "He likes to bang you, get into your body, grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down -- he's gonna try anything."
The hope is that whatever Artest does try, it won't be as successful as it was during the regular season. Pierce scored only 13.0 PPG in two contests against Los Angeles in the regular season, and those points came on 8-for-20 shooting from the field.
Those two games came smack in the middle of Boston's struggles over the final 54 games of the season, so you'd have to think Pierce's performance will be greatly improved. He's back on track and has put the team on his shoulders during its run to the Finals this season.
In the days leading up to the tip off of Game 1, the NBA world can continue to enjoy in the nostalgia of Celtics-Lakers deja vu.
Thursday night, however, will mark the beginning of a new series, one that will be more along the lines of jamais vu at the small forward position.