The Los Angeles Lakers will face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals ... again. This hasn't just happened before, it's the NBA equivalent of a cliche. This match-up might as well be the formulaic rom-com that keeps getting made time after time. These two teams have combined for more than half of the NBA titles that have ever been handed out. They've played each other for the honor 11 times. This will make 12. The level of success these franchises have had is obscene.
More than a few neutrals will be sad to see this match-up occur. People are tired of so much success being wrapped up in so few cities, especially if they are neutral only because their team of choice is no longer involved in the proceedings. But much as it might pain them to admit it, the truth is that this series is poised to remind you of why the formula exists in the first place. The teams involved might be a cliche, but they also happen to be the two teams capable of playing the highest level of basketball in the league, and they are both performing at their peak. I suppose one could make the case that this happens every year, but in this case it's special, and not just because the two teams involved have that history. The story-lines are nice, easy, and plentiful. But the story-lines can not compare to the basketball, which should be phenomenal. Why? Because in looking at the other team, these two teams might as well be staring into a mirror.
Let's get one thing straight. In analyzing this series, the word "precedent" can be thrown out the window. 2008 means nothing. The Lakers are not even close to the same team that the Celtics so easily dispatched two years ago. For one, the entire team is made up of champions, instead of simply led by them. They are not missing two key contributors this time around (though Andrew Bynum is still limited). And instead of a flighty 3 pt threat who can't help but get torched by Paul Pierce, the Lakers now employ a defensive menace who has all the attributes to hold Pierce in check. Flightiness still included.
The Celtics are different, too. Rajon Rondo has exploded into some sort of shape-shifter, providing his team whatever they need most. He can score, he can pass, he can board, and he's probably the best defensive point guard in the league. On a team with 3 hall of famers, he's clearly both the leader and the best player on the team. Of course, part of the reason he's clearly the best player on the team is because those big 3 players have fallen off. Ray Allen is still Ray Allen, one of the best shooters in the league, and unlike last time, he's not coming into this series in a major slump. He's shot 42% from 3 for the playoffs. But Ray-Ray hasn't been Jesus Shuttlesworth in some time. Paul Pierce has struggled some in the playoffs, shooting only 43% so far. And Kevin Garnett, who was the key to the Celtics title team of 2008, is severely limited in comparison to the defensive titan he was two years ago. They also appear to be less capable of defending Kobe Bryant than they were two years ago. Tony Allen and 2010 Ray Allen/ Paul Pierce are a defensive downgrade from James Posey and 2008 Allen/Pierce.
You know what else can be thrown out the window? The regular season. Neither one of these teams even remotely resembles the team that went through the 82 game grind. In the regular season, the Celtics were pretty bad offensively, only scoring 107.7 PPP, good for 15th in the league. They were also very good, not great, defensively, clocking in at 103.8 PPP allowed. The Lakers were better, but not significantly so, in both categories. Head to head, they split the season series, with each team winning on the other's home court by one point. Kobe hit the game winner in Boston, and didn't play at all in Los Angeles. Seemingly advantage Lakers, but then we're already discussing how neither team is the same.
In the playoffs? The Celtics have looked more impressive, only because the teams they faced were better, but they've done so by destroying teams with defense. They held the Miami Heat to less than 1 point per, and then took down favored Cleveland and Orlando by holding the 4th and 6th best offenses, respectively, to 1.03 PPP, a full 8 points per less than their season average.
Of course, the Lakers don't get to control who they play, and the fact that their path to the Finals was less arduous than that of Boston doesn't make it less telling. And the Lakers have found postseason success by re-discovering the triangle and executing with more precision on offense than they have all season long. Only Phoenix performed better on offense over the course of the playoffs than the Lakers did, which means offensive juggernauts like the Magic, the Cavs, and the Nuggets failed to reach the same mark that the Lakers did. The Lakers defensive performance hasn't been as strong, but a big part of the reason why was running up against the best offense in the playoffs. Put it to you this way. The Lakers have the best offense the Celtics have faced. The Celtics have the best defense the Lakers have faced. In that way, it is much like 2008, but with one not so subtle difference: The Lakers don't exactly suck on the defensive end either anymore. The Western Conference Finals was not their finest hour, but this is a team that has displayed the ability to shut teams down when they need to for two straight years.
So, if precedent can't really be considered, you just have to look at how the two teams match-up. Here's how they match-up: Evenly. Seriously, what kind of advantage can possibly exist? The Lakers usually win with overwhelming size, but the Celtics have the front line to match. Kendrick Perkins vs. (limited) Andrew Bynum? Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett? Lamar Odom vs. Rasheed Wallace/Big Baby? Might as well put two 5 pound weights on a see saw and watch which way it tips. Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest? Clearly Pierce is the greater offensive threat, but Artest is also the greater defensive force. Kobe vs. Ray Allen? Clear advantage Lakers, but anymore clear than Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher is in the other direction?
Neither one of these teams has a deep bench, and neither one of these teams need to. If the Celtics go more than 8 deep, they are in trouble, or in garbage time. With the return of Sasha Vujacic (if he does in fact see time in the Finals, and after the Slovenian Civil War (h/t to Scott Howard from BSOTS), it's anybody's guess), the Lakers might go 9 deep, but it's really just LO and whichever two backup guards have curried PJ's favor at the moment.
And then there's the switch factor. These playoffs have proven that both teams have one. Rasheed Wallace spent the regular season playing so badly he was considered a locker room cancer. In the postseason, he's been much improved, and a key factor in some of their more unexpected victories. The Lakers match Wallace with Derek Fisher, persona non grata the entire regular season, legend of (in)tangible production in the postseason. The Celtics stopped playing defense for most of the season, and have been absolutely dominant in that area during the playoffs. The Lakers spent the entire year looking anemic on offense, only to look unstoppable now.
The Lakers have home court advantage, which is a plus. They thought Boston's HCA was a big factor in determining who won the 2008 Finals. But don't tell Boston that it matters. They've had no problem wrestling that HCA away from two fine teams in Cleveland and Orlando. They won 2 road games in both series.
Both teams should be equally well-rested. Neither has taken a large number of games in any series, though the Lakers do have the Utah sweep (and therefore one less game) under their belt. With 4 and 5 days off, both should be in good shape. The Celtics have some injury concerns (Rondo's a bit nicked, and Wallace has some back trouble) but so do the Lakers (Bynum and ... well, Bynum is important enough to count twice). With a team as advanced in age as Boston, it's always possible they might start shutting down, but count on it at your own risk.
Across the board, the match-up differences seem razor thin. There may be plenty of storylines that have nothing to do with the game itself, stuff like: the Lakers revenge for Boston's Game 6 beat down, the match-up of the past two former champions, the history of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, etc. There may be plenty of people grumbling about how "David Stern got what he wanted again" and how its boring to watch Lakers-Celitcs over and over again. None of that matters. If you want the best basketball to be played, the right two teams made it. The Finals will be epic, and not just because it's following an epic formula.