Lakers-Celtics: NBA Finals Statistical Preview

bynum06

I think of myself as a big-hearted, charitable person, and most everyone who knows me would agree with that assessment. I'm pretty good at remembering birthdays. I wear deodorant. I don't run old people over in the street. Once, I gave a homeless guy some Baja Fresh I couldn't finish. If someone asks me for directions on the sidewalk, I'll usually help them out so long as they're attractive. One of the big rumors around L.A. is that I'm this great philanthropist and humanitarian, and though I'm usually too humble to repeat such compliments about myself, it's hard to deny them when you're a great philanthropist and humanitarian like I am.

So please realize how difficult it is for me, how contrary to my fundamentally generous character, to admit this to you all: I hate the Boston Celtics. I sincerely and bitterly hate them. I'm not using the word hate in that softened, detached, "they're the team I root against" sense of the word often used when describing one's sports fandom. No, I loathe their team and organization unrestrainedly and wish for them to be wiped from the map.

Growing up, I hated their ugly-ass teams in the ‘80s, when everyone playing for the Celtics looked like a mutated farm animal. I hated Larry Bird and his stupid towel-snapping. I despised the Garden and the ridiculous mythology about its "dead spots." I hated the tool in the Bird jersey who ran over Buggin's new Jordans in Do the Right Thing. I reveled in how the franchise fell apart in the mid- and late ‘90s. My stomach churns at Kevin Garnett's faux-aggro affectations and Paul Pierce's fishing-for-pity wheelchair ride. I despise how Bill Simmons and so many of his Celtic-fan followers never shut the hell up about Len Bias. (Look, fellas. Sometimes the second overall pick is a franchise player, and sometimes he's Armen Gilliam. Stop feigning certainty that Bias would've prolonged the Boston dynasty. Let the kid rest in peace.)

It's not enough for me that the Celtics lose their upcoming Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers. I want to see the Celtics demoralized and humiliated. I want them exposed as a sham. I want them ground into cat food and then processed through a cat's intestinal tract and dropped into a litterbox that hasn't been cleaned in six months. And then I want the house that litterbox is in to collapse. And then for a meteor to strike the remains of that house and drive the wreckage down into the earth's molten core. Who would deny me this simple pleasure?

As you can see, I'm approaching this series with all the calmness and level-headed rationality of Keyser Söze seeking vengeance on the Hungarian smugglers who killed his family.

Yo, How'd the Celtics Get Here?

By schwacking a mediocre Miami Heat team and then springing major upsets over the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. As you might've heard once or twice, they've played a bit of defense along the way. The Celtics allowed the Heat to score only 0.98 points per possession (PPP) and then held both the Cavs and Magic to 1.03 PPP. Impressive work, no doubt. Their offense hasn't been great, generating 1.07 points per trip in the playoffs so far, but the D has been so spectacular that it hasn't mattered.

Coach Doc Rivers has shortened his rotation substantially in the postseason. Boston's core foursome - Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Garnett and Ray Allen - are all averaging about four minutes more per game than they did in the regular season. Those minutes have come at the expense of reduced playing time for mercurial reserves Rasheed Wallace and Nate Robinson. Each of the regulars has had some great moments in the Celts' run to the Finals, but Rondo has been the breakout star. Although his shooting hasn't been great, as it never is, his floor management and defense have catalyzed Boston's flip-switching revival.

The Celtics beat the Cavs and Magic without nominal home-court advantage, but too much can be made of that fact. They've actually played more playoff games, and a greater percentage of their playoff games, at home than have the Lakers. In the postseason, the Celts are 5-3 on the road and 7-2 in their own building.

What Happened When the Teams Met in the Regular Season?

Twice the Lakers have faced the Celtics this year, and both occasions were slow, tightly contested defensive rumbles. On January 31st, the Lakers visited Boston. Down 11 early in the fourth, they held the Celts to eight points over their final 15 possessions and prevailed, 90 to 89, on Kobe's gamewinner over Ray Allen. Kobe had not shot especially well until that point. The scoring punch came more from Andrew Bynum, whom Perkins struggled to contain. The Lakers also received efficient bench contributions from Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. Rondo (21 points, 12 rebounds and five assists) was great, but Pierce and Ray had poor shooting games. Speaking afterward about Ron Artest's defense on Pierce, Kobe said, "They didn't want any part of this crazy motherfucker. I'm telling you. I saw it."

The Mamba was shelved with a bum ankle for the rematch on February 18th. In his absence the backcourt crew of Derek Fisher, Farmar, Brown and Sasha Vujacic was astonishingly bad. They combined for only 16 points on 27% True Shooting, and Fish got obliterated trying to guard Ray. Once again the Laker D almost completely shut down the Celtics in the fourth quarter, but some key turnovers down the stretch and missed free throws - the Lakers honked nine of 25 attempts - did them in. Boston's revenge took the form of an 87-86 squeaker.

When the Celtics Have the Ball

Here's how the Celts' offense lines up against the Laker D, looking at some key regular-season numbers.

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

Bos. Off.

14.5 (27)

0.33 (7)

74.6 (22)

0.23 (11)

52.3 (1)

34.8 (17)

52.2 (5)

56.4 (5)

22.8 (28)

1.08 (15)

LA Def.

13.2 (18)

0.26 (1)

n/a

0.23 (21)

48.1 (12)

32.8 (1)

48.4 (6)

52.2 (2)

74.4 (9)

1.04 (4)

Turnovers. They've been a problem for the Boston offense for years, and they continue to be one. Rondo and Pierce are both turnover prone. Perkins is really turnover prone. As a team they've been burning about 16% of their possessions in the playoffs on turnovers, which means Artest and Kobe could be in for some big steal numbers in this series.

The Celtics have, however, been doing a terrific job in getting to the free-throw line. In the postseason so far, they've generated 0.37 free-throw attempts per FGA, a very solid clip. Pierce and Rondo draw the most fouls, which isn't surprising. What is surprising is the name of the Celtic with the third-most FTAs in the playoffs: Glen Davis. The Sizable Baby is picking up a free-throw attempt about once every five minutes he's on the court.

Boston isn't a great three-point shooting team, but like the Lakers they've picked it up in the postseason, hitting 38% of their longballs compared to about 35% in the regular season. This has partially offset a decline in their two-point percentage. Despite these short-term results, their strength is at the rim and in the midrange game. Ray and Rondo are remarkably accurate two-point shooters for wing players, and Perk is a dependable finisher at the basket. The Celtics do very little offensive rebounding.

How the Lakers defend Rondo will be crucial. I don't know that there's any real choice but to give the assignment to Kobe. Rondo is very much in the Russell Westbrook mold - fast, athletic and powerful notwithstanding a poor outside shot - and we all remember how delightful it was to see Westbrook annihilate Fisher. Kobe is infinitely better suited to disrupting the youngster's passing and penetration. Besides, Kobe tends to stray when he's assigned to off-ball shooters, and Ray Allen isn't the type of player you want to leave open around the arc. Will guarding Rondo require Kobe to expend energy he might otherwise burn on offense? Yes, but such are the costs of a championship.

In the frontcourt, Pierce vs. Artest is a straightforward man-to-man duel. Having already disposed of Kevin Durant and a scorching-hot Jason Richardson, Ron will be ready. Pau Gasol should be fine dealing with Garnett, who doesn't have the foot speed and explosiveness that Amare Stoudemire used to give Pau trouble in the conference finals. Lamar can also spell Pau on KG duty. Bynum, to the extent he's able to stay on the court, will be able to focus on rebounding and help D, as Perkins (for all the great work he's done at the defensive end) has been a nonfactor on offense.

When the Lakers Have the Ball

Here's the same snazzy table, but with the Laker offense lined up against the Celtics D. You know you want it, baby.

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

LA Off.

12.4 (5)

0.29 (19)

76.5 (12)

0.23 (13)

49.2 (14)

34.1 (24)

49.6 (17)

53.8 (17)

27.6 (8)

1.09 (11)

Bos. D.

14.9 (2)

0.34 (25)

n/a

0.22 (10)

48.1 (11)

34.2 (5)

48.7 (9)

53.4 (10)

73.8 (14)

1.04 (5)

Relative to the Suns' defense, the Boston D presents a massive step up in difficulty. Their pressure on the ball has been fantastic. Miami, Cleveland and Orlando combined to turn it over on an incredible 18% of possessions. Working the ball into the post is going to be more difficult, as will be finding cutters and making skip passes to the weak side. When Kobe and Lamar drive from the perimeter, hands will be poking at the ball and elbows will be poking at ribcages. The Lakers dealt with some hostile defense in the Oklahoma City series, but that was a while back.

It would be nice if the Lakers could get a few more calls than they've enjoyed so far in the playoffs. They've been awarded only 0.30 free-throw attempts per FGA, a pretty meager rate considering how tight whistles have been in the postseason generally. As a team the Celtics have been rather foully: in low-possession games, opponents have been averaging 28 FTAs a night. The faster the whistles, the more the Lakers will benefit, as the Celtics are more dependent on contact and have a key player (Perkins) who'll be suspended with only one more tech.

Trying to contain an elite wing scorer won't be anything new for Boston. Already they've faced and defeated Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Vince Carter. At the moment, however, Kobe is operating at a level of offensive potency greater than any of those gentlemen. Rondo doesn't have the size to guard him. Ray is too old. Pierce is too slow. Tony Allen is a good defender, but having him on the floor means Boston is giving up scoring punch. The Celts will need a team-based approach to slowing Kobe, entailing zone shading, denial, the occasional double-team and the occasional forearm shiver. It won't be nearly so easy for Kobe to operate as it was against Phoenix, but neither will it be easy for Boston to stall his immense flow.

‘Tis a pity Bynum is less than 100%, as he had two good games against the C's in the regular season. Given his balky knee and the uncertain effects of its draining, expectations must be tempered. That said, I do think conventional wisdom has overcorrected for Drew's injury. There seems to be a sense that the Lakers can't fairly expect anything out of him, but that just hasn't been the case. Even though he's been playing hurt, Drew's still contributing meaningfully. His rebounding has been especially helpful, and his block rates have held up nicely. It's mostly his usage rate and minutes that have suffered. He can't go as long as he used to, and when on the court he's not going to be a first or second offensive option, but the kid is still battling and producing as a useful role player.

It's mandatory that Pau shake off whatever funk took hold of him at the end of the Phoenix series and return to inflicting major damage on offense. If he doesn't, there'll be way too much pressure on Kobe to be superhuman and on the Artest-Fisher-Farmar combo to hit threes. The latter will be important regardless. I can't say my confidence is high that they'll continue to knock down shots the way they did against Phoenix, but the nice thing is, that performance is in the books and in the minds of Celtic defenders, who as a result will be much more reluctant to shade off Kobe and Pau.

In Conclusion

Science has proven that rooting against the Celtics makes a person 60% sexier. I know that sounds unlikely, but I double-checked the math myself, and it works out. (I think it might've been on the SAT one year.) Also, Good Will Hunting sucked, the Dropkick Murphys are a terrible band, and it's stupid that Massachusetts is referred to as a "commonwealth." The end.

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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