Game One tips off in exactly three hours, 15 minutes. 195 minutes until what may end up being the defining series of any and every member of this Los Angeles Lakers squad's career. Kobe's legacy, Pau's redemption, Ron's title, et cetera et cetera. We've been through all this. We know the importance of this series, and there is no doubt the players do as well. Game One will present an opportunity for both teams to strike the first blow. With the way both these teams have played up-and-down (see their respective conference finals series for a perfect example), winning Game One, even in a blowout, is far from any guarantee of a title, but it still serves as an indicator of who's more prepared out of the gate.
We've been over the stats. We've been over the matchups. But, particularly with two teams such as these, they really do mean next to nothing. Toughness, will, determination, clutch. Traits often referred to as 'intangible', though their results are generally very, brutally tangible. Those are what will decide the series. Their results may be tangible, but they are inestimatable until after the fact, and even then their true effect is often immeasurable. Trying to predict this series truly is a fools' endeavour, as one can never tell what to expect from either of these teams on a night-in, night-out basis.
Both teams will put in the work, put in the effort. But both teams are filled with players that possess a propensity to randomly alternate between slumps and hot streaks, players suffering from injuries ranging from niggling to serious, core players who are downright streaky, and role players who have the potential to light on fire and ignite a team to swing momentum. It kills me to quote Kevin Garnett, but anything is possible.
The Lakers have home-court advantage over the Celtics, and thus open the series at home. Even when taking into account the Lakers' undefeated home record in these playoffs and how the Staples Center crowd actually comes out for Celtics games, home court means nothing. Both these teams are veteran and composed enough to win on the road. The Celtics especially, as they possessed a better road record than home record in the regular season and have won their last two series against what on paper should have been tough opponents, without the benefit of home-court advantage.
In terms of key players to shut down, there are many variables in play. Obviously, the Lakers want to trap and harass Rondo at every turn, as in him lies the key to the Celtics' offense. However, this task may be made easier by Rondo's up-and-down play throughout the conference finals, and niggling leg and hip/back injuries. Those injuries, however, are minor, and with the rest he has received in the break, it should be assumed he'll be at 100%.
If Rondo is taken out of the picture, then the Celtics have to primarily run through Paul Pierce and rely on him to create points. The Lakers don't need a help-defense scheme on Pierce, not with the best small forward defender in the league in Ron Artest. Pierce will put up points regardless, that's what great players do, but the key for the Lakers to win is for Ron to force Pierce into bad shots, and trust that to result in low efficiency.
Other than those two, none of the Celtics' core can create their own points in high volume. Ray Allen has the purest stroke in the NBA, but doesn't settle and thus possesses a decent game off-the-dribble as well, but if the Celtics have to consistently run their offense through him, while they may win if he starts hitting all his shots, the Lakers have a better shot than if Rondo or Pierce manage to tear up the Los Angeles defense. Kendrick Perkins is not even a tertiary offensive option, and Kevin Garnett is relying on his mid-range jump shot for his points. Sometimes it falls, but often it doesn't, resulting in series like against Orlando where he averaged 10 points on 39% shooting.
For the Celtics, the key to stopping Kobe lies not in actually stopping Kobe, as the Celtics do not possess a one-on-one defender of sufficient calibre to sufficiently slow Kobe in single-coverage - Ray Allen is a decent defender, nothing more; Pierce is good but defending Kobe will render him exhausted on offense; and Tony Allen is good but an offensive nonfactor - and none of them are truly great defenders, either) - but in stopping his teammates. If the Celtics shut down Kobe's supporting cast, particularly Pau Gasol (and the other big men), it allows them more flexibility with their defensive scheme.
If Pau, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom are out of rhythm, out of position and nervous, this allows the Celtics' bigs more freedom to help on Kobe's drives without having to worry about recovering with as much intensity. Conventional wisdom and history would suggest the best way to take the Lakers' frontline out of the game would be to hit them and keep on hitting them until they give up, but it remains to be seen how the Lakers will respond to this treatment, two years down the line.
If the Lakers' bigs can actually hold on to the ball and create offense, that allows Kobe to play off-ball, especially on the weakside. When playing from such a position, if he catches the ball on a swing or a skip pass, he has the opportunity to take a shot or make his move before the defense can collapse in on him. A perfect example of this was the third quarter of Game Four of the WCFs, where Kobe played on the weakside wing whilst the offense was run through the strong-side post, before the ball was kicked out to the strong-side wing and then swung to Kobe, who either rose up for a three with plenty of space, or faked and drove on a scrambling defense. If the Los Angeles bigs are holding their own, this also obviously allows the Celtics' bigs less freedom to help and double.
With this, the onus is particularly on Pau. More than Lamar or Drew, Pau is the one known for shrinking under physicality. Pau is also perhaps the best pivot in NBA history to play in the Triangle offense. His combination of shooting stroke, ability to put the ball on the floor, IQ, court vision, bevy of low-post moves and passing ability make him the perfect big man to run the Triangle. As such, if he plays well and does not feel intimidated by the Celtics frontline, the Lakers can run their offense properly. Otherwise, the Lakers will likely need to modify their offense to a less efficient version.
If the bigs hold their own, help defenders cannot come at Kobe from the paint. Therefore, the Celtics need to double and trap Kobe by helping off of the likes of Derek Fisher, Ron Artest, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. All of these players have shown an ability to hit the longball at a highly efficient rate at some point in this season, let alone their careers. However, asides from Fisher, they are all streaky and inconsistent. Expecting them all to be able to heat up simultaneously or within the space of one game is unreasonable, but if two out the the trio of Sasha, Jordan and Ron are hitting threes efficiently, the Lakers' ability to put points on the board is likely secure.
Defensively, the Lakers simply need to play hard man-to-man. Let Artest earn his paycheck on Pierce. Help primarily off of Perkins in the paint, and off of non-shooters on the perimeter (Tony Allen, primarily, Rajon Rondo to a lesser extent - also Glen Davis if he's out beyond 15 feet). Basic defensive principles apply. Move laterally, hands straight up when contesting, box out and secure the rebound before you consider the defensive possession over. Cut off Rondo's passing angles and force him to be a scorer, preferably from 12 feet and out. Considering Garnett's shooting slump, it might make sense to give him the jumpshot at 20 feet or beyond, in favour of keeping the LA bigs in favourable position to help.
Do not hack, do not hack, do not hack. The Lakers have been on the wrong side of some nasty free-throw differentials all season long, particularly in the playoffs. Exacerbating this issue is the reputation these two teams have of being chippy and physical. This was doubtlessly result in many refs trying to call the game tight, at least to start with, in order to try and establish control. It's fair to say the Celtics' reputation of being chippy and physical is more well deserved than the Lakers', and thus it would seem that the Lakers would better be suited to a game with tight whistles, particularly considering the Celtics' tendency to argue calls to the point of earning technicals, particularly Perkins with his six techs.
Both teams run very short benches. I think Sheed will not be as effective as he has been at other points in the playoffs, as Odom is a better matchup for him than anyone the Heat, Cavaliers or Magic possessed. While Odom's playoffs have been largely unimpressive compared to last year, he should still be at least able to match Sheed's play. And, if he manages to neutralises and/or outplay both Sheed and Big Baby, the Lakers have a good chance of winning.
In the backcourt, both teams only have one truly set sub - Tony Allen for the Celtics and Jordan Farmar for the Lakers. Offensively, Tony Allen is pretty limited, serving primarily as a cutter and fast break finisher on offense, whist being on the court primarily for his defensive ability. Jordan Farmar is more of a scorer, on a hot streak from three in the playoffs and also able to penetrate and create for himself off the dribble better than anyone on the team except for Kobe and Lamar.
The Lakers will also likely play Sasha Vujacic in lieu of Shannon Brown, who has been performing terribly. Sasha is an irritating defender, borderline-satisfactory point guard, has years of experience in the Triangle, and can shoot the three well, potentially better than anyone on the team. On the opposite side of the spectrum, his good play in Games 5 and 6 has freed Nate Robinson from the Celtics bench. He is an explosive scorer, and only Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant in this series can create their own shot better than Nate. With his athleticism, when his jump shot is on he can single-handedly swing the momentum of games. Remember, he dropped 42 points once this season. If he plays anywhere near that well on the offensive end, coupled with his defensive effort from Games Five and Six of the ECFs, the Lakers will be hard pressed to win.
Push the pace. Rondo can run the break as well as virtually any point guard in the NBA, and Nate and Tony Allen are explosive finishers. But the Celtics only have those three. The rest of their players are either old or big men, and if the Lakers push the pace it will tire them faster and put them out of their comfort zone, to an extent. The Celtics obviously have three superstars who have been able to play at a fast pace through their careers, but all those years of doing so are starting to catch up to them.
Grab rebounds, particularly on the offensive end. The Lakers still have a length advantage over the Celtics, if not a size or strength advantage, and that should particularly manifest itself in the area of offensive rebounds. With the Lakers' long arms, they can volleyball the orange around the rim, taking four or five attempts to get it in as a group, from behind the Celtics' big men. That's cheap, easy points; and in the slowish, defense-orientated games these two teams will likely be playing, cheap and easy points are invaluable.
More than any other factor, however, will be which team wants it more. Which team more wants to land the first punch, to strike a blow to their opponent and put them on the back foot before their opponent has a chance to reciprocate. While aspects of luck such as shooting streaks may play into determining the victors, primarily this first game will be won by whichever team is willing to fight harder and take more punishment to do so.