Lakers-Celtics Preview: All Hands to Battle Stations

When did the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics enter its latest historical phase? I peg December 30, 2007 as the moment of rebirth. That night, the Celtics entered Staples Center as the new force on the NBA streets. They'd assembled their Big Three core the previous offseason and had ripped off a 25-3 start. The Lakers were a relatively modest 19-10 at the time, but that was better than anyone expected, and they'd won 10 of their previous 12 games to banish the ennui brought on by their own offseason, which had been eventful for all the wrong reasons. The Laker faithful had stopped booing Kobe Bryant and were energized by the seemingly overnight arrival on the scene of one Andrew Bynum. If the wind was blowing just right and you squinted hard enough, you could convince yourself that both the Celts and Lakers looked like championship contenders at the same time, which evoked all kinds of nostalgia for the NBA's bipolar Great Power alignment of the 1980s.

Boston won that game rather easily, which is probably just as well in that it foreclosed any temptation the Lakers' marketing people might otherwise have had of repeating their risible "short shorts" gambit. But since then, the Lakers and Celtics have faced each other 17 times, an enormous number for nonconference foes. If you're reading this, you probably watched all 17. A few of the games you may have even watched twice. Most of them have been close. All have been fraught with tension and reciprocal loathing. Throughout, the head coaches have remained the same, and the lineups nearly so.

It kind of feels as though the Lakers-Celtics revival is a recent development, but the Sunday afternoon tip-off at Staples will inaugurate Year Four of the modern struggle between these franchises. In terms of both length and continuity of personalities, the current chapter of the rivalry is, if not yet approaching the epic ‘60s and ‘80s eras, nonetheless establishing itself as something more than a passing moment. By now, you know all the important names on the Celtics' roster. Your reasons for abhoring them are grounded in three years' worth of memories and have reached alarming levels of specificity. Even Shaquille O'Neal, the new guy they brought in this year, is someone with whom you have a long and complicated history. No opponent, in other words, requires less of an introduction.

The Lakers have a well-earned reputation as a "flip the switch" squad, but they've never switch-flipped the way the Celtics switch-flipped last season. Boston slouched groggily into the playoffs with the ninth-best record and net-points margin in the NBA, more closely resembling a candidate for second-round elimination than a true contender. But they cranked up that classic Celtics D, and after slapping away the Miami Heat in the first round, they rocked the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with upset victories over Cleveland and Orlando. The Lakers nearly met the same fate, needing to claw their way back from a 13-point, second-half deficit in Game Seven to win the NBA Finals. In light of the bracing disparity between the Celtics' regular-season and playoff performances, the question heading into this season was: who are these guys anymore? Are they superannuated has-beens who whiffed on their last, best shot at the throne? Or are they still the swaggering brawlers who once spread fear to arenas across the land?

So far this season they've looked more like the 2010 Playoff Celtics than the pale imitation that came before. At 35-11 they stand atop the East and are second only to San Antonio in the league tables. As usual, their defense has been splendid: they rank second in defensive efficiency. And as usual, their offense is rather lagging behind, ranking only 12th. Like the Lakers, they're not immune to WTF losses, such as their stumble in Washington last week or their 17-point hammering in Phoenix on Friday. Unlike the Lakers, they can point to several headline victories on their resume, including wins over the Heat, Magic and Spurs.


The Boston offense is different this year in a few subtle respects. The Celtics aren't getting to the free-throw line as much this season and they're not attempting threes as frequently. And whereas last year they were merely a very bad offensive rebounding team, now they're off-the-charts horrible. Not only do they rank dead last in offensive-rebounding rate, but they're not even close to the team ranked 29th. By way of illustration, Paul Pierce pulls in an offensive board about as often as Steve Blake. Essentially, Doc Rivers has made the decision to forsake second-chance points in favor of getting guys back in transition D. It's a radical tactic, and although I suppose you can't argue with the results, it does make the Celtics less able to exploit the Lakers' weakness on the defensive glass.

Boston nonetheless has a pretty successful attack because they shoot the ball as well as anyone. They rank first in the NBA in two-point accuracy and fifth in three-point accuracy. Guys know their spots, the system (though turnover-prone) gets the rock to where people are comfortable, and for the most part players who shouldn't be taking shots, don't. Rajon Rondo, their prodigiously skilled point guard, makes it all function smoothly enough despite producing a good share of those turnovers and a bizarre tendency to miss shots outside of five feet. By the way, did you realize that Rondo is shooting 49 percent from the free-throw line this year? Even Shaq thinks that sucks.


The Celts aren't the tallest team in the NBA - they're actually one of the shortest - but that front line of theirs brings a lot of sheer mass to the table. Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis are up near 300 pounds, and Shaq of course blew past three bills ages ago. Mind you, each of these guys has some health issues: Perk has been on a pitch count since returning from ACL surgery, Shaq recently missed three games with hip soreness, and Big Baby left the Suns game early with a right hamstring tweak. Dealing with their combined bulk, however, will be a steep challenge for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Theo Ratliff would be useful in this one.

On the perimeter, you're familiar with the dynamics we're likely to see: Kobe "guarding" Rondo but mostly playing the free-safety role he so enjoys. Ron Artest doing battle with Pierce. And Derek Fisher or whoever endeavoring to chase Ray Allen around screen after screen. At some point we'll see Shannon Brown and Nate Robinson locked in a duel of reserve-unit gunners. (Tangent: anyone else find it curious that Fish sat the entire fourth quarter of the Sacramento game? I'm not complaining, just pointing it out. I've not seen an explanation for this, so if you have please link to it in the comments.)

When the Lakers have the ball, they'll have to be patient and poised. It's inevitable that the Celtics will break out the elbows and forearms, and it's inevitable that some of it will escape the attention of the refs. The Lakers haven't always responded well to no-calls this season, but they'll need to play through them on Sunday. I predict at least three techs over the course of the game.


Beyond that, we need Gasol to rediscover the form he showed in last year's Finals. We need Bynum to stay out of foul trouble and to make Shaq look 48 years old instead of 38. We need Artest to put Pierce in a hammer-lock and Kobe not to get caught up in an unnecessary and ill-advised personal quest to redeem 6-for-24. We need Fish to drop another dose of that Game Three magic and Lamar Odom to be the very best Lamar Odom he can possibly be. And we need the Staples crowd to forget it's January and pretend it's June.

Get your sleep tonight, kiddies. On Sunday we ride to war.

 

                  Celtics                  

                  Lakers                  

 

      Stat      

League Rank

      Stat      

League Rank

Record.................................

35-11

2

33-14

3

Net Points Per Game............

+7.2

4

+7.3

3

Pace.....................................

90.8

21

92.0

17

Offensive Rating...................

108.0

12

112.6

1

Turnover Rate (Off.)..........

14.5%

26

12.8%

2

FTA/FGA (Off.)..................

0.29

21

0.30

19

Free-Throw %...................

74.7%

20

78.6%

7

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)...........

0.19

26

0.23

14

3PT% (Off.).......................

37.8%

6

36.5%

12

Effective FG% (Off.)...........

53.5%

1

51.3%

9

True Shooting% (Off.).......

57.5%

1

55.7%

8

Off Rebounding Rate.........

21.3%

30

29.9%

5

Defensive Rating....................

100.1

2

104.7

8

Turnover Rate (Def.)...........

15.3%

3

12.9%

22

FTA/FGA (Def.)...................

0.33

25

0.24

2

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)...........

0.20

5

0.25

24

3PT% (Def.)........................

34.2%

8

34.0%

7

Effective FG% (Def.)...........

47.2%

3

48.0%

6

True Shooting% (Def.)........

52.3%

6

51.7%

3

Def Rebounding Rate.........

74.8%

11

72.6%

21

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. All numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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