Lakers-Celtics Preview: (As) All Or Nothing (As It Gets in the Regular Season)

Today our Los Angeles Lakers take on their arch-rivals, the Boston Celtics, for the second time in less than a fortnight. Since the first matchup, an embarrassing double-digit loss for the purple and gold, the Lakers have finally shown some grit, winning an overtime game against the Rockets with solid defense in the extra period, losing a heartbreaker to the league-leading San Antonio Spurs on a last-second tip-in after a nine-point fourth quarter near-comeback and getting a solid win against the playoff-caliber New Orleans Hornets and a good defensive-minded win over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Celtics, meanwhile, have only had a .500-record since then, losing a close game against the Mavericks due to a lack of defense and falling to the Charlotte Bobcats on a night when they put up an ugly 0.94 points per possession, while beating the Sacramento Kings and posting an impressive win against the Orlando Magic.

This season really has been a role-reversal for the Lakers and Celtics. While at this point last season, the Lakers still had one of the best records in the league and, Cleveland hype aside, were viewed as clear championship favorites, the Celtics were plodding along and written off by many. Now everything has flipped. While San Antonio has had the league's best record so far, some feel that Boston has played the best basketball for much of this season. The Lakers, meanwhile, though posting a better won-loss record than the Celtics had at a similar point last season, have failed to impress, and have indeed troubled many with their inability to beat good teams and their multiple losing streaks.

We know how things ended up last year. The Lakers slowed down considerably post-All Star Break, until the playoffs. They nonetheless went through the West without serious trouble and met a Boston team that had shocked the world by beating contenders Cleveland and Orlando in convincing fashion. Hell, the Celtics at one point last season even considered blowing up their core. Similarly, the Lakers this season have publicly floated the possibility of a trade, with a Bynum-for-Melo deal considered and multiple trade scenarios involving Pau Gasol proposed by myself (for after Phil Jackson's departure, not for now). Last year's Finals provided some ugly basketball and a far cry from the Lakers-Cavs matchup that ESPN so desperately wanted. But at the same time it was gloriously beautiful, evenly matched and toughly fought. In the end, results are all that matter, and the Celtics lost. Right now, the Lakers are where the Celtics were last year. Unsettling? Slightly.

A preview for this game is somewhat redundant, considering the recent nature of the last matchup between these two teams and the familiarity they have with each other. In terms of adjustments, although the Celtics came away with the handy win last time, I highly doubt they were satisfied with their defensive performance on one Kobe Bryant; and as a result I expect their defense to be rather more geared toward limiting Kobe. This makes it essential that Pau Gasol continue his improved play of late, as the Lakers will need consistent scoring options other than Bryant in order to succeed.

In addition, Andrew Bynum needs to be able to play more minutes and avoid foul trouble so that Pau is not guarded by Kendrick Perkins, who is historically effective at limiting Gasol, and instead is played by Kevin Garnett or the smaller Glen "Big Baby" Davis, famous for having perhaps the most accurate nickname in the history of the NBA. The Bynum vs. Perk matchup will be interesting to watch, as Perk has previously stated that Bynum is his hardest cover in the league, and Perk is respected as a superlative one-on-one low post defender. Bynum's performance against Perk could serve as a proverbial measuring stick for his progression. 

Boston's front line is only three deep for this game, as Shaq is expected to sit out with an Achilles inflammation and hip injury (per Basketball Reference) and rookie Semih Erden is questionable as well, with Jermaine O'Neal seemingly perpetually injured. As such, Boston's front line will consist of the 6'10" Perkins, still not 100% recovered from his injury last season, the 7-foot-but-extremely-skinny Kevin Garnett and the 6'8" Davis. Theoretically, this shouldn't pose too many problems for the Lakers, as these guys aren't particularly long or athletic but experience paints a vastly different picture. Bynum, at least, should benefit, as Shaq seems one of the extremely rare players genuinely capable of limiting big Drew and indeed gives our front line as a whole problems.

On the perimeter, it's the same old story. The Lakers will likely go with their usual strategy of having Kobe "defend" Rondo while Derek Fisher chases Ray Allen around screens andm despite a disappointing performance from Ron Artest last game, will probably still have Artest defend Pierce the majority of the game, allowing him an opportunity to redeem himself. The Kobe-on-Rondo matchup has generally worked well for the Lakers. Derek Fisher on Ray Allen is generally hit-or-miss, depending on how hot Allen is on any given night. While Ron generally works well in keeping Pierce away from catching the ball, limiting his touches due to good off-ball defense, it seems to me Pierce generally performs better than the vast majority of players at efficiently taking Ron in the midrange, due to an impressive array of fakes and moves that probably rival only Kobe and Melo. Last game Pierce even worked well on Ron in the post, something that shouldn't happen. Considering that Kobe plays free safety anyways, I'd like to see Kobe help out more with Pierce once he catches the ball in the 16-18 foot area.

The Celtics are surprisingly thin on the perimeter. Nate Robinson is their only reserve receiving significant minutes, due to Marquis Daniels and Delonte West being out with injury (on that note, let's keep our thoughts and prayers with 'Quis, who suffered a truly scary injury a few days back). Other than that, the Celtics give some minutes to journeyman Von Wafer and rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody, but they'ere far from impact players. Realistically, Robinson and Davis are the only healthy Celtics bench players worth worrying about defensively (which isn't exactly a good thing, considering their history of good play against the Lakers).

The Celtics' defense, while vaunted, was really not that impressive last matchup, allowing Kobe Bryant (with help from Lamar Odom and pretty much nobody else) to carve it up to the tune of 1.10 points per possession, only 0.024 off the Lakers' league-leading mark in that category. A decent game from Kobe coupled with at least some contribution from the frontline, with our bench hopefully outplaying the Celtics bench, SHOULD lead to a win (although doubtless the Celtics will make an attempt to correct their defensive issues from last matchup).

However, what cannot ever happen again is the embarrassing defensive performance the Lakers put on display last time. The Lakers allowed the Big Three to play like it was 2002, totalling 71 points on nearly 70% shooting from the field. The Celtics as a team scored a simply ridiculous 1.25 points per possession while posting a True Shooting clip of nearly 70% for the game. I don't care what crap ESPN said about Kobe shooting too much, NOBODY beats the Celtics, or for that matter any NBA team except maybe the Suns, when allowing them to score with such efficiency. The Lakers damn well better study tape of their laughing stock of a defensive performance, and correct their mistakes.

This is a winnable game for the Lakers, provided they play with some of the defensive grit they've shown the last few games and generate the same offensive efficiency they showed against Boston at Staples Center. (Sure, they didn't really run the Triangle, but they scored on the Celtics with an efficiency few other teams would dream.) Especially since Shaq, who historically has been able to work wonders in neutralising the Laker frontline, is out.

If the Lakers win this game, it may well signal a true turning point in their season. They've shown some good signs since their loss to the C's: Pau once again playing aggressively and effectively, the defense functioning well, and some signs of the endgame execution (ignoring the last 22 seconds of the Spurs game) that's needed in a championship contender. If they win tonight, it could mean they've come full circle from that embarrassing defeat.

If not... well, there's still plenty of time for them to round into form. The All Star Break hasn't even passed yet. But waiting longer would have negative implications. Stealing HCA from San Antonio is pretty much impossible by now, but the Lakers can still realistically regain home court for potential matchups against Boston, Dallas and Miami. Perhaps most important for our peace of mind, beating Boston tonight, even though they're without Shaq, would finally qualify as a true signature win, of the sort the Lakers so nearly had against San Antonio a week ago.

Lakers

Celtics

RECORD

36-16 (5)

38-13 (2)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+6.7 (4)

+6.9 (3)

PACE

91.5 (17)

90.9 (20)

OFFENSIVE RATING

112.4 (1)

107.7 (14)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.71 (2)

14.61 (27)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.295 (17)

0.291 (19)

Free-Throw %

78.6 (8)

74.7 (21)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.225 (14)

0.190 (24)

3PT% (Off.)

36.1 (15)

38.1 (6)

Effective FG% (Off.)

51.07 (10)

53.58 (1)

True Shooting% (Off.)

55.5 (9)

57.1 (2)

Off Rebounding Rate

29.85 (5)

21.75 (30)

DEFENSIVE RATING

105.1 (11)

100.1 (2)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

12.85 (24)

15.31 (3)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.239 (1)

0.328 (25)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.246 (25)

0.199 (4)

3PT% (Def.)

34.1 (5)

34.9 (9)

Effective FG% (Def.)

48.29 (7)

47.37 (3)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.9 (3)

52.2 (4)

Def Rebounding Rate

72.59 (21)

74.96 (7)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

Bonus Video (made by our very own Gil Meriken), reminding us, as well as any Celtics fans lurking around here, who we are:


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