Four games in to this best of seven NBA Finals, and we've yet to see either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics put together the type of performance that makes you think one team or the other has this series well in hand. It's no coincidence then that the series is tied 2-2, and that neither team has been able to put together a two game streak of any kind. Win-lose-win-lose (or lose-win-lose-win) has been the pattern, and even the reasons that pattern exists have changed from game to game.
For both teams, and both teams' fans, every win has provided good reason to think the series will end with a positive outcome, and every loss provides plenty of reason to panic. How can the Lakers lose when they can out-tough the Celtics? Err, I mean how can they win when their bench provides them nothing? Sorry, I mean how can they lose when they can survive a rough shooting night from Kobe and still be on top? Oops, what I meant to ask was how they can win the series if they can't even win a game in which the Big 4 were big duds? More importantly, how can they win if Andrew Bynum can't play?
The truth about this series is that there is no truth (insert Paul Pierce joke here). At least, there is no truth that will maintain from one game to the next. You can count on both teams to play very good defense (aided by the fact that both teams don't play particularly strong offense), and that's about it. The Celtics could get game winning performances from ANYWHERE (can the guy who predicted a C's win on the backs of Big Baby and Nate Rob please step forward?). but they are just as likely to get none at all. All of their best players have had brief moments in which they've played well, but they've all disappointed more often than not.
The Lakers boast a little more consistency, but not much. Kobe's been pretty good throughout, although he's had plenty of negatives thrown in as well (foul trouble in game 2, poor shooting in game 3, turnovers in game 4). You can always count on Pau to bring the goods, but you can't count on the rest of the team to allow him to. Past that, you've got a bunch of guys who can be difference makers, and all you can do is pray the difference they make is a good one. Derek Fisher rescued the Lakers in game 3, but has made little impact anywhere else in the series. Andrew Bynum has been the team's 3rd best player, but he might need an off-season amputation for his knee. Whenever Ron Artest shoots, somewhere else in the world a puppy dies. And don't even get me started about Lamar Odom.
The point is, you don't know anything about how tonight's game is going to play out. No one does. Anyone representing themselves as having foresight into the events that will transpire is full of it, and if they happen to be right, it will be dumb luck. There is no analyzing a series like this. Kobe could go for 40 and carry the Lakers to victory. So could Paul Pierce. Lamar Odom can single handedly win or lose the game for the Lakers with his play (we're still waiting on the win part of that equation, LO). So could KG. Ray Allen could hit every shot he takes, or none of them. The Celtics bench could fail to outplay the Lakers bench, or they could outplay the Lakers starters.
A likely key will be the play of Andrew Bynum. Despite being quite limited by an injured knee, Bynum has made a big difference for the Lakers. When he's in the lineup, the Celtics have struggled to handle his and Pau Gasol's size combined. When he's not in, the Celtics have dominated, in no small part because of LO's disgustingly bad series so far. Drew only played 12 minutes in Game 4, including only 2 minutes in the 2nd half, before having to shut it down. On Friday, He repeated the knee draining procedure which he first had performed in between the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Supposedly, his knee is responding well to the treatment and he will be good to go for tonight, but I'll believe it when I see him running around relatively unencumbered. Either way, massive amounts of love should be shown to Drew for his commitment to the team. He knows he is a big part of why the Lakers should win this series, and he's doing literally everything he can to try and make it happen. You can question the man's genetics, you can question his maturity, but we no longer have any right to question his heart.
Instead, we can question Lamar Odom's heart. Save for a decent performance in game 3, one who's numbers look far better than they actually are, LO has had a series from hell. After playing less minutes in Games 1 and 2 than he normally would play in a single game, while nearly fouling out twice, Lamar has finally gotten some burn over the last two, but it has failed to stem the tide of his ineffectiveness. If ever Lamar is going to have a positive effect on this series, tonight will be the night. His inability to contain Big Baby Davis in the last game has ratcheted up the volume on the discussion of his poor play. The well-deserved criticism must be reaching his ears, and if he is capable of a response, you'll see it tonight. I think he's capable of it.
The final factor that I find likely to be important is the pace. The commonly held belief is that pace favors the Celtics, and it's commonly held for a reason. The Celtics are better than the Lakers at scoring in transition. The break allows Rondo to be RONDO, and the Celtics get good looks in the form of dunks and transition 3's at his behest. Stopping the Celtics from playing with that pace, keeping them out of rhythm, has been a big reason the Lakers defense has been so successful. But, I think the lengths that they are going to keep the Celtics from having that rhythm is improving the Celtics defense almost as much. The C's are a strong defensive team, no doubt, but they are much stronger when they only have to play 10 seconds of defense per possession, and that's what the Lakers are allowing them to do. By walking the ball up the floor, nearly getting an 8 count 9 times out of 10, the Lakers aren't even initiating the offense until the shot clock hits 14. That gives them 10 seconds to run their offense before panic sets in and Kobe Bryant has to call for the ball and try to make something magical happen. The C's are too good to be broken down consistently in 10 seconds.
So I want to see the Lakers play offense with a little more urgency tonight. Just because you want to limit the C's looks in transition doesn't mean you need to waste time. Run the damn ball up the floor, and then you have 20 seconds to run your offense instead of 10. It's not even a matter of pushing the pace, it's a matter of using your possession most effectively. If the Lakers aren't smart enough to be able to play a bit quicker without falling into the "fast paced game" trap of launching early shots, it's on their own heads.
If Bynum can provide a significant improvement over what he was capable of in game 4, I think the Lakers will win this game. As I've said before, I don't have any solid reasons to back it up, and I don't think solid reasons exist. It's just a gut feeling. There are definitely psychological elements in play for both teams. The Celtics are probably thinking about this game as if its a game 7. They are a good road team (especially in the playoffs), but two straight wins in Staples to close out the Finals is a rough ask, so they need a win tonight to give themselves two chances to close out in L.A. For the record, this will be their 3rd Game 7 of the Finals (and they won the 1st two). For the Lakers, it's a matter of staying ahead of the game. They haven't trailed a postseason series since losing game 1 of the semis against the Rockets last year, and that deficit was so early on that they had plenty of time to redeem themselves. They've played only one game under the threat of elimination in that time (also against Houston). I'm sure they have no desire to find out whether they can respond under any of those circumstances. In short, energy and effort should not be a problem for either team tonight.
What will be a problem for either team? Who the hell knows. The Lakers have made Boston's best players look ineffective for most of the series, with each having exactly one breakout game. Boston has made the Lakers ball movement regress to a time before the forward pass was legal. After 4 games, we're no closer (figuratively) to finding out who is going to be this season's champion than we were when this thing started, and not just because the series is tied. It's because the history of this series is being re-written after every game. The only question remaining is what will tomorrow's version look like?