"Looking at the other team, these two teams might as well be staring into a mirror." - That's what C.A. said in his piece commencing coverage of the Lakers-Celtics series, and that's the most apt description of this series I've heard.
Both teams struggled during the regular season. Both teams had their doubters, with the so-called 'experts' favouring the flashier teams or the teams that better filled a stat-sheet, without as much as an acknowledgement of the concepts of 'experience', 'clutch' or 'will'. But look who's left standing. For the 12th time in history, these two clubs with legendary levels of history are facing off for all the marbles on the hardwood, in what has historically been a one-sided contest. Both teams are the most successful in NBA history, both teams have a legacy that is unparalleled in this sport by any team other than each other. Both teams are used to winning.
Both teams also have quite similar rosters. While in terms of position-by-position, it's not exactly 'looking into a mirror', it is still extremely well matched. The Celtics' and Lakers' starting units, aside from a reversal of the two wing roles on offense (Artest = Allen, PP = Kobe) and the point-guard matchup being quite one-sided, are very similar in terms of make-up. Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins are both there primarily for their big bodies, rebounding and defense (though Andrew is obviously skilled offensively); KG and Pau are both versatile power forwards who can take it off the dribble, shoot from 15-18 feet efficiently and mix it up in the post; Ron Artest and Ray Allen are both spot-up shooters, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce are both where their teams go if they desperately need points manufactured out of seemingly nowhere, and both are two of the best in the league at it due to their footwork and moves. The only difference is the point guards, who are almost polar opposites.
Derek Fisher is the wily veteran, who plays almost exclusively off of his veteran savvy and smarts, with a reliable jump shot his primary method of scoring. Rondo is the speedy blur of a player who uses his uncanny speed to violate defenses and find holes to either score or pass out of. Both are great, in their own ways. Rondo is obviously better in terms of speed, athleticism and passing. Derek Fisher is a better shooter, with a pure jumper and an ability to draw fouls and convert at the free throw line to boot.
Both teams have a mix of veterans and young talent. Both teams know what it takes to take home the trophy, having been the last two champions. Both teams love beating the other, with a larger mutual rivalry than any two other NBA teams (sorry Sacramento, THERE IS NO RIVALRY). Both teams love to win. And, guess what? Both teams are playing in the 2010 NBA Finals. Y'all know what that means. Prepare to witness what will undoubtedly be the greatest basketball played all season (with the potential to be historically great), because of the will to win these teams display, their respective skill levels and how even the matchups are. And, as usual, Silver Screen and Roll is here to cover it all (unless the Lakers start losing, then you're on your own :P), including our NBA Finals edition of SS&R Positional Previews, once again run by yours truly.
CENTER: Andrew Bynum vs. Kendrick Perkins
As we know, Andrew is injured. What you may not know is that Perkins is also injured. Andrew hyperextended his knee in the latter part of the first round against Oklahoma City, and it bothered him throughout the second and third rounds. Kendrick Perkins also had a hyperextended knee that has limited him. The difference is, Andrew's injury further aggravated a small meniscus tear in his knee he has been playing through all season, increasing the pain and making him wear a mobility-limiting brace for safety. The Phoenix Suns were especially able to take advantage of Andrew's limited mobility with their mobile big men and fast-paced offense, but the Celtics' low-post bangers will not be able to exploit this as much, as none of them display an especially high level of mobility, either. While Andrew's injury will only be completely healed with minor arthoscopic surgery in the offseason, he had his knee drained on Monday, which should result in an uptick in his play (which really wasn't THAT bad, anyway).
Kendrick Perkins is a low-post defensive monster, who uses his size, physicality, excellent defensive instincts and fierce competitiveness to stop some of the game's best pivots in their tracks. He's also a decent rebounder, at 7.6 boards per game in relatively low minutes. His offensive game is not heavily developed, but he can put some points on the board. Defensively, Bynum shouldn't have to worry too much about Perk, but with his limited mobility his help-defense on Rondo's drives will likely be sketchy at best, and thus in those scenarios Pau or Odom would definitely be better suited to the help-defender role. With Perkins' ability to set some of the best screens in the NBA, Bynum will likely often be exploited in Rondo-Perk pick-and-rolls, but his improvements in defense this season will likely allow him to satisfactorily guard pick-and-rolls involving Allen or Pierce.
Offensively, a hobbled Andrew Bynum may seem like a piece of cake for Perkins in the eyes of the media, after Perkins faced Dwight and Shaq in the last two rounds, but Kendrick himself says Drew is his hardest cover, not just for his length like many would say, but because of his excellent repertoire of post moves. Drew is more nimble than Shaq, has softer hands than either Shaq or Dwight, and has the most skilled post moves of any of the three. He also possesses the aforementioned length. The only issue is that because of his injury, Phil rests him in most practises, and as such he is out of rhythm. Nonetheless, Bynum's job will not be to put heavy points on the board, and in fact his best contributions will be rebounds, toughness and occupying Perk, thus keeping him off Gasol as much as possible.
Note: Kendrick Perkins is on 6 technicals. One more and he is suspended for a game, and then suspended another game for every second technical after that. Just a thought.
POWER FORWARD: Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett
We all remember what happened two years ago in this matchup, yeah? Well, Pau does. Forget his inconsistent play through the Suns series, and his atrocious Game Six, his supposedly 'disappearing' in fourth quarters (seriously, shut up, Pau is not the type of player to score through double-teams, and the Lakers barely got him the ball anyway). Forget it all. Pau is a soft-spoken, intellectual guy. But Kevin Garnett made the public perception of Pau to be 'Gasoft'. Hell, this motivated Pau to get in the weights room for the first time in his career, and the results are highly tangible. Pau has morphed into a rebounding beast and a force in the low-post, some even calling him the best offensive post player in the NBA. He is certainly the most skilled, and his newfound strength and toughness from that Garnett experience has at least put him in the conversation of the best.
If this was a healthy, '08-version Garnett, I would be very worried. Pau would attack, be aggressive, drive to the hoop. Garnett would pack his shit and send it back to him. But this isn't a healthy, '08-version Garnett. This is an old, hobbled Garnett. He's still one of the most competitive and intense players in the NBA. He's still crazy in a way that many hate, but many love. His heart and mind are right there. His body is not. Cleveland and Miami had no real one-on-one defenders to throw at him, with Cleveland sending either an ancient Shaq or Z, an undersized ghost of Antawn Jamison, or a mediocre Anderson Varejao at him; and this allowed his play to appear decent, averaging 17.3/8.4 at over 50% through the two series, with the offense running through him. However, faced with a real defender in Dwight, as well as spells from Marcin Gortat and the undersized ghost of Rashard Lewis, his frailty was exposed. 10 and 8 on 39% shooting, certainly not anything to be afraid of. With defenders that actually have size and athleticism on him, he is forced out further away from the basket and has to take midrange jumpshots. Sometimes, they fall; but more often, especially when contested with length, they do not. Perhaps the most telling stat about his lack of athleticism is his lack of blocks. While blocks are not necessarily a reliable indicator of good defense, they certainly display athleticism, and if Kevin Garnett were playing anywhere near his DPoY-level defense of '08, he'd average more than 0.69 blocks through the playoffs.
Pau has the skill and athleticism advantage and is one of the best big men in the game. KG is the most intense big man in the game, with the best instincts. He is still tougher than Pau, and stronger. However, his body is older, as the years upon years of heavy minutes have taken their toll. Pau should abuse this, in his quest for personal redemption from '08. We all know what Pau is capable of, and the only worry we should have is that he may overthink. But, while I wouldn't be surprised if that hampered him for a game or two, I'd expect him to adapt fast enough to win this matchup through the series.
SMALL FORWARD: Ron Artest vs. Paul Pierce.
Paul Pierce scored 31 points on 15 shots in Game Six of the Orlando series. He was also being defended by a combination of Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus, and possibly the occasional stint from Vince Carter or JJ Reddick. No offense to any of them; Barnes and Pietrus are good defenders, and Vince and Reddick aren't horrifically bad. But they just don't hold a candle to Ron Artest, one of the greatest perimeter defenders in the league and one perfectly suited for a matchup like this, one requiring size, strength and discipline more than speed. Pierce averages about 20ppg over his career on Artest, but at 43% from the field and nearly as many turnovers (3.3) as assists (3.8); and many of those games were back when Pierce was literally the only scoring option on the Celtics and therefore had to keep shooting, no matter how inefficiently, for the C's to even have a semblance of an offense.
Artest is doubtless bored. He came here expecting to defend the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the latter rounds of the playoffs, and has received neither. After holding the NBA's scoring champion and one of its most exciting young talents in Kevin Durant to terrible numbers in the first round, Ron-Ron has just been chillin' for the last two. C.J. Miles, a role player, and Jason Richardson, a shooter in a slump (likely induced by Artest, considering his success before running into Crazy Pills)? It's a miracle he didn't fall asleep at halftime. Paul Pierce displays a propensity to get to the line rivaling that of Durant or LeBron, and has a bevy of fakes and jab-steps to get a shot off. In terms of moves at his disposal, he is probably second only to Kobe in the League. He doesn't do it anywhere near as well, nor does he possess the speed or athleticism of Kobe, nor can he shoot over defenders as well as Kobe, but he's actually one of the best imitations you will find in the league. Nonetheless, without blinding speed, there's not much that can stop Artest from forcing Pierce into bad shot after bad shot. Sometimes, he'll make them, that's what great players do; but more often than not he'll miss.
Offensively, Artest won't really make Pierce work particularly hard, but he will make him work. Artest can't be counted on to provide a performance anywhere near the level of his 25 points on 16 shots in Game Six of the WCFs, but hopefully his confidence has been boosted from that game and the end of Game Five, and has allowed him to break out of his shooting slump, making it hard for Pierce to help off Ron on Kobe. Ron also prevents Pierce and Ray Allen from switching assignments often, as Ray is far smaller than Ron and will no doubt be quickly and repeatedly taken to the post for easy baskets by LA if he is made to defend Artest.
SHOOTING GUARD (OFFENSE): Kobe Bryant vs. Ray Allen
With Ron's size deterring a wing-defensive switch of Allen and Pierce, Ray Allen will likely have to spend much time defending Kobe. I feel sorry for him. Finals, a shot for the championship, this is what Kobe lives for. And in these Finals, Kobe will attack harder than he ever has in his life. He knows what's on the line. Revenge for '08. In the perception of many, redemption for every on-court mistake in his career. Being recognised the best player of his generation, with no reasonable doubt (putting him absolutely ahead of Shaq in the process). Being in the running for Greatest Laker of All Time. Legitimately entering the discussion of Greatest Player of All Time. Hell, even if you ignore all that, and just focus on the two primal instincts that Kobe possesses more than any player since Jordan. One is a desire to win - well, more than a desire. Kobe NEEDS to win. It's like cocaine to him. He lives to win. It's obsessive. The other is revenge. Anyone hear him say he didn't care who the Lakers play in the Finals? Anyone believe him? Yeah, me neither. In '08, Kobe could see his first championship in six years in sight, and along with it redemption from all the ill-will caused by the breakup of the team in '04. Winning a championship, that year, after demanding a trade in the prior offseason, would have been one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history. But it didn't happen; he and his team were not only beaten, but humiliated by Boston in every way possible. Hell, even after they had lost four games, the stones didn't stop coming (literally). Kobe does not forgive, does not forget. He destroys.
And then there's the other defining characteristic, one he possesses more than any player in NBA history: a desire for greatness. Ever since he entered the league, he wanted to go down as the Greatest Player of All Time, and was not hesitant in expressing this desire. Many considered him arrogant and couldn't believe the kid's cockiness. But, thing is, he put the hours in, he worked harder than 99% of human beings in the world. The countless hours of practise, filled with repetition of painstaking drills and strength and endurance training. The years of his life spent honing his shot. The constant willingness and desire to learn new skills (just ask Hakeem). He's put in the hours, and as a result, despite not being as athletically gifted as MJ or Wilt, or LeBron, or countless other players, he has been in the conversation for Greatest of All Time for quite some time. He's been in the conversation, but only because he has put himself in, both through his body of work and his desire. But, he doesn't deserve to be in there... yet. He hasn't won enough independently, he hasn't always led his team well, his numbers aren't as good as Jordan's. We as Laker fans often hate to hear it, but it's true. Four rings, but three of them were as a part of a 1-2 punch. 81 points, but in the regular season against a weak defense (still the greatest scoring performance of all-time once pace-adjusted, mind you). However, this next ring would legitimately put him in the discussion. It wouldn't be enough to put him solely in place at the top, by any means. But it would make him a legit contender. He knows this.
And Ray Allen's gonna be the poor fool in his way.
There's no way Ray Allen can successfully defend him one-on-one. Ray Allen has never been a bad defender, as such, but he has never been one of the great lockdown defenders in the league (not that that would help them, considering who he's facing and in what circumstances). In terms of team defensive scheme, the Celtics can't double off Ron unless he reverts to his shooting slump, and they can't double off Derek Fisher no matter what. When Kobe's out on the perimeter, the C's will often have no choice but to leave Ray on his own. That's gonna be painful to watch for Celtics fans.
If Kobe spends most of his team attacking right at the hoop, the Celtics frontline is large enough to somewhat reduce his effectiveness through their size and toughness, but they are not highly mobile and Kobe can go around them or find his open big man with a pass. But this isn't even that relevant, considering a very high number of Kobe's points these playoffs have come off mid-to-long-range jumpshots, protecting his older legs and numerous injuries. Nonetheless, when the right play is for Kobe to drive, he'll most certainly do it, and do it well.
Kobe averaged nearly 34 points per game last series (on 52% shooting), and added a tad over 8 assists, just to deter a defender from doubling him. While one shouldn't expect either number to be as high through the entire series, considering the Celtics' defense, even if not as good as '08, is still built on the '08 model, which was one of the best defenses in NBA history. But Kobe's been putting up some of the greatest playoff series in NBA history, and is not going to be shut down. Slowed, probably. Slowed enough? Probably not.
On a side-note, there is the possibility that Rajon Rondo will use his speed and quick hands to take a stint at Kobe from time to time, but Kobe's got too much of a size advantage on him, and will likely take him straight to the post to show Rondo what Hakeem taught him. The only issue with this is playing that close to the basket makes it easier for the Celtics to double, so alternatively Kobe may just want to shoot over Rondo.
SHOOTING GUARD (DEFENSE): Kobe Bryant vs. Rajon Rondo
On D, the Lakers have found it beneficial through experience to switch Fisher and Kobe's defensive assignments, so that Fisher tirelessly chases Allen through screens while Kobe uses his length to bother Rondo while having a better chance against Rondo's speed.
Rondo has been, in the eyes of many, the MVP of the playoffs asides from Kobe, and is certainly the MVP of the Celtics. While the Celtics have been carried here by their team defense, a scheme created by Tom Thibodeau and enforced on the court primarily by Kevin Garnett, without a decent offense they wouldn't have made it this far. With Rondo on the floor to tear defenses up with his speed before exploiting ridiculously tiny angles for passes thanks to his massive hands and insanely quick brain, the Celtics offense is one of the better offenses in the league. When Rondo is not on the floor, they're old, turnover-prone and inefficient. Rondo's youth and toughness have allowed him to play near wire-to-wire in many games these playoffs, and even with his niggling leg and back injuries, expect that to continue.
If the Lakers can force Rondo to be a scorer instead of a distributor, they have an advantage. Rondo can penetrate with the best of them, but he's not the best finisher - he's too small to consistently dunk in traffic, and his layup isn't entirely accurate. He's at best a mediocre free-throw shooter, and his jump shot's not much better. He's been hitting threes at a decent rate these playoffs, however, and as such Kobe must not play 'free safety' at all - it's just not worth risking it.
POINT GUARD (OFFENSE): Derek Fisher vs. Rajon Rondo
Well, there's not much to say here. Derek Fisher is clutch as hell, and can hit tough shots. He has a pure jumper and an ability to draw fouls, and is an excellent free-throw shooter. Hell, he hasn't even looked that slow these playoffs. But Rajon Rondo is First-Team All-NBA Defense, and is one of the few who actually deserved his position on the squad as he is the best defender at the point guard position in the league. Being raised as a player in the Celtics environment, his natural talents of speed, big hands and a rapid-firing mind were developed to their full potential on the defensive end as well the offensive end; and the result is a steal-machine who plays the passing lanes well, putting his man on-guard at all times while dribbling, and virtually never letting his man get a step on him.
Derek Fisher is certainly not the exception to this. Derek drove in on Steve Nash, but that's because Steve Nash quite frankly sucks on defense. Against Rondo, he's just a spot-up shooter. If Rondo is foolish enough to leave him open to help on someone else, Fish will make him pay by draining the open jumper. Otherwise, he's not gonna do much else. Unless there's point-four of a second left on the clock.
POINT GUARD (DEFENSE): Derek Fisher vs. Ray Allen
Ray Allen runs around screens all day to get open shots. Derek Fisher will run through the screens all day to contest these shots. The Celtics' bigs have a propensity to set illegal screens, and some even admit to it (Perk did so in an interview, but I can't find that video on the Internet), but somehow, I think Fish can handle it.
If Ray Allen heats up, a temporary switch may be required, with Artest, Kobe or possibly Sasha being put on him to play him close and hard before he even catches the ball, taking away his airspace to shoot. Otherwise, Fisher just needs to keep getting a hand to his face.
Allen has the purest stroke in the NBA, but he's not just a pure shooter, as Dwight Howard will agree. If he drives, hands up straight and contest. It's not exactly complex.
BENCH (BIGS): Lamar Odom vs. Rasheed Wallace and Glen 'Big Baby' Davis
The Celtics run two big men off the bench to complete their four-man big rotation. Rasheed is obviously the better of the two, but Davis cannot be ignored either. Rasheed has a nice array of moves on the low block, and also has a shooting range that (sometimes) extends out to three. The Celtics' bigs are essentially interchangeable in terms of positions, but Rasheed is definitely more of a 4 due to his range (one certainly wouldn't want Bynum defending him out on the three). Glen Davis is almost a Rasheed-lite. His range extends out to 18-20 feet at its most, his post moves are rudimentary but with his size and soft hands he is still capable of putting points up from down low. And he's fatter than Rasheed Wallace. That's an impressive feat. In comparison to Sheed, he is more of a 5-man.
The Lakers' sole rotation big man off the bench is one Lamar Joseph Odom. His playoff performance this year has not been up to the level of last year, with his shoulder injury certainly playing a part in that. However, he bleeds purple and Ggold, and is one of the Lakers who seems to truly hate the Celtics. Also, he has a knack for stepping it up when the Lakers need it most.
His range also extends out to three, but it's better for Los Angeles if he forgets that. In the low post, both Sheed and Davis have a bigger base than him, though with his ridiculous length he can still shoot over them. However, his primary advantage against these two is his speed and versatility. He can play point guard, and should attack like a point guard without a jump shot. Isolating at the stop of the key and driving into the lane to either finish, assist or get fouled should be his bread-and-butter. None of the Celtics' big men are quick or athletic enough to stay with him, though all have a strength advantage on him. But, in reply to the strength disadvantage, this:
via img15.imageshack.us (credit to With Malice for the 'shop)
BENCH (PERIMETER): Tony Allen and Nate Robinson vs. Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and/or Shannon Brown (possibly Luke Walton?):
With both teams, it's tough to say how their perimeter substitution rotations are going to work. With the Celtics, Tony Allen was their sole guy until Nate Robinson impressed Doc Rivers with good defense in limited minutes in Game Five against Orlando, then exploded in Game Six and undoubtedly earned himself a spot in the rotation. With the Lakers, Sasha was out with injury, and then failed to crack the rotation on his return until Phil decided to use him to harass fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic. This had both positive and negative effects: for one, Sasha played well and allowed Phil to reduce Shannon Brown's minutes, as Shannon was making boneheaded decisions with the ball; but simultaneously it nearly cost the Lakers a game when Sasha and Goran got to the point of blows in Game Six and Sasha got called for a flagrant, igniting both Dragic and the Phoenix crowd and stealing momentum and nearly the game.
However, it is reasonable to assume Sasha will remain in the rotation - asides from that elbow he made mostly good decisions with the ball and hit some threes, as well as playing irritating defense. And if the '08 series quite literally broke Sasha, he is doubtless burning for revenge as much as any other Laker - hell, after '08, he refused to wear green. What remains to be seen is whether Phil sticks with an eight-man rotation and clean replaces Shannon with Sasha, or if he extends it to nine and splits the minutes differently. Considering it's the Finals, and there are at most sevengames left in the season, it's doubtful the starters' minutes are reduced - Phil will certainly want Kobe and Fisher out there as much as possible. This also means the likelihood of Walton, who earned some minutes in the latter part of the Phoenix series, playing is lessened.
Tony Allen is a simplistic cutter, finisher and defensive specialist. He's almost like Trevor Ariza, before Trevor developed a three. Nate, however, is a whole 'nother monster. He is the best on the Celtics at creating his own shot, after Paul Pierce. He's got a decent three, and can heat up ridiculously from deep. He's quick and athletic, and has even shown some nice passing skills in Boston. The primary issue with him that prevented him from cracking the rotation was lack of defensive effort and bad decision-making with the ball, both of which were nonexistent in Games Five and Six against Orlando. He can be a go-to guy on offense from time to time and can swing momentum with his threes. Farmar has to put in effort defensively on him, and Brown may be used on him from time-to-time to add size to the equation (Nate is under 5'9", after all).
Offensively, we know what to expect from the Lakers' bench guards - that is, we know that we can't expect anything, because they're too inconsistent. Shannon has turned into horse crap, while Jordan has turned it up in the playoffs and Sasha played well in the two games he actually got in on. However, it would be surprising to few if somehow the roles magically reversed, Sasha and Jordan regressed and Shannon and Walton were called upon again, only to step it up and win a game with their momentum.
COACHING: Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers
There's not much to say here, as both coaches know and trust their teams, know that their teams have been there before and are veterans. Phil is the master of Zen, not calling timeouts while the Lakers are getting destroyed on runs, and letting his players play ugly offense. Doc doesn't really have much coaching to do. The Celtics offense is essentially a bunch of three aging stars he has helped convince to be unselfish in a quest for rings, a young superstar who distributes the ball as well as near anyone in this league, and a bunch of role players who know, and revel in, their respective roles. They don't run any special offense, and the offense they do run essentially runs itself. Defensively, Tom Thibodeau has embedded in them defensive execution, and the players led by KG have all adopted an intense defensive mindset. But, the defensive schemes are taught in practise, just like everything Phil teaches is taught in practise.
In games, all there is for a coach to do is to motivate their own players, correct mistakes and make in-game adjustments based on what their opponent is doing. Both coaches trust their players to motivate themselves. Phil also trusts them to correct their own mistakes, whilst Celtics teammates correct each other before Doc Rivers has a chance to. And these teams know each other so well, and trust their own game plans so well, that in-game adjustments will be rare. These coaches will do their best work out of sight of the cameras, in their respective practise facilities.
One thing to note is that while Phil gives the impression of being uncaring and always in a neutral state of mind, have no doubt that he is annoyed at '08. Not angry, annoyed. Many believed he was outcoached by Doc Rivers, despite leading the Doc, nine rings to none, at the time. Phil gives the impression of not having an ego, but you cannot be successful in such an ego-driven profession, one where a coach requires such confidence to be able to tell petulant superstars like Jordan, Kobe and Shaq what to do, without having a massive ego. Phil hides it well, but he most certainly wants to destroy Doc this time around.