LA vs Boston once again! Sorry LeBron, but we are about to witness, for the second time in three years, one of the best rivalries in all of sports. In 2008 the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in a game six blowout and several Lakers admit that it still stings when they think about it. If you’ve read anything about the series so far, undoubtedly you’ve heard people compare and contrast the 2008 versions of these teams with the current version. A few differences in personnel here and there, but the core of both teams is still intact.
If you’ve read any of my prior NBA related article, it’s no secret that I am neither a Laker fan nor a Kobe Bryant fan. But, for this article I’m going to try my best to set aside my bias (did I mention I’m a lifetime KG fan?) and write my analysis from a neutral perspective, as much as possible. If you want bias, you can look to a known Celtics fan Bill Simmons and follow his tweets during the finals or you can read this article by Charley Rosen who wrote a very Laker friendly preview this week. Not to go on a tangent, but at least Bill Simmons doesn’t try to hide his bias. Charley Rosen called Derrick Fisher the “best position-defender at point” without adding a “…just kidding” afterwards. A quick peek at his Wikipedia page revealed that he was an assistant to Phil Jackson during his CBA days in the 1980’s and co-authored a book with him. We’re on to you Charley.
Anyway, instead of writing a match-up review or an elaborate prediction detailing how I came to my conclusion, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to do a brief write up on what I would do if I were coaching either team. I’ll provide my prediction after my team by team plan so I can go on record with my guess. I’ve been horribly wrong so far, so I can’t really lose at this point.
Los Angeles Lakers
If I were in charge of the Lakers, the first thing I would do is pray that Kobe Bryant can continue at the torrid pace he is currently on. When a guy like Kobe is shooting (during the playoffs) 48% from the floor, 41% from 3, and chipping in 5 rebounds and 6 assists per game it it’s hard to lose a series. Outside of praying hard and often, I’d rest Kobe when the game is out of reach either way to keep his legs as fresh as possible.
Kobe will be Kobe, so let’s focus on the other guys. Not knowing how much Andrew Bynum will be able to play or his effectiveness on his bum knee, I’d be lighting a fire under Lamar Odom’s ass. He’s one of the most versatile players ever….when he wants to be. I’d put the onus on him to step up and avenge the loss LA took in 2008. I’d treat any production from Bynum as a bonus and not count on it happening as knee injuries are a tricky thing.
Offensively, I’d plan a heavy dose of Kobe and Gasol. Pick and roll, post-ups, etc. These two need to take the majority of the teams shots. I know I’ll get some offense from Derrick Fisher here and there and Ron Artest may have a breakout game, but the Lakers need Gasol and Kobe to be aggressive.
Defensively, Derek Fisher is going to need help. He’s been abused all playoffs long at the hands of younger, faster point guards and now he’s about to face another great one in Rajon Rondo. While I wouldn’t expect much on the offensive end from them, I would not hesitate to utilize Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic, both of whom are faster and better equipped to run with Rondo. Late in games, I’d probably do a lot of offensive-defensive substitutions keeping Fisher in as a three point threat on offense. I’d think of putting Kobe on Rondo late in games, but that would mean a lesser defender guarding either Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, and I’d rather Rondo take the late game shots than either of those two.
Boston plays great team defense, but everyone knows they aren’t a young team by any means. While running the floor as much as possible is tempting, that really isn’t the Laker’s game and we saw what happened when LA got sucked into the frantic offensive pace Phoenix played with. Instead, I’d make sure that my team used a lot of motion of offense. I want them to swing the ball around the perimeter quickly, forcing Boston’s defense to react and help wear them down over the course of the game.
I trust that Ron Artest will be able to handle Paul Pierce respectably and that a combination of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol will do the same on Kevin Garnett. Pierce will score and probably have a few big games, but I want Ron Artest to at least make it difficult for him to get off good shots. Make him work hard for every point and hope that, over the course of the series, it takes a toll. The same goes for Kevin Garnett. He’s too good a shooter to completely stop, but forcing him into difficult shots is key. I also wouldn’t hesitate to send in guys who like to mix it up a bit and try to draw Kendrick Perkins into another technical foul which will result in a one game suspension. I am also not convinced that Big Baby Davis is anywhere near as mentally tough as he may be physically tough. If he’s in the game in big situations, I’d do what I could to make the Celtics defer to him.
If I were at the helm for the Boston Celtics, leading up the Finals I’d preach one thing early and often: we are tougher. In 2008 Boston made the Lakers, in particular Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, soft and timid. Boston set the tone on defense with a figurative punch to the face every game and the Lakers had no counter. With Boston it starts and ends on the defensive side.
Obviously there is no stopping Kobe Bryant, you just have to do your best to contain him. Easier said than done, but the Celtics did a good job of it in 2008. I wouldn’t have James Posey to work with this time around, but great team defense can make it difficult on an individual player so I’d throw double teams at him, use the length of guys like Garnett and Rasheed Wallace when he gets in the lane, etc.
I think that the physicality of KG, Davis, Perkins, and Rasheed will be huge and I want the Lakers to know right away that they don’t have the size advantage they’ve enjoyed in each round of the playoffs up to now. I never want my team to intentionally hurt an opposing player, but I’m perfectly OK with my bigs playing good hard nosed ball under the hoop when Bynum is in there. His knee will be on his mind, and if he sees a rough, physical game developing, he may become less agressive. Gasol is out to prove that he isn’t soft. I want to prove that he still is.
The biggest difference between the 2008 and 2010 series isn’t the addition of Ron Artest, it’s the improvement of Rajon Rondo. He’s gone toe to toe with defenders who are younger and faster than Fisher up to this point and Fisher will be a step down, if anything. While the D may flow through KG and Perkins, the offense is now Rondo’s responsibility. For as much as I’ll need Paul Pierce to be big on offense, he has a tendency to get into “me” mode at certain times of the game which effectively neutralizes any impact Rondo has as he is not a spot up shooter. I would do my best to corral Pierce when he starts taking bad shots and get the ball back in Rondo’s hands. Ray Allen looks like he hasn’t lost a single step and is an assassin in three point land, especially when he is running off multiple screens. Which brings me to my next point…
Make Kobe play defense the entire game. One way to at least slow down an unstoppable offensive player is to make him expend energy on the defensive end of the court. Kobe won’t have the luxury this series of guarding an average offensive player for the majority of the series. If he’s matched up with Allen, run Allen off as many screens as possible. If he’s guarding Rondo, have Rondo speed up the tempo and penetrate into the lane as much as possible. If he’s guarding Pierce, have Pierce post him up.
I’d like having a fairly deep bench with a good mix of both size and speed. The NBA playoffs are all about matchups and adjustments, and having different players with experience and a variety of skill-sets is invaluable in the quest for a ring.
Boston in 6 games. I believe that teams trump the individual and good defense wins championships. In terms of new players, I was skeptical of replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest and I’ve seen little in the playoffs to make me change my mind on that. Artest may be a more physical defender than Ariza was, but he certainly isn’t faster. Outside of his big game 6 and his game winning shot off of the Kobe airball (had to get that in), he’s been more of a liability on offense than a contributor. The Lakers may have the better 6th man in Lamar Odom, but past that none of the self-titled “bench mob” scare me. Vujacic and Walton, both of whom played big roles in 2008, are basically just filling space this year. I’m not sure if we can consider Lamar Odom a 6th man if Andrew Bynum’s minutes are severely impacted by his injury (5.5 man?). Boston has played great on the road in the playoffs and the Garden is a much more intimidating place to play for the road team than the Staples Center is, so I don’t think home court advantage will be as big of a deal for the Lakers. For any steps the Big 3 have lost, Rondo has more than made up for them. He played an important role in 2008 and did well. This time around his game has improved vastly and he has Finals experience under his belt. Boston’s physical style of play will impact the Laker bigs effectiveness which will force Kobe to do even more than he already is. Boston has a lot of threats on offense and they have four potential guys who I could see scoring 30 points in a game and not being surprised by it. I can’t say that for the Lakers and I think once again we will see a great performance by Kobe, but a better all around team performance from Boston…but I’ve been wrong before.