When the Celtics were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, Paul Pierce made a bold prediction. The Celtics, he said, we’re still the team to beat. If, and this was a mighty big if, they were healthy.
Pundits and fans shook their head then, just as they did when he reiterated those comments prior to the start of this season. Who’s laughing now? When all five of the current Celtics starters have been healthy, they are 7-0 in playoff series.
They beat the two best regular-season teams in the playoffs and did it rather convincingly considering they didn’t have homecourt advantage. They also eliminated three of the NBA’s singular superstars in Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
Now they have a dream matchup with the Lakers in the NBA finals where once again they will not have homecourt, and once again they will be facing off against a superstar in Kobe Bryant.
Even though he has elevated his game in the postseason back to best player in the league status, the Lakers are far more than just Bryant. They also have a mammoth frontline, which has dominated Western Conference teams in the playoffs.
For the Celtics, just getting to this point has been validation. Written off as old and slow, a tag which fit their regular season performance, they have recaptured the elements that made them great.
The Lakers, who were also accused of coasting during the season, are looking for their own redemption. The painful memories of their bruising bus ride out of the Garden following Game 6 are apparently still fresh in their minds and they weren’t shy about bringing them up after beating the Suns in the Western Conference finals.
Many of the same players from 2008 are still in place, but that series has very little to do with this one. Rajon Rondo is two years older and better. Ron Artest is playing small forward instead of Vladimir Radmanovic and Andrew Bynum is available, if not all the way healthy.
The teams split their regular season meetings with both getting wins on the other’s homecourt, but that also tells us very little because of injuries and other concerns.
Regardless how these two teams performed from November to April, they have both reasserted themselves as the best in the league and this has all the makings of a long, classic series.
Validation and redemption will be the dominant storylines, but below the surface drama, the individual matchups are where this series will be won or lost.
Here are five to watch:
WILL KOBE GUARD RONDO FOR FOUR QUARTERS?
This is the key defensive question for the Lakers, because as everyone knows, Derek Fisher has problems keeping up with fast point guards. It’s not really a question of will Bryant guard Rondo, but for how long and when?
Bryant guarded Rondo throughout the 2008 finals, but, again, these are different times.
Phil Jackson resisted putting Bryant on Russell Westbrook, who may be the only player in the league who even remotely plays like Rondo, until Game 5 of their first-round series and his defense was a key element in the Lakers holding off the Thunder.
Holding Bryant in reserve is something of a trump card, although at this point Rondo has seen basically every defense that can be thrown his way. If the Lakers use Bryant from the outset and Rondo is still able to do his thing, what’s the backup plan?
There’s another side to this as well, because it’s not as if guarding Ray Allen is a treat either. Whoever takes Allen can count on running side to side through several sets of picks.
The Celtics had no problems flopping defensive assignments for Allen and Paul Pierce when the Magic decided to switch Vince Carter and Matt Barnes, but they will stay basic here with Rondo guarding Fisher and Allen taking Bryant. That could open up the dreaded cross-court matchups in transition, which the Celtics will try to capitalize on when they run.
As always, Rondo is the key to the Celtics offense and it’s incumbent upon him to remain aggressive no matter what looks he get. Also, look for him to pick up full court defensively after made shots as much as possible. He hounded Jameer Nelson right from the first made basket in Game 6 of the Magic series and that was a crucial part of the Celtics defensive strategy.
The Rondo-Bryant matchup will define the series. If Rondo is able to get the better of it, he will attain supernova status. Bryant, on the other hand, wants another shot at the Celtics. It’s the only thing missing from his Laker legacy.
WHO TAKES GASOL?
This is the key question for the Celtics. There are still pockets of fans who view Pau Gasol as soft, which sort of misses the point in addition to not really being true.
Gasol is a fantastic scorer in the low post where he takes almost half his shots. He can also step out on the perimeter and shoot with range.
In addition to all that, he is also the Lakers best offensive rebounder where he simply reaches over the tops of smaller players for easy put-backs. The Lakers have been by far the best offensive rebounding team in the playoffs and the Celtics will have to clamp down on the boards by keeping Gasol away from the ball.
There’s an argument to be made that Gasol is actually the Lakers best player, but at worst, he is one of the top 10 players in the league. He’s a handful for whoever guards him and the Lakers can dictate the terms of this matchup to some extent thanks to Lamar Odom.
Odom is the Lakers wild-card because he can play three different positions and he has remade himself into one of the NBA’s best utility players.
If Odom is on the court with Gasol, then it stands to reason that Kevin Garnett will take Odom and Kendrick Perkins will have to deal with Gasol. (Perkins will also have to keep his cool because if he receives one more technical foul he is subject to a one-game suspension).
Bynum, who has a torn meniscus in his right knee against the Thunder, has been limited in practice and he has not exceeded 30 minutes in a game since the injury, but he’s another huge body and a force on the glass.
The Lakers don’t really go big or small, they go big and bigger. And the Celtics will have to match their length inside and keep Gasol in check.
WHO WILL BLINK FIRST, PAUL PIERCE OR RON ARTEST?
The enduring memory of the Lakers win over the Celtics in Boston was the sight of the 250-pound Artest falling backward 20 feet to draw an offensive foul from Pierce.
For all the strange shots and even stranger antics, Artest is not only a physical force on the perimeter, he’s also savvy. At least defensively.
Artest has launched 85 3-pointers (and made just 23) during the postseason, which is more than anyone else on the Lakers and also accounts for almost half of his attempts. As long as he is content to hang out behind the arc, Pierce’s life will be much easier on the defensive end than it was against LeBron.
This is the one matchup where there is no ambiguity. Artest will guard Pierce and vice-versa, and it would be in the Celtics best interest if Pierce doesn’t try to make this into a personal thing with Ron-Ron.
Pierce didn’t play well against the Lakers this season (13 points per game, 40 percent shooting), but as we know now, he was also dealing with numerous injuries. The Celtics can still win this series without Pierce being a dominant player, but it would certainly make it easier if he can score efficiently.
WHOSE BENCH WILL COME TO PLAY?
Like the Celtics, the Lakers essentially use an eight-man rotation with Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar joining Odom off the bench. Luke Walton, Josh Powell and Sasha Vujacic have also received spot minutes.
Farmar has shot the ball exceptionally well during the postseason, but he can be turnover prone. Brown is sort of like the Celtics Tony Allen, but not as versatile, and he has struggled during the playoffs. Odom is the real concern for the Celtics because he can do so many things and he has hurt them repeatedly in the past few seasons.
The Celtics will counter with Allen, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace. Of the three, Wallace is the most important in this series. He has the size to matchup with the Lakers big men and if anything happens with Perkins he’ll step into the starting lineup.
The X-factor here is Allen, whose ankle has been a source of concern for the Celtics. They need him to duplicate some of what he did on Wade against Bryant.
Neither team’s bench is as dynamic as Phoenix’s, but the one that plays the best supporting role will help decide the series.
CAN THE CELTICS MAKE ENOUGH 3’s?
One of the more underrated aspects of the Celtics resurgence has been their 3-point shooting. They are making better than 38 percent of their 3’s, which is tied with Phoenix for the best mark in the league during the postseason.
The Lakers have actually taken 75 more 3-point shots, and played one less game, but they are shooting below 35 percent (call it the Artest effect). That’s a huge difference in a series as tight as this one and if the Lakers have a game where their supporting players are making 3’s, they will be very tough to beat.
What both team do well, however, is defend the arc. They are both holding opponents below 33 percent.
Pierce and Ray Allen are the keys to the Celtics 3-point attack. Allen, especially, will need to have a big series, particularly if he’s guarded by Fisher.
The other statistic to pay attention to is turnovers. The Celtics have become a turnover-causing machine defensively, while the Lakers are among the best at not turning it over.
The Celtics have two methods to starting their transition game: defensive rebounds and turnovers. They have to win at least one of those battles decisively to trigger their fast break.
These are the two best teams in the league and by a fairly comfortable margin. Both have been pushed, but neither has had to go seven games to win a series.
The Lakers are the favorites mainly because of homecourt advantage, and they have not lost a home game in the postseason. The Celtics will probably have to win twice in Los Angeles if they are able to pull the upset.
The formula is this: Split the first two games, take two of three in Boston and win Game 6 in Los Angeles. It’s a tall order, but the feeling here is that they will thanks to their defense, 3-point shooting and the continuing brilliance of Rondo. Celtics in six.