June 1, 2008 – Dr. Anklesnap
All season long there has been a build-up of excitement towards the potential for the most successful franchise in NBA history, the Boston Celtics, to possibly get back to the NBA’s greatest stage, the NBA Finals. With an NBA best 16 NBA championship titles under their belt, the Boston Celtics have been struggling for many recent years to even make an appearance in the playoffs, let alone have a legitimate shot at winning. So, when Celtics GM Danny Ainge pulled off the signing of Ray Allen and the subsequent blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to receive “The Big Ticket”, Mr. Kevin Garnett, everyone in the city of Boston immediately began discussing the Celtics title shot.
But Ainge didn’t stop there. He surrounded his superstar players with key role players that fit in with the culture Celtics Coaches Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau wanted to instill, defense and team. That meant signing players like James Posey, who takes charges better and more often than anyone in the league, while still knocking down the long ball at a high percentage. Veterans such as PJ Brown and Sam Cassell were brought in not only for their knowledge and mentoring ability, but also for their history of making big shots in the clutch. Players like Eddie house were signed to bolster the scoring punch off the bench and help spread the floor for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in the paint. Let’s not forget the development and trust put into the Celtics young talent in Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, Leon Powe, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
After an NBA best 66 wins this season and battling through the Eastern Conference playoff race to attain a spot in the NBA Finals starting Thursday, “The Big Three” and supporting cast have not disappointed Celtic fans.
The Los Angeles Lakers have taken a slightly different road to the Finals this year. Where the Celtics season was very calculated and full of expectations, the Lakers season was a pleasant surprise filled with conflicts, praise, injuries, and trades. After a rather tumultuous summer of 2007 where their superstar Kobe Bryant grabbed headlines by demanding to be traded and publicly bashing the Lakers executive team for their inability to surround him with a suitable supporting cast, the expectations in LA for the Lakers 2007-08 season had hit an all-time low. Nobody was talking about the Lakers title chances at all; in fact most analysts were talking about whether or not the Lakers could get sufficient value in return upon the inevitable trading of superstar Kobe Bryant.
My how things have changed!
The Lakers took the league by storm in the early part of the season by posting consistent winning percentages week after week, even among the heavyweights in the Western Conference. After a couple of injuries to the Lakers big men resulted in the young 20 year old center Andrew Bynum being given a starters role, the Lakers dramatic climbing of the standings was being attributed to the development of Bynum; a player who had been under the tutelage of the great Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Bynum was the talk of the league for several weeks. Then in an unfortunate turn of events Andrew Bynum was put on the injured list indefinitely with a knee injury. All of a sudden the talk in the Lakers camp was about how they could weather the storm until Bynum was able to return. Would they be able to at least go .500 to avoid bumping them completely out of the tight playoff race in the tough Western Conference?
The surprising events that followed, are probably one of the catalysts for Kobe Bryant getting the recognition he deserved to finally win the leagues Most Valuable Player award. The Lakers did better than keep their heads above water. They actually improved and began to climb the standings over the following weeks. Then Mitch Kupchak pulled off one of the most lop-sided trades in NBA history by acquiring the Memphis Grizzlies franchise player, PF/C Pau Gasol, for the often injured Lakers backup Center Kwame Brown and a couple of draft picks. It took very little time for Pau to become acclimated to his new team, with the Lakers peeling off multiple winning streaks to close the season out and take the #1 spot in the West heading into the playoffs. The playoffs were not much different as the Lakers cruised to the Finals by beating out Denver, Utah, and San Antonio seemingly without breaking a sweat.
Well now that we have the greatest rivalry in NBA history, the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, back on our doorstep for the 2008 NBA Finals starting this Thursday, let’s take a look at the keys to the series and my prediction for who will be your eventual NBA Champion.
Keys to the Series
• Both teams have had home court advantage in each series up until this point. Also, both teams have had amazing records at home throughout their respective playoff runs thus far. Should that remain true in this series, a big key to the outcome will be how the Lakers adjust psychologically to the potential of being down in a series for the first time in their playoff run. If Boston takes care of business at home to start the series and the Lakers go down 2-0 will they fight back or crumble.
• Will one of the toughest defenses in the NBA this year find a way to slow down the one-two offensive punch of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol? If yes, the Lakers are going to have to rely on some lights out shooting in the series from Sasha Vujacic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Derek Fisher, and Jordan Farmar to keep the Lakers scoring up and spread the floor for Kobe to work his magic.
• The Celtics dominated the Lakers this year in their two regular season match ups, the first by 13 points and the second by 19 points. In both games the Celtics physical style of play seemed to bother the Lakers who turned in poor shooting performances. The Celtics defense in their second meeting forced Kobe into a 6-25 shooting performance from the field. Will the players sub-consciously be thinking about this heading in to the series? Will the Celtics be overconfident, or will the Lakers be intimidated?
• Can Derek Fisher guard Rajon Rondo off the bounce? Fisher is a great on the ball defender, but Rajon Rondo is an exceptional talent taking the ball to the hoop and creating for others on the fly. The Lakers may want to consider using a strategy like they did on Tony Parker where they just try to keep Rondo out of the paint, and let him shoot the jumper whenever he wants.
• Who will guard Kobe and who will guard Pierce? Whichever Celtic is given the task of guarding Kobe Bryant can expect to have their offensive production drop significantly. Given the amount of energy it takes to guard the leagues biggest offensive threat, there won’t be much energy left for offense. The Celtics should avoid having Paul Pierce guard Bryant, as Pierce has been their most consistent offensive threat throughout the playoffs and they would want to keep it that way. The Celtics may need rotate defenders, but consistently they should have Ray Allen guarding Bryant due to his above average physical conditioning. He did a good job chasing after Rip Hamilton in the Detroit series. The same concept goes for the Lakers and who they choose to be the primary defender of Paul Pierce. They should try to avoid putting Kobe on Pierce, as Paul is amazing at drawing fouls and will have Kobe in foul trouble in no time.
• Can Pau Gasol stand up to the physical play of Kendrick Perkins? Although Gasol has a big length and reach advantage on Perkins, Gasol has constantly been dogged with criticisms about being too ‘soft’ when up against physically stronger players. It will be interesting to see if Gasol tries to battle Perkins with some physical play of his own, or focuses on using his offensive footwork and skills where clearly he has the advantage on Perkins.
• One of the biggest keys to this series will be: Can Ray Allen find his shooting stroke consistently? For most of the post-season thus far with the exception of one or two games, Ray Allen has been in a big shooting slump. One of the biggest reasons the “Big Three” were so effective this year was because when Allen is hot from outside it opens up the slashing lanes for Pierce, and opens up the paint for Garnett. Boston has really struggled hard to squeeze out wins in the post season when Ray Allen isn’t shooting well. Look for this to be a big factor in the Celtics success or failure.
• Who will guard Kevin Garnett? My instinct tells me that Phil Jackson will give Lamar Odom the task of trying to guard Garnett. While Lamar is a more than capable defender, the Lakers rely on Odom on both ends of the floor more than most may realize from looking at the box score. And if Odom gets into early foul trouble this will have a very negative impact on the Lakers triangle offense. Especially considering the triangle will be put to the test against one of the best defenses it has seen in recent years.
The truth is we could go on and on with about 1000 keys to this series, but in the end it is going to come down to who steps up in the clutch. Which team will make the crucial plays in the closing minutes of each game to secure a win for their team? Don’t kid yourself into believing this series will be lopsided in either direction. This one will most likely go 6 or 7 games, with neither team wanting to give even an inch.
Although I hate to make a prediction on this series because I really feel both teams are very evenly matched, if you put a gun to my head and made me do it:
Celtics in 7
Sorry Dr. Browntorious, I think you are going to be disappointed on this one.
NBA Finals 2008 – Schedule and Times
Gm. 1: Thursday, June 5 (9 p.m. ET) – LA at Boston
Gm. 2: Sunday, June 8 (9 p.m. ET) – LA at Boston
Gm. 3: Tuesday, June 10 (9 p.m. ET) – Boston at LA
Gm. 4: Thursday, June 12 (9 p.m. ET) – Boston at LA
Gm. 5: *Sunday, June 15 (9 p.m. ET) – Boston at LA
Gm. 6: *Tuesday, June 17 (9 p.m. ET) – LA at Boston
Gm. 7: *Thursday, June 19 (9 p.m. ET) – LA at Boston