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June 3, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
NBA Finals Preview

by Kevin Pelton

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Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. Nor are Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While the history between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers is largely responsible for making this such an eagerly-anticipated NBA Finals matchup, it will be up to the new stars on both sides to make their own history over the course of this series and join their predecessors as NBA champions.

Entering the postseason, the Boston Celtics were clearly the favorites based on the numbers. I took the Celtics over the Lakers in five games; my BP colleague Bradford Doolittle had Utah upsetting the Lakers and advancing to the NBA Finals before likewise falling to the Celtics. The results of the playoffs thus far have altered that viewpoint. While the Lakers were dispatching three challenging Western Conference opponents in just 15 total games, Boston needed nearly as many (14) merely to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

To evaluate postseason performance, my preferred method is to compare a team's Offensive and Defensive Ratings to those of their opponents, weighted by the number of games in each series. An average team facing Denver, Utah and San Antonio would have been expected to post a 106.5 Offensive Rating. Instead, the Lakers' actual playoff Offensive Rating is 113.6, meaning they've been 7.1 points better than average per 100 possessions on offense in the postseason. The complete numbers:

LAKERS       Offense   Defense
Expected      106.5     112.4
Actual        113.6     107.4
Difference     +7.1      +5.0/+12.1 Total

CELTICS      Offense   Defense
Expected      107.7     109.3
Actual        109.6     103.6
Difference     +1.9      +5.7/+ 7.6 Total

The big surprise here would have to be that the Lakers have defended their opponents almost as well as the Celtics have when taking into account the strong offenses they have faced. Boston's defense was 8.9 points better per 100 possessions than league average during the regular season, but has not been nearly so tenacious in the playoffs. Using the same method, the vanquished Spurs come out as a far superior defensive team during the postseason, holding their three opponents 7.7 points under their regular-season Defensive Ratings.

Let's take a look at the matchups.

WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL

Lakers Offensive Rating: 114.9 (3rd NBA) Regular Season; 113.6 (3rd) Playoffs
Celtics Defensive Rating: 100.2 (1st) Regular Season; 103.6 (1st) Playoffs

Much of San Antonio's aforementioned defensive success in the postseason can be traced to their performance against the Lakers. Los Angeles averaged just 104.7 points per 100 possessions in the Western Conference Finals, having posted a 117.7 Offensive Rating in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Spurs' defensive philosophy wasn't complicated: Take Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom away from the Lakers while keeping Kobe Bryant off the free-throw line. Of course, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy to execute, but if anyone has the ability to match San Antonio's performance it is the Celtics.

True Hoop's Henry Abbott noted yesterday that, during the regular season, Boston made the unorthodox choice to defend Bryant not with defensive specialist James Posey or even for the most part with Paul Pierce but instead Ray Allen, the Celtics' least-regarded perimeter defender. When backed up by good help defense, Allen has done a good job against Bryant in the past.

(An aside: Bill Simmons wondered in a chat yesterday about a feud between Allen and Bryant. It dates to the 2004-05 preseason, when Allen argued that Bryant could not play with his teammates at an elite level following the Shaquille O'Neal trade. Frank Hughes, then the Sonics' beat writer for The News Tribune, argued in a convincing subsequent ESPN.com column that Allen intentionally made the comments hoping to bait Bryant into a one-on-one battle that would benefit the Sonics.

Even before then, Allen always got up to play Bryant; both of his triple-doubles in Seattle came against the Lakers. Not only is Bryant the league's best player at Allen's position, but Bryant also upstaged Allen out of the 1996 Draft class, so pride is on the line for Allen in these matchups. That could be a good thing, but also dangerous if it is Allen who goes outside the team game to battle Bryant in this series.)

In the two regular-season matchups, Bryant got to the free-throw line 20 times (nearly twice as many as the 11 attempts he had in the entire Western Conference Finals), but offset that by shooting too frequently from the perimeter and making just 15 of his 46 shot attempts. The quality of the help defense, moreso than the primary defender, will determine the Celtics' success against Bryant, but he was so good against San Antonio that Boston cannot count on shutting him down.

Up front, the Celtics have two different but strong options for matching up with Gasol and Odom. With the starting frontcourt of Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett on the floor, Boston has a capable post defender against Gasol and plenty of length to match up with Odom. The Celtics can also opt to go small by moving Garnett to the middle and playing Posey at power forward. That combination offers more athleticism against Gasol in the middle without sacrificing the defense against Odom. Posey gives the Celtics the ability to play smallball in a way the Spurs never could because of Robert Horry's ineffective play.

In all likelihood, many previews will call Odom an X-factor in this series. However, the quality of the defenders the Celtics will throw at him makes it unlikely he will be a big scorer. If Odom can come up with some well-timed plays as he did against San Antonio, he can still help the Lakers, but Gasol has a better chance of succeeding as a go-to player. Perkins can be prone to bad fouls, sending Gasol to the free-throw line, and Gasol may be able to use quickness to his advantage when matched up against veteran P.J. Brown.

Besides Bryant, the biggest problem the Lakers pose for opposing defenses is in terms of their ability to move the basketball out of the triangle and exploit slow defensive rotations. As in the Western Conference Finals, those looks are unlikely to be available to the Lakers on a regular basis. When ranking defenses in terms of their ability to offer help, then help the helper by getting out to the open man, the Celtics rank atop the league along with the Spurs.

WHEN THE CELTICS HAVE THE BALL

Celtics Offensive Rating: 110.1 (10th) Regular Season; 109.6 (7th) Playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 107.1 (7th) Regular Season; 107.4 (5th) Playoffs

The Lakers don't get much credit for their defense, but they have been strong at that end of the floor during the postseason, posting the second-best Defensive Rating of any Western Conference team after San Antonio. While the Lakers were helped by Manu Ginobili's poor Western Conference Finals, they did a fine job of holding a dangerous Utah offense in check.

Meanwhile, Boston's offense has been the team's Achilles' heel over the course of the regular season and the playoffs. However, the Celtics do present the Lakers with some problematic matchups. In pairing Allen and Pierce on the perimeter, Boston requires opposing defenses to have two quality perimeter defenders on the floor lest the Celtics always have a favorable matchup. That's certainly not the case when starter Vladimir Radmanovic is on the floor, and Allen or Pierce can also score against Luke Walton. The best matchup for the Lakers will almost certainly prove to be the small lineup of Bryant and Sasha Vujacic that often finishes games.

It was Pierce who took advantage of the Lakers defense during the two regular-season matchups, averaging 26.5 points and 6.0 assists. Pierce got to the free-throw line 15 times and punctuated his line by knocking down seven threes in the two games.

Where the Lakers were at their best against the Spurs was in terms of taking penetration away from Tony Parker (and Ginobili, though his physical problems may have had much to do with that). That augers poorly for Rajon Rondo, who has put together big efforts at times in this postseason thanks to his ability to get into the paint to create for himself or teammates.

Playing small with Garnett at center probably creates the best matchups for the Celtics up front. Odom and Gasol are both capable of defending Garnett in the post using their length, but Garnett's quickness is more of an asset when he takes Gasol out on the perimeter or the Celtics run pick-and-rolls against him. The smaller lineups with Posey at power forward also allow Boston to spread the floor with an additional three-point shooter. If Doc Rivers gives those minutes down the stretch to Brown instead of Posey (or even Perkins), favoring the veteran center's experience, that figures to hurt the Celtics.

PREDICTION

The more I look at this series, the better I feel about the Celtics' chances. On paper, given the way both teams have played in the postseason, the Lakers should be the clear favorites. However, Boston matches up well with the Lakers. In some sense, you could consider the Celtics a more talented, deeper version of the San Antonio squad the Lakers faced in the Western Conference Finals. While that series went just five games, two of them (Game One and Game Four) were essentially toss-ups, both won by the Lakers. Change the outcome of either of those games and the series easily could have gone the distance. The Lakers only had one convincing win, as many as the Spurs did.

It's easy to see how Boston could win this series. With Pierce leading the Celtics' offense and scoring against weaker Lakers defenders and the Boston D doing enough to slow down Bryant and contain the other Los Angeles weapons, the Celtics could have the upper hand.

Ultimately, two factors work against Boston. The first is the matchup on the sidelines. While Doc Rivers did a better job in the Eastern Conference Finals, his maddeningly inconsistent rotations have been troublesome throughout this postseason. Twelve Celtics have seen action in at least 12 games, while just 10 Lakers have seen more than 10 minutes of game time in the entire postseason. Phil Jackson has the clear advantage in terms of experience on this stage and has done a masterful job in getting the Lakers to this point.

The other factor is the outcome of close games. More likely than not, any games that come down to a possession or two in this series will be decided by the bounce of the ball. Still, if these teams played 100 such games, we'd expect the Lakers to come out on top the majority of the time. Boston's difficulty generating offense down the stretch has been well-documented. Meanwhile, in Bryant the Lakers have the game's ultimate closer. That might not end up being a factor at all, but along with the coaching it's enough to reaffirm my pick: Lakers in six.

--

Join Kevin tomorrow at 1 p.m. Eastern at Baseball Prospectus as he chats about the Celtics/Lakers matchup and more NBA news. If you can't make it, submit your question now.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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