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June 5, 2008
Back and Forth
The Finals

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton


With the NBA Finals starting tonight, BP's Association experts got together to break down everything about a Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers matchup that is rooted in history.

Bradford Doolittle: Lakers vs. Celtics was once such a strong brand name that it was made the title of a now-ancient PC game put out by Electronic Arts in the late 1980s. That was a long time ago, before Michael Jordan had won his first championship, back when Kobe Bryant was just a kid kicking around soccer ball in Italy.

The NBA has a lot of younger fans, so it will be interesting to see if the Y-Generation recognizes the cachet of the league's highest profile rivalry. So many names from 1987, the last time L.A. hooked up with Boston for all the marbles, are still involved with the league. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge and Magic Johnson are all team executives. Byron Scott, Rick Carlisle, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sam Vincent and the late Dennis Johnson all went into coaching. Mychal Thompson and Bill Walton became broadcaster. Anyone with even a trace of interest in NBA history has to be jazzed up for this matchup.

History aside, it's also a confrontation between the top seeds from each conference, teams that posted their circuit's best point differentials. The Celtics have been the league's best team since the season started last fall. The Lakers have been the top club since Pau Gasol was acquired from Memphis and certainly have been the most impressive team in the playoffs. From every angle, it's a compelling matchup and should pull the best TV ratings the league has seen in a while.

I've been pointing towards this matchup since January, when I wrote a piece asking the question of whether the Lakers were for real. I don't think it's much of a question at this point. So, Kevin, maybe I'm a little bit too sentimental about all of this. When my favorite teams are eliminated in any sport, I always root for matchups that summon historical images. I loved that Red Sox/Cardinals World Series, and the Tigers/Cardinals as well. Red Sox/Rockies? Not so much. Does the Lakers/Celtics backstory add anything for you to what would be a terrific matchup even without the historical context?

Kevin Pelton: If I'm not in that Y-Generation group, I'm not far from it either, and I certainly have a healthy respect for what the Lakers and the Celtics mean despite the fact that I was five years old during that last Finals matchup. (Of course, your typical NBA fan my age probably isn't quite as obsessed as I am.) Over the weekend, NBA TV was playing some Finals recaps and it was extremely entertaining to see all the old stars...and the not-quite stars. There's not much better than seeing Chuck Nevitt going nuts on the bench for Johnson and James Worthy.

Still, all of that is only of interest to me until the series starts. All the history in the world could not have saved last year's lopsided Spurs/Cavaliers matchup. So I'm much more interested, certainly, in the legacies on both sides that are in the process of being built. The outcome of this series could change the way Kobe Bryant on the Lakers side, or the big three on the Celtics side, are perceived around the league. As you said, this matchup doesn't need history. It is plenty compelling in its own right.

As we've split up the two conferences for our nightly recaps, you've been following Boston much more closely than I have. How concerned should the Celtics be about the way they played in the postseason and how much did they turn it around in the Eastern Conference Finals?

BD: Boston has been maddeningly inconsistent. (What other adverb are you going to attach to inconsistent?) These guys have already played 20 playoff games. Here are the most playoff games played by one team:

1993 Knicks    25
2004 Pistons   25
1987 Lakers    24
1992 Suns      24
2002 Spurs     24

The Celtics are going to edge their way onto this list. If the series goes six games, they'll be on top of it. So it's been tough, but they're still standing. The road struggles aren't really an issue at this point--the two wins in Detroit put that story to bed. Ray Allen's slump shouldn't be an issue, either. Maybe the unexpected difficulty with which the Celtics navigated the East bracket was just the process they needed to endure to congeal into a championship squad. Or maybe they just aren't as good as we thought based on the regular season. Either way, I think after eliminating Detroit, Boston's confidence and quality of play is at its apex entering the Finals.

The Lakers have been tremendous offensively in the postseason. Kobe Bryant and company seem almost impossible to stop for a full 48 minutes. The Celtics haven't been as dominating defensively in the playoffs as they were for the first 82 games. Plus, as you pointed out in your preview, the Lakers have been defending about as well as Boston when you adjust for the quality of the offenses they've faced in the playoffs. Still, it's a classic matchup--the immovable object versus the unstoppable force. What, if any, chinks might Boston expose in L.A.'s offensive attack?

KP: There's only one real chink in the Lakers' offense, and I think that is when Bryant dominates the ball and takes the Lakers out of the triangle. I think the Celtics will be happy to try to encourage Bryant to do so by giving him the outside jumper, but I think Bryant will avoid that trap.

What the Spurs did show in the Western Conference Finals is that even if the Lakers may not necessarily have any major weaknesses, their offense can still be contained. That doesn't necessarily require anything fancy scheme-wise, but it does demand tremendous focus and execution. Opposing defenses have to be ready to help, rotate and then rotate again because the Lakers put a number of shooters on the floor.

Do you feel like the Celtics can take anything from what they did defensively against LeBron James, or are the Lakers so much better as a team so as to negate that game plan?

BD: The Lakers' ball movement is so much better than Cleveland's that I'm not sure they can take much from that series. During the sparse sequences in which the Cavaliers were efficient on offense, it was because they were moving the ball and the Celtics were doing an uncharacteristically poor job of defending the weak side.

One difference between the Spurs' defense and Boston's is that the Celtics don't have that one perimeter stopper in the mold of Bruce Bowen. They'll try to get away with Ray Allen manning up on Bryant and, I suspect, a little James Posey for a different look. As you pointed out in your preview, the Spurs elected to stay on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Celtics, on the other hand, will need Kevin Garnett to be a team defender if Allen is funneling Bryant into the lane. That would open things up for either Odom or Gasol.

The Celtics will try to make Bryant settle for contested jump shots. Teams have been doing that for a long time--sometimes it even works. Boston was able to do that with LeBron James, who isn't as accurate a jump-shooter as Kobe is. What the Celtics have to avoid is what the Jazz were unable to avoid in the second round: playing defense on the Lakers without fouling. That's been a problem for Boston in the postseason, particularly against Atlanta and Cleveland.

How do you see tempo playing into this series?

KP: I'd be surprised if it was a major factor. The Lakers were the league's sixth-fastest team in the regular season while the Celtics were below average in terms of pace, but the Spurs are a considerably more deliberate team and I don't feel tempo was a huge factor in that series. Both teams will look to be opportunistic in terms of pushing the basketball, but at this point of the season the transition defenses are so good there won't be a lot of opportunities.

By the time this series ends, what do you think we'll look back on as the biggest surprise?

BD: That the Celtics won. Guess I'm letting the cat out of the bag, there, but I think Boston wins in seven.

That aside, I think anyone who follows the NBA casually will be surprised at the terrific depth of both of these teams. When it comes to playoff basketball (or NCAA tournament basketball, for that matter), you think of shorter rotations and heavy minutes for the starters. Both of these teams go 10 deep, though in Boston's case it's not always the same 10 players in the rotation, and both were still relying on their benches in the conference finals. It wouldn't surprise me if the battle of the benches decides one or two of the games in this series.

What about you, have any surprises to watch for?

KP: I guess it was unfair for me to ask that because, now that I think about it, I feel like these teams have been in the public eye so long, dissected so much that I'm not sure there will be any big surprises. Hopefully people have gotten the idea by now that guys like Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins can play and that the Lakers have a pretty strong supporting cast. One thing that may end up a surprise is I suspect we'll have at least a couple of wins by the road team. All that talk about the dominance of home teams quieted down during the Eastern Conference Finals.

I said during my chat at Baseball Prospectus that I figure Rondo and Sasha Vujacic will be the X-factors in this series. Do you see any other key figures?

BD: Besides the obvious, I still think old man Sam Cassell has a big performance left in him and it wouldn't surprise me if it came in L.A. As we saw in the Utah series, Jordan Farmar can be had on defense. Perkins' defense is going to be key, if he's going to be able to stay on the floor for big minutes and give the Celtics a muscle advantage. Gasol is a tough matchup for him, both because of his quickness and his face-up game. Perkins is a solid defender close to the basket but isn't too comfortable when he has to step out onto the floor.

One player I've been thinking about is Derek Fisher. He's faced three straight scoring point guards in the postseason, but now faces a very different kind of player in Rondo. You mentioned Rondo as an X-factor--do think Phil Jackson will use Fisher as a roamer, similar to the way Cleveland used Delonte West and, to a lesser extent, Detroit used Rip Hamilton?

KP: That wouldn't stun me. Jackson likes to use a roamer on defense, though usually it's Bryant in that role. The danger is that by not playing Rondo honestly you increase his odds of getting in the paint. So I think what we might see is something more along the lines of Fisher sagging off defensively but not truly roaming.

The coaching matchup is obviously a lopsided one on paper, with Jackson making his 11th Finals appearance and Doc Rivers his first. How much of a factor do you think the two coaches will be?

BD: The edge is to L.A., I guess. By this point in the season, I think it's the players who are setting the tone. There's only so much the coaches can do. Other than substitution patterns that may be inspired or may be insane, Rivers has done a solid job of keeping the Celtics pointed in the right direction. Jackson always comes up with ways to motivate his players but motivation isn't going to be hard to find for either side. If there is an Xs & Os move that makes a difference, it's more likely to come from Jackson.

OK--pick time. Again, I'm going to the larger body of work. The Celtics have been the best team in the league since the season began. They were fabulous against the West, fabulous on the road and fabulous against L.A. Because of the Gasol trade, it's not apples to apples, but I just think the Celtics are going to get it done. I could see Bryant being harassed into two or three subpar performances and that and the homecourt would be enough to get it done. Celtics in seven, the first rings for K.G., Ray Ray and The Truth. In Garnett's case, especially, I'd be really glad to see that.

I know you've already made your pick but I'll give you one more chance to change your mind...

KP: Sorry, not going to happen. With Gasol in the lineup, the Lakers have been playing at a championship level and I don't see that changing in this series. We'll know in the next couple of weeks who's right.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
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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Playoff Prospectus (06/03)
<< Previous Column
Back and Forth (05/06)
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