Los Angeles Versus Boston PreviewNBA Finals
Boston (66-16) vs. Los Angeles (57-25)
Season series: Boston, 2-0
Boston can win if…they can hold the Lakers' field goal percentage below .450, shoot at least .450 from the field and maintain a decisive advantage (greater than 10-plus ppg) in points in the paint.
Los Angeles will win because…they have the best player in the game in Kobe Bryant and anything that the Celtics try to do to contain him will either fail and/or open up easy scoring opportunities for Pau Gasol in the paint and the Lakers' various perimeter shooters.
Other things to consider: The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom trio works so well because Bryant has the skill set and mentality to be a big time scorer/closer while Gasol is well suited to being the second option and Odom is much, much better suited to being the third option than the second option. Gasol goes up too softly with his shot sometimes, but he has good hands, he can make an array of shots inside and outside of the paint and he is a good passer and rebounder; Odom gets out of control sometimes and either misses badly from point blank range or commits offensive fouls but when he gets most of his touches by slashing in from the weak side he is very effective. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play will be difficult for Boston to defend. Against Cleveland, Boston defended screen/roll plays that involved LeBron James by sagging off of James, daring him to shoot jumpers and making it difficult for him to complete passes. If the Celtics defend Bryant that way then he will bury a ton of jumpers; they will have to trap Bryant with Gasol's defender and then rotate another big man to Gasol. The Celtics are a good strong-side defensive team, so they may very well succeed sometimes at trapping Bryant and rotating to Gasol, but if the Lakers are patient and crisp in their execution then there should be wide open shots available on the weak side either for Odom slashing to the hoop or for three point shooters such as Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic.
The Lakers are a speed/finesse team that is being outrebounded 43.9 rpg to 40.5 rpg in the playoffs and they have been outrebounded in two of their three series wins. Pat Riley used to always say "No rebounds, no rings" but the Lakers have been so productive offensively (105.9 ppg on .478 field goal shooting) and so effective defensively (99.5 ppg on .433 field goal shooting) that their weakness on the glass has not been a problem. I expect Boston to outrebound the Lakers but in order to win the series the Celtics must convert that advantage into a lot of points in the paint--by scoring on putbacks and/or creating fast break layups in transition after defensive rebounds.
The Lakers are not known as a great defensive team but their point differential (6.4 ppg) and field goal percentage differential (.045) in the playoffs are better than Boston's (4.3 ppg and .026 respectively). Athletic teams/players can cause problems for the Celtics, as we saw in the first round with Atlanta and even in the Detroit series with the contributions made by Rodney Stuckey and Lindsey Hunter. The Lakers are a long and fast team that is very formidable in the transition game. The problem with the Suns and the Warriors is not that those teams are high powered offensively but rather that they are terrible defensively; the Lakers play at a fast tempo and score a lot of points but they don't give up a lot of easy shots defensively: Tim Duncan averaged 22.4 ppg versus the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals but he shot just .426 from the field and the defending champion Spurs collectively shot just .426. Duncan shot .495 and the Spurs shot .467 versus Phoenix in the first round.
ESPN.com's Bill Simmons is always blasting Doc Rivers' coaching but his critiques did not make sense in previous seasons when the Celtics were clearly not a very good team and they don't make sense now considering that the Celtics led from wire to wire in the regular season and have returned to the Finals for the first time since 1987. Just having talented players is no guarantee that a team will win; Flip Saunders inherited a Detroit team that had won a title and made consecutive Finals appearances yet he has never guided the Pistons back to the Finals. Rivers convinced All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to sacrifice individual scoring glory and concentrate on defense and Rivers also got the role players to buy into his defensive philosophy as well. It seems like Simmons not only has an ax to grind against Rivers but is not even paying close attention to the games, because Simmons recently asserted that the Celtics "live and die by jump shots"; as I predicted before the Eastern Conference Finals and documented throughout that series, the Celtics dominated the Pistons in the points in the paint category, so whatever one wants to say about Rivers' coaching it is not fair or accurate to say that the Celtics relied primarily on jumpers to beat the Pistons.
The strange thing about Allen in this year's playoffs is not just how poorly he has shot but how he seems at times to have lost confidence. If Kobe Bryant ever shot that poorly you can bet that he would still fire up his next jumper with supreme confidence. Allen is one of the great perimeter shooters of all-time, yet he has looked hesitant to shoot at times.
Did you notice how happy Pierce and the rest of the Celtics were to celebrate with the Eastern Conference Championship trophy? Phil Jackson all but mocked the idea of celebrating a Western Conference Championship and Bryant made it very clear that his only goal is winning the NBA title. Sure, Pierce and the Celtics later said much the same things but keep in mind that Pierce, Garnett and Allen have never reached the Finals before. They are very excited to get there and I think that their initial reactions to beating Detroit spoke more of relief and satisfaction than hunger to win the next series. I don't mean to say that they are not hungry to win a championship but merely to point out that it has been a tough, grueling road for them--both in their careers and in these playoffs--just to get this far and they don't really know what it takes to win a title. Jackson, Bryant and Fisher all have experienced success in the Finals on multiple occasions and that could be most beneficial to the Lakers, particularly early in the series. A very good Seattle team fell down 3-0 to Chicago in the 1996 Finals before the Sonics really adjusted to the intensity level of a championship series and in a weird way it could work against the Celtics that they have the first two games of this series at home: they will have to deal with all of the hoopla and expectations that come from being at home and if they are jittery for even one quarter that could be enough to cause them to lose home court advantage and thus have an uphill struggle for the rest of the series. Both teams will have been off for several days, so the rest/rust factor should be the same for each of them.
Finally, you may be wondering what Boston's 2-0 advantage in the regular season series means. Frankly, not much: Gasol was not a member of the Lakers for either game.
The first meeting was a 107-94 home win for Boston on November 23, 2007. That was the 12th game of the season for the Lakers (7-5) and the 11th game for the Celtics (10-1). Andrew Bynum--who is of course out of action now due to a knee injury--had just moved into the starting lineup for the Lakers and he finished with four points on 2-7 shooting plus nine rebounds. Odom also shot 2-7 from the field. The Lakers were still putting their rotation together, as Ronny Turiaf started while Luke Walton and Radmanovic came off of the bench. Bryant had a slightly subpar game, 28 points on 9-21 shooting plus four rebounds and three assists. This was the third game in four nights for the Lakers, all on the road. The Celtics had been home since a November 18 game in Orlando and had only played one other game in that time.
The second meeting was a 110-91 road win for Boston on December 30, 2007. The Celtics improved to 26-3, while the Lakers fell to 19-11. Bynum again had a quiet game (eight points, two rebounds). Trevor Ariza started at small forward for the Lakers. This was the throwback game in which the Lakers wore short-shorts in the first half. Bryant had his third worst shooting game of the regular season (22 points on 6-25 shooting from the field)--and it was his worst in a game in which he attempted more than 13 shots. Bryant has shot .500 or better in 10 of 15 playoff games, so the Celtics should not count on a repeat of that performance. The Celtics led by double figures for a substantial portion of the game. This was the Lakers' only loss in a five game home stand and their only defeat in a 12 game span from December 21 to January 14. The most impressive thing about this victory is that it was Boston's fourth game in five nights, all on the road; it was also the sixth win in what would become a nine game winning streak. Nevertheless, the Lakers were without Gasol, while Walton and Radmanovic only played sparingly, so this was simply not the team that Boston will be facing in the Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM