NBA Finals Preview

Anyone who has watched the two NBA conferences from November to April this season, and then watched the respective conference matchups in the postseason, would be hard-pressed to deny that the Lakers should be favored in the final series that begins this evening in Boston. But let’s begin by being counter-intuitive and considering the reasons–the legitimate reasons–for a potential Celtics upset. And no, I’m not talking about things like the Celts beating the Lakers in their only two meetings this season. Neither one occurred in calendar year 2008, and in the latest meeting, on December 30, Tony Allen led the Celts in minutes-played and plus/minus, and was effective at hounding Kobe Bryant into a 6-25 FG (0-6 3pt) performance. All you folks who think a reprise of that Tony Allen-Kobe Bryant matchup more than five months later, even if Allen hadn’t tweaked his achilles this week, would be a net plus for the Celts, are delusional homers who’d probably be more comfortable on a reflexively pro-Boston site.

The frontcourt matchups are potentially very favorable for the Celts. Yes, L.A. is very long and quick up front, but Boston is uniquely well-qualified among NBA teams (well, along with Chandler/West/Peja in New Orleans, anyway) in their ability to counter it. After getting outhustled on the glass by Cleveland’s tag-teams of big men in the conference semis, Kendrick Perkins was huge–arguably the most important X factor–in the surprisingly efficient Boston triumph over Detroit. Perkins discovered a motivating passion in that series that gave his play a relentless tinge that was just shy of nasty–he cultivated an attitude that needed to be taken out of him physically, and none of the Pistons’ big men were up to the task–although thanks to Flip Saunders, Jason Maxiell didn’t get enough minutes to try. Now Perkins faces off against Pau Gasol, whose instincts are soft. Can Gasol mix it up? Sure, but that’s not his wont: He is at heart a finesse player, no less than KG. He is quicker than Perkins and if he can hit that 12-footer that wasn’t going in often enough against Tim Duncan and the Spurs, he might draw Perkins out just far enough to abuse him and put Perkins in foul trouble. Perkins also can’t do too much helping on Kobe Bryant, or Gasol will feed on Kobe’s garbage for putbacks and alley-oops that will swell his confidence. No, if Perkins is able to keep Gasol off the boards and limit his scoring to the short jumpers on post-ups and putbacks of long rebounds–and if Perkins can stick the occasional baseline jumper and bull for his own putbacks, as he did against Detroit–that negates what two weeks ago looked like a big Laker advantage. The question is, which Perkins shows up. I don’t think Gasol can take the starch out of him. I think there is a good chance he maintains his momentum. BTW, PJ Brown is also the kind of gritty blue-collar guy that can frustrate the hell out of Gasol.

At the power forward slot, Lamar Odom is a matchup nightmare…for almost everyone but Kevin Garnett. Odom is a poor man’s KG in more ways than one: The incredible athleticism and versatility, and the shaky psyche and occasional crunchtime disappearance. If Garnett dedicates himself to moving his feet on defense (especially against Odom’s dribble penetration down the left lane), boxing out on the boards, and taking Odom down in the left block for his classic baseline-shoulder turnaround J’s and feint-toward-the-middle-reverse-up-and-under moves, Odom’s confidence, never a particularly rock-solid substance, melts and corrodes his skills and reactions. Now this presupposes a few things that are far from certain. One is that Garnett won’t be at least as preoccupied with helping out on guarding Kobe, particularly in cutting off penetration and showing on the pick and roll and triangle schemes. The dirty little secret in the Detroit series was that Garnett’s pick and roll defense was more facade than brick wall–he showed but never stayed, and the Pistons never made him pay for his no man’s land by either zipping in the pass before he could recover or sticking the semi-open jumper. Kobe and the triangle will feast on facade defense. The second thing is KG’s desire to launch midrange jumpers. If he doesn’t take Odom into the low block and either compel the double team or put Odom in the torture chamber, it will be a monumental strategic blunder. Put it this way, if Ronny Turiaf isn’t getting more time than Phil Jackson would prefer due to Gasol and Odom being plagued by fouls or otherwise overmatched, the Celts aren’t pressing their advantage and executing properly.

At the small forward slot, I’d put Ray Allen on Vlad Rad and Paul Pierce on Kobe. Radmanovic does most of his damage from outside the arc anyway, which is where Allen roams, and if the Lakers are running post-ups to capitalize on his 5-inch height advantage over Allen, that’s a moral victory for the Celts–Vlad Rad on the block may be the 15th best offensive option for the Lakers.

Which brings us to the all-important Kobe-Pierce matchup. The rehabitation of Pierce’s defensive reputation in these playoffs–first in dogging LeBron, then in adding to Tayshaun Prince’s postseason disappearing acts on offense–has been a great surprise to most observers, including me, that don’t buy Pierce’s contention that he’s always been an above-average defender. Okay PP, you’re 6-7, 235, can you stay with the 6-6, 205 Kobe or is he simply too quick for you? Personally, I think a dedicated Pierce limits Kobe more than Ray Allen certainly, and probably even James Posey, who although 6-8, 217, isn’t as quick as Pierce. Meanwhile, whether Kobe is guarding Pierce or Allen, that Big 3 member has to make Kobe exert himself and not play center field on D to conserve his energy.

One more item in this Celtic scenario: the foot speed of Rajon Rondo over Derek Fisher. Both Fisher and Rondo have been fitfully inconsistent this postseason but in a good way–both have stepped up to have monster games, especially at crunchtime, at various points, and yet have almost totally disappeared at other times. Both have the capacity to embarrass the other–Rondo is too quick for Fisher, and Fish is light years ahead of Rondo in terms of experience and all that entails–composure, court vision, sneaky shortcuts on offense and defense, playing within himself, and overall maturity. If Rondo happens to come up huge in a nip-and-tuck contest, the Celts could steal one.

I’ve listed these potential Celtic pluses in order of descending likelihood–in other words, I expect Perkins to control the paint against Gasol more than I expect Rondo to embarrass Fisher. The point is, the Celtics cause isn’t helpless. Yeah, they played in an inferior conference, but their record against the West was superb. They play suffocating team defense, the most chronically underrated aspect of pro hoops. They managed to win two series with their best outside threat enduring the worst slump of his 12-year career, and, like the Lakers, have never once trailed in this entire series.

But the smart money–and mine, if I was betting–is on the Lakers for good reasons. In order of importance, here they are:

* Kobe.

Ten years from now, people will look back on this as the best season of his career, the year he finally understood what it meant to elevate himself by elevating his teammates, in ways that are as much mental/psychological/intuitive/selfless as they are physical and competitive. Kobe’s competitive fire and freakazoid athleticism have never been in question. Putting his arrogance in a positive context has often been the missing ingredient. But this year, and especially this postseason, the guy has not only been unstoppable–which isn’t exactly novel–but has figured out exactly when to seize the moment.

Consider that Denver began the playoffs by throwing the thuggish K-Mart on Kobe, which worked for maybe a half, until Kobe found his rhythm and started shaking his head no with every jumper round about the third quarter. Then Utah–was there a team better equipped to go against K
obe, what with AK-47, Ronnie Brewer, and Jerry Sloan’s elbows-and-knees defensive philosophy? Didn’t matter. Except for Game Four when he played hurt and tried to do too much at crunchtime, Kobe surmounted. Then San Antonio. The Jordan comparisons that have arisen out of that series are unfortunate, but offered up for a reason: Kobe destroyed the Spurs with game-altering elevations of his game not seen since Jordan. The bookends of Game One and Game Five should give the Celts serious pause. If Kobe keeps regulating his peaks and plateaus (there really are no valleys) to maximum advantage in terms of game flow and momentum psychology, there isn’t a credible counter-attack. Remember, the Celtics are all about low-scoring games. That makes a player who on certain occasions can score when he wants to all the more valuable.

* Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers

 Doc Rivers is in the Finals, which means he can legitimately tell all his critics to kiss his ass–seriously, this is as far as the Celts are supposed to go, and if Flip Saunders had made it here, he’d still have a job. But Mike Woodson, Mike Brown and Flip Saunders are not remotely in the same time zone as Phil Jackson in terms of playoff coaching prowess, and neither is Doc Rivers. Jackson’s teams win the big ones–the dude has nine rings. When he sprang that small lineup on Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, it shifted the entire dynamic of the series, and salvaged Game One for the Lakers. When he steadfastly rested his three best players despite a steep first-half deficit in Game Five, he fortified his bench with his faith and conserved the energy of his stars for the second half comeback that clinched the series. For those who say that Jackson simply has great players, consider how many rings MJ, Kobe, and Shaq have won *without* Jackson. That would be one–Shaq’s in Miami, under Pat Riley.

In my opinion, Rivers’ misuse of Eddie House in favor of Sam Cassell and chastising of Rondo for taking "heroic shots" in this postseason dramatize the talent gap between himself and the Zen Master. It is bad enough for Boston that Jackson is the better coach. He also has more, and more flexible, weapons at his disposal. Which brings us to…

*Backcourt depth

Cleveland and Detroit both exposed the Celtics’ thin backcourt and then inexplicably didn’t press that advantage–literally press it. Bluntly put–can either Cassell or House handle the pressure LA can bring with Vujacic and Farmar and Fisher and Walton and Kobe and Odom? If Rondo gets in foul trouble or simply needs a blow, who gets the Celts into the offense? By default it has to be Pierce–but if you’re Jackson, isn’t that when you appeal to Kobe’s competitive arrogance, tell him "LeBron couldn’t stop The Truth in Game Seven, so let’s see what you can do." And not just Kobe. Snipe with Farmar and Vujacic. Double hard with Odom.

Unless Rondo plays all 48, how does Boston handle a Laker lineup of Vujacic, Farmar, Walton, Kobe and Odom? That gives Fisher and Gasol a breather and makes it extremely hard for the Celts to get into their offense. Or maybe swap in Fisher for Farmar, or Vlad Rad for Walton, or Gasol or Turiaf for Odom. The Laker bench is vastly superior to the Celtic bench, especially in the backcourt.

I grew up with the Celts during the heyday of Bill Russell. I covered the Timberwolves every single one of KG’s dozen years in town, and I’d be less than honest if I said I’m not pulling for Boston so he can bag that trophy and permanently put to rest the whispers about his crunchtime primacy. But the other guys, the ones in gold and purple, have the best player. The best coach. More depth. Lakers in five or six.