THE BEST FINALS MATCHUP POSSIBLE (SORRY LEBRON)
Hello America. It's another Memorial Day weekend, and it's still the same messed up juxtaposition of reality with the party that comes with the 3-day weekend marking the beginning of summer. My grandfather fought and served in World War 2, and turned back the Germans in North Africa. My father fought in Vietnam for two tours, and both of them saw horrors that will never compare to the worst day that I've ever had, and for that I thank them (God rest their souls), and I thank all of the rest of our brave defenders. They pay a price that none of us know, and it's not too much to ask for all of us to offer our thanks when you see them in out in public. They may seem reluctant, but it's our thanks that keeps them going through the loss of life, and the crushing of one's spirit that occurs when the realities of war make their immovable presence known.
And as all of the soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world want to know, who is going to win this epic Finals matchup between the Lakers and Celtics? Surely the networks wanted to see LeBron and Kobe slug it out in the Finals, but it's amazing how the Celtics' down season caused them to fade into the background. Now, it just seems obvious that a rematch between two old rivals would be the best matchup possible. Can the Lakers redeem themselves after being embarrassed two years ago? Are the Celtics too old to take on the defending champions? Is Rajon Rondo able to take over a Finals series? We expect Kobe Bryant to do it again, but will he do it again?
That's what I'm setting forth to find out, since this is the first time I've let both the brain and the ticker think about it, so let's figure it out together.
Point Guards: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer, but expect a ton of fanfare around things that don't matter. Rondo's back spasms? Those shouldn't matter when the ball travels towards the rafters starting in Game 1. Fisher's big shot ability? Remember that even if he hits a handful of big shots it won't be as important as the defensive rotations that Rondo is set to cause. The good news for Lakers fans is that Fisher is about as heady as they come, and his strength will keep Rondo from doing the little things that enhance his game, like rebounding and drawing contact on his way to the hoop. But make no mistake, Fisher is among the slowest of foot among starting NBA point guards. Expect the defensive assignment to fall to a few guys, including Kobe Bryant, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, and even Ron Artest. The good news is that Fisher is more adept at traveling through screens than most, and will be a better fit on Ray Allen than Vince Carter was last series. Expect the Lakers to go with Fisher as long as they can, but then get creative if Rondo starts causing havoc, which he will.
Advantage: Boston (by a lot).Wings: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest vs. Paul Pierce
For anybody out there questioning who deserved the MVP award this year, I wonder, did you just watch the highlights? LeBron had a lot of cute moments with his teammates, and had by far the most Sportscenter highlights by any athlete this year, but he's struggling like Kobe did without Shaq. He's struggling like Michael Jordan did until he realized the total team concept was required to win NBA championships. LeBron can say all the right things, but until he looks himself in the mirror and loses all the dead weight he's just another guy whose thoughts are greater than their actions (and if you're wondering these are thoughts of taking over the world, avoidance of criticism from anybody including coaches, peers, and teammates, and the desire to keep things "fun," a concept which NBA greats Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe, Russell, etc. would rather urinate on then recognize as a talking point.) Kobe Bryant hit six game-winning shots this year and showed more championship meddle than anybody in the league. I bristled at the thought that Kevin Durant was considered in the same breath as him, and while LeBron has more physical tools than him, being the league's best player requires a certain attitude. Plain and simple - Kobe has it, LeBron doesn't, and the Durantula still needs a few more years of disappointment before he grows into an NBA killer. Nothing against him, but he hasn't arrived yet.
With that introduction, can Ray Allen help contain Bean? The answer is a resounding YES! Allen is about as smart as they come when it comes to defending Bryant, mostly because he doesn't bite on pump fakes too much and he has quick feet. He's sneaky athletic for a guy in his thirties. Will he be able to contain Bryant? No way. But all good double teams start with a good primary defender, and that's what the Celtics will get with this matchup.
On the other end, the Lakers have a few options. The 1-3 matchups are actually quite interchangeable. If Rondo starts killing Fisher, we could see Kobe slide over to defend the point with Fisher running the gauntlet of screens on Allen. That probably suits Phil Jackson just fine, since Kobe won't expend all that energy keeping up with Ray. Or, Phil decides to give Ron Artest a chance to run around after Ray. I don't like what I've seen from Artest this year in terms of his close outs and decision making in spacing/defensive assignments, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him rise to the challenge in the Finals. The offset of this would be that Kobe gets to defend Paul Pierce, which means Pierce could be a Celtic pariah by the end of this series. Plain and simple, he won't be able to get a shot off against Kobe, and that may be the key to the series. Pierce will get the benefit of covering Artest on the other end, which means he'll get a nice break in other words. But Pierce's game is predicated on craftiness, not athleticism, and Kobe has him in both areas.
The key for the Celtics will be Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo bringing Kobe Bryant's attention to the defensive side of the court. Paul Pierce can't cause him to expend himself, but these two can. And if Rondo can bring Kobe to the table, then Ray Allen will be able to exploit Derek Fisher, and if Paul Pierce gets Artest on him he will likely put him in foul trouble because of Artest's overactive hands and lack of discipline. But if Kobe is allowed to rest defensively on Pierce, and Fisher does enough to slow down Rondo, and Artest's energy is harnessed and focused properly on Allen, we could be looking at a short series.
Advantage: Lakers (but only because Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet circa Michael Jordan)Forwards and Centers: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol/Lamar Odom, and Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum
For all the troubles the Lakers pose to most teams with their height, it is somewhat mitigated by the Celtics' toughness and (gulp) athleticism in a spaced out series. KG has the length, intensity, and defensive mind to give both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom a run for their money, especially if the momentum starts falling the C's favor, since both have been known to disappear when the chips are down. Kendrick Perkins can contain Andrew Bynum, and he can keep Pau Gasol from getting in the paint, although he is susceptible to his own fouling tendencies and affinity for losing his cool.
Offensively for the Celtics, KG's ability to hit the outside jumper will likely keep Odom in the game a ton, and Bynum on the bench since he cannot give a competitive advantage to the Lakers versus Perkins. Similarly to Odom, Gasol can give KG fits with his reach, and Garnett won't be able to do much besides distribute against either of them. And since Perkins can't hurt the Lakers underneath, by all appearances the Lakers should have the advantage down low, unless they get outworked and out-competed (to borrow a Jeff Van Gundy term). Ironically, with Odom and Gasol's diverse games, Rasheed Wallace has the "chance" (and I used quotation marks to accentuate chance) to throw a big lengthy body on one of them and be useful.
Advantage: LakersBenches: Tony Allen, Big Baby, Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels vs. Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic
Sasha Vujacic nearly got the Suns back into the Laker's clinching Game 6 win with his egotistical retort to Goran Dragic's shit-talking, but what was more damaging to the Lake Show was his embarrassing foot-speed on defense. Why he was on the court, I don't know. I'm hoping (for my belief in Phil Jackson's sake) that he was on the court to antagonize Dragic, who could honestly have been played to the final seconds and from a basketball perspective it might not have been the wrong call, even though benching Steve Nash would have been called a travesty by writers everywhere. All I'm saying is that Dragic was getting into the lane, playing confidently, and Nash was not able to get a step and was leaving his feet without knowing what he was going to do with the ball. Just sayin'.
The bigger problem for the Lakers' bench is that they can't count Lamar Odom as a part of the group. Jordan Farmar has skills, and confidence, but he doesn't take care of the ball, and he can be exploited on defense. The good news is that his least-exploited defensive weakness is quickness which may give him a shot to defend Rajon Rondo, so don't count him out for a few big moments. The book is out on Shannon Brown, and it's not that he can't hit the 3-point or outside shot, it's that he just won't take it. He may not be as quick as Farmar, but he could also be looked towards to keep Rondo from getting in the lane. The question is just (with both of them), can they? And can they contribute enough offensively (without turning the ball over) to keep Fisher's leadership and shot-making off the court.
As for the Celtics, they are going to need Big Baby and Rasheed Wallace to step up more than their backup guards and wings, especially Sheed. And I'm not going to be the guy that says Rasheed needs to get down on the block - he's just not that guy anymore. He needs to position himself for a few key offensive rebounds, hit a couple of threes, and otherwise give himself up by blocking out and using his length to bother Gasol into spots on the floor he doesn't like. If he can do that, he will be doing much more than the box score suggests. Big Baby, on the other hand, can be a huge thorn in the Lakers' side, that is if he can turn the game into a slug-fest. He needs to draw fouls via offensive rebounds, and use his girth to keep the Lakers outside of the paint. If he tries to do too much, he'll quickly turn any advantage he can bring into a negative, but he does have the ability to put a small mark on the series if he can get into Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol.
Lastly, the Celtics have a few small-time X-factors in Nate Robinson. Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels. Robinson could be used in spurts to give Derek Fisher a seat on the bench, and if the Celtics stagnate on offense don't be surprised to see his number called in the Hail Mary sense. And on defense, Daniels gives Doc Rivers a lengthy, quick body to attempt to cover Kobe Bryant, but more daunting for Lakers fans should be Allen. Allen showed his ability to defend against Dwyane Wade, and wasn't really needed against the Magic who didn't have a wing that could perform at a playoff level (read: Vince Carter). Allen, though, is too willing to bite on pump fakes, and is a much better cover for Wade than Kobe Bryant, whose mental game is leaps and bounds above Wade's bruising physical game. But either way Allen and Daniels give Doc Rivers options, and options are what you need when facing the Mamba.
All in all, I want to pick the Lakers, but I have too many concerns with their mental makeup. Ron Artest's lucky putback in Game 5 wasn't all that convincing in the grand scheme of things, and on the other end Jameer Nelson's bank shot three in overtime of Game 4 was the only thing between the Celtics and a sweep. Yes, the Magic mailed it in, and yes, the Lakers are a better team, but can they dust themselves off after getting embarrassed two years prior? I have no doubts about Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, or Derek Fisher, but the rest of the team is about as stable as the San Andreas Fault. On the other end the Celtics have far fewer loose cannons (Perkins, Sheed), and they are not key players like Odom and Artest are. The Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher matchup is too much for me to ignore, and if the Celtics had home court advantage I'd probably bet real money on them. I'm concerned about Paul Pierce disappearing and what that might mean to the C's offense, but how long can the Lakers afford to keep Kobe from defending Rondo? All in all, if these teams don't have any major unknown factors, I think we'll see it go down to seven games, with the Celtics picking up Game 2 in Los Angeles, the Lakers grabbing Game 4 in Boston, the home team winning every game until the Celtics shock the world in Game 7 in Los Angeles.
I love it.