June 05, 2008

SI.com's Ian Thomsen spoke with an NBA advance scout to break down the Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup.

1.Kobe Bryant. There are no simple answers here, because no one guy is going to lock down Kobe. It helps to have a good one-on-one defender, but even that guy is not going to stop Kobe. Team defense stands a better chance, and what team is better in that department than Boston? The Celtics also have an advantage in that they've already faced an almost identical threat in LeBron James. It's the same basic dilemma. Maybe Kobe is a little more shot-oriented than LeBron, and LeBron may be a little more willing passer, but in both cases you know who is going to have the ball when it matters.

In any case, Kobe is going to average 30 a game. The key for the Celtics is to make him take more shots to do it. They need to be as physical as they can and make him take tough, defended shots at all times, to frustrate him and force him to get his 30 while taking 25 or 30 shots, as opposed to 20 shots. The shots they force him to miss might ultimately make the difference in the game.

Kobe is a better playmaker than he used to be, and his confidence in the guys around him has hastened that, as well as his maturation as a player. He might have been capable of making more plays for his teammates in previous years, but if he didn't believe in the guys he was giving the ball to or they were missing shots, then he would stop giving it to them -- he would stop in a hurry. But now you see that he knows when he needs to do that and when he needs to score, and in that sense it's very reminiscent of Michael Jordan. He knows when he needs those guys and that gets their confidence up, and he also knows when he needs to make plays himself and take the game over. And then with the coach and the style of the offense being the same, it's pretty conducive to comparing Kobe to Michael.

Michael was same as Kobe when he first started. I remember that series when Jordan scored 63 in Boston and people said he'll never win like Larry and Magic because he shoots all the time. I remember that like it was yesterday. So the criticisms of Michael and Kobe are similar.

In this series, Kobe is far and away going to the best player on the floor. If you're going to pick your poison, you'd rather have him take the contested jump shot than let him get into paint. If he gets into the paint, then you're already beaten. You stand a better chance of him not having as prolific a night if you're forcing him to guard defensively at one end and make jump shots -- contested jump shots -- at the other.

2. Lamar Odom.Kevin Garnett is going to have to guard Odom, because Boston couldn't have Kendrick Perkins trying to guard him. Odom and Garnett are very similar in that they're multifaceted. They can hurt you in different ways, but the biggest thing is they have the ability to play unselfishly and it isn't about their numbers. Both can score when called upon, though I wouldn't say scoring is the main strength of either one of them. The strength for both is their versatility. Odom can create for others as well as himself. He has the ability to step out on the perimeter and occasionally hit the three, in addition to being good off the dribble as a passer.

Where they differ is in Garnett's ability on the defense end. Odom doesn't have Garnett's length and he doesn't have the intensity.

Putting pressure on Garnett off the dribble will be a factor. For one thing, Garnett is used to guarding guys in the post; he's not used to guarding a guy who can take him off the dribble. As good as the Celtics have been with their help defense and all the things they do, they are very susceptible off the dribble. When you move the ball from one side to the other and drive off a ball reversal instead of isolations, they can be beaten. You move the ball from side to side and make them change sides, and all of their aggressiveness sometimes works against them and opens up seams against them.

That's where you'll see the Lakers taking advantage: They will move from side to side out of the triangle because that's what their offense does naturally, and in those situations the Celtics' inability to defend the ball off the dribble will be exploited by Odom, Kobe and Jordan Farmar as well.

3. Derek Fisher. Fisher is a guy the Lakers can count on to perform well under pressure. He has the experience of having been in situations where he had to make a shot or a play. He has proved that repeatedly. He also benefits from the very simple but important ability to shoot the ball.

Let's be honest: Derek Fisher is a role player. He's not a great player, but he's the kind of guy you pair with stars, and he makes himself invaluable because he has the right makeup and the ability to knock down shots when it counts.

His value is at its peak this time of year. During the regular season, you don't think twice about him because he's not a 20-point scorer, and he's not going to do a lot on his own. But championship teams are made out of guys like him complementing the stars, and they are every bit as necessary as the stars are. And the shooting aspect of a guy like Fisher outweighs everything else. Go back through all of the championship teams: Dwyane Wade had James Posey making big shots, the Bulls had Michael surrounded by Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong and John Paxson, the Rockets put Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and Vernon Maxwell around Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Spurs had all of their shooters around Tim Duncan. With very little exception, the key is having those star guys to draw the defense, then the role-playing, solid-shooting guys make the shots when it counts. They also help spread the floor because the defense can't afford to help off them.

Sometimes we try to outthink ourselves about basketball, when the most important thing is the ability to catch the ball and shoot it. At this stage of the season, it's incredibly valuable and hard to stop, and yet it's not something that everyone can do.

1. Paul Pierce. Pierce is a matchup issue. I could see Luke Walton playing more minutes than normal on him. If Vladimir Radmanovic or Lamar Odom is guarding him, at least they'll provide length on Pierce, which is a good thing for the Lakers. Pierce is at his best against small guys. He loves to catch the ball on the foul line with his back to the basket and turn around and shoot over little guys. In the opening round against Atlanta, Pierce would go pick-and-roll hoping to draw the switch so the point guard or shooting guard would be on Pierce. One way or the other, Pierce would isolate on the smaller player to use his physical advantage to shoot over or overpower him.

I am going to admit that I am not a big Pierce fan. When things are good he's fine, but when things have gone bad in previous years he has been one of the first guys to go south. In fairness to him, he may have matured since the last time he was in the playoffs, and maybe he'll prove me wrong. This is going to be a huge test for him.

He certainly is an an amazing scorer off the dribble. He uses his strength, his physical build and his rear end to get guys on his shoulder and get into scoring situations or put himself on the foul line. Sometimes he can't finish the play, but because of his aggressiveness, he gets to the foul line. You put a smaller guy on him and Pierce bogarts him; a bigger guy he beats with his quickness.

The worry for Boston is that he'll settle for jump shots, because then he's playing away from his strength and taking pressure off the defense. The weight of the Lakers' hopes is on Kobe, and for the Celtics it isn't on Garnett -- it's Pierce who needs to drive this team. He can't get caught up in trying to duel with or compare to Kobe. It's important for him to stay within what he does best and take advantage of his matchup strength and put the Lakers in fouling situations. Getting to the foul line could be his biggest accomplishment.

I think Kobe could guard Pierce in stretches and give Pierce a lot of trouble. Though Fisher is giving up size, he is a physical and heady defender who will know how to use his strength against Pierce. Radmanovic is not going to be able to guard him. The Lakers will try to use a variety of matchups to try to force him into a high volume of shots and frustrate him. If Trevor Ariza is healthy and conditioned enough coming off his recent return from a foot injury, he's a guy who could give Pierce more trouble than anyone. He could be a big help to the Lakers if he can give them solid minutes.

2. Ray Allen. The Lakers need to put a guy on Allen who is going to stick with him. I don't know if Kobe is the answer here, because he likes to cheat and help off his man and gamble for steals. It's almost like he's playing zone, and if he does that while guarding Allen, then Ray is going to have some open shots. If he sticks with Ray, then Ray is going to have a long series, because Kobe has the length and ability to smother him. But I could see Fisher guarding Allen, which would allow Kobe to freelance and be at his best defensively while shading off Rajon Rondo. (The more I think of it, the Lakers might prefer to have Kobe on Pierce because Pierce is going to have the ball in his hands a lot more than Ray will, and that may help Kobe to zero in on guarding Pierce; whereas he may lose interest in staying with Ray if he isn't getting a lot of touches.)

I know Allen has had a tough playoffs, but I guarantee you he is a guy who is giving nightmares to the Lakers' coaches. You worry about him even when he isn't making shots, because you know he can always make the next one. I have more nightmares about Allen than I even have about Pierce, because those threes from Allen are backbreakers. He makes shots that demoralize you, and I would argue that he is much less likely to take a bad shot than Pierce.

He's not the guy they run their offense through. But as soon as you stop worrying about him, that's exactly when he's going to kill you. That's when he had those big games to help finish off the Pistons in the previous round. Even when he isn't making shots, he's performing an important role for the Celtics: The defense still has to stay at home on him and that opens up room for the other guys.

The bottom line is that they need Allen to make shots against the Lakers. They got by the other opponents with little production from him, but they'll need more from him this time. Boston needs their three stars playing at a high level, but I don't think there's as much pressure for Odom and Pau Gasol to excel for the Lakers because they have so many other complementary scorers.

3. Kevin Garnett. We've said a lot about Garnett already in relation to his matchup with Odom. As far as Garnett offensively, I think the Lakers are going to let the Celtics throw it to Garnett and never, ever double him. They'll let him do what he wants, because Garnett prefers to facilitate for his teammates than to score. They'll be more worried about Pierce and Allen and maybe even Posey at the three-point line than they'll be about Garnett.

How many times do you see Garnett hit for 30 points? It's very rare that Garnett is a prolific scorer. He can get 20 any night, but 30-35 is unusual for him. Gasol is not a great defender -- he's a weak defender, actually -- but he is long, and I wouldn't be too afraid of putting him on Garnett when Odom isn't guarding him. Gasol isn't the ideal defender, obviously, but the main thing you want to avoid is to put the double team on Garnett, because that's when he really hurts you. He'll pick you apart whether it's by shooting over the double team or finding the open man with his passing. That's what he wants to do, and I don't think the Lakers are going to let him do it.

Pau Gasol, Lakers. I don't have incredibly high expectations for Gasol in this series. He has made a big difference for the Lakers as an interior scorer to complement Bryant and their three-point shooters, but I think the jury's out on his ability to come through in a really high-pressure environment. On the other hand, if he plays well then the Lakers are going to be tough to beat. If he gets it going against Perkins, things could get ugly for the Celtics.

Vladimir Radmanovic, Lakers. It's very simple: He's got to make shots to be effective; otherwise, it's going to be hard to keep him on the court because of his defensive deficiencies.

Kendrick Perkins, Celtics. The concern for the Lakers is keeping Perkins away from the offensive glass, because that's how he gets four to six of his points each game. Otherwise, they don't need to worry much about the Celtics throwing it to him in the post.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics. Rondo is everything you'd expect from a young point guard: There are nights he's pretty damn good, and other nights when you're scratching your head at his decisions. The Lakers will want to force Rondo and Perkins to take as many shots as possible. The Lakers will dare Rondo to shoot jumpers, and more often than not he'll probably drive and probe and try to get the defense to loosen up, or he'll put up one of those runners or push shots he's had to make his whole life. More important than his scoring is whether he plays solidly and doesn't get out of control.

Defensively, Rondo has very long arms and he is very aggressive. But his pressure on the ball will have less impact on the Lakers, who often rely on Kobe or Odom to bring the ball up the floor.

Celtics. The Celtics have been developing their bench all year long, and I've wondered if the strength of their bench contributed to the problems their starters had during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Because there were times when their veteran starters looked gassed in the second halves of those games, and it might have been because they weren't used to playing extended minutes during the season thanks to the extended rotation. The Celtics have a very deep bench, and they are far more experienced than the Lakers. I'm going to say that this area is a draw between the two teams, because the experience of the Celtics' reserves is going to be important under the pressure of an NBA Finals, and it neutralizes any advantage the Lakers' bench may have in ability.

The Celtics have Posey, who has a history of making big plays at both ends of the floor, and Sam Cassell, who has been hot and cold in the playoffs. But Cassell has been on this stage before and that has to be respected. It's not that I expect Farmar to be intimidated, it's just that Cassell has the advantage in experience.

Don't be surprised if Boston has to use its bench in a different way by going small with Garnett at center. The Lakers essentially have two wings playing up front in Odom and Radmanovic, and it might be hard for a traditional inside player like Leon Powe to guard out on the perimeter. You'll probably see more of P.J. Brown in this series because of his mobility and experience.

Lakers. A big key to the Lakers this season has been the improvement in young players like Walton, Farmar, Ronny Turiaf and Sasha Vujacic, along with the early season arrival of Ariza [in a trade with Orlando]. It was because of the growth of them as well as Andrew Bynum [sidelined since January by a knee injury that will force him to miss the Finals] that the Lakers were such a good team before the Gasol trade. The Lakers bring them in to not just hold the game even but sometimes to increase the lead. That group is talented, young and energetic.

This is a mismatch. I can't put it any other way. Not to take anything away from what Doc Rivers has accomplished, but you're talking about a Hall of Fame coach, Phil Jackson, trying to win his 10th championship against a guy who had never been out of the first round before this year. I don't expect anything innovative out of Doc in this series. Not that Phil's necessarily going to be innovative, either, but I would feel more comfortable having Phil on my sideline.

They would do it by making the players around Kobe irrelevant. Take Gasol and Odom out of the mix and force them to have an awful series. If the Celtics take everything else away and force Kobe to do it by himself, then Boston can win the series.

That's not as farfetched as some people believe it is. Let's say the Celtics win the first two at home; that shouldn't come as any big shock. They had the best record in the league and they did make the Finals, so it's not like they're some NCAA underdog in the championship game. When the Celtics went out West [in the regular season], I didn't see them having a whole lot of trouble, and the Texas trip they had in March [when they beat San Antonio, Houston and Dallas] was pretty remarkable. I think they would need all seven games to win it. But if Pierce is aggressive, if their role players are playing within themselves, and if the Celtics are playing at their best, for sure they can win.

They need to go into Boston and win a game right away -- either Game 1 or 2. They need to exert their will and immediately put doubt in the Celtics' mind that they're as good as the Lakers. There is no doubt that Kobe feels he is the best player with the best team; I'm not sure the Celtics feel same way about themselves. Boston has had an inferiority complex that they've shown throughout the playoffs. I don't think they feel as good about themselves as they claim. If the Lakers put the Celtics on their heels and go to L.A. with a chance of not coming back to Boston, that could be a hard thing for the Celtics. The margin of error is so much greater for the Lakers. Apart from Kobe, they could have a different guy come up big in each game. For the Celtics, they need their three stars to all play big.

The Lakers in 6.

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