The 2008 Finals were mercilessly hyped due to the resurrection of the NBA's famed rivalry between the Lakers and the Celts. But the 2010 rematch could become a more classic, competitive series. Both teams have impeccable credentials -- dominating early in the season as they conducted a talent and chemistry check, then coasting in the latter half of the season to conserve health and energy for June. But now their slates are cleared.
The Lakers have been the best in the West since opening day and have never trailed by even a game thus far in the postseason. The Celtics just finished toppling a 61-win opponent and then a 59-win opponent without holding home-court advantage in either series. Both Boston and L.A. have been more physically rugged, emotionally experienced and mentally resilient than any of their playoff foes. Now, confronting each other in the Finals, their enormous mutual respect is overridden by the knowledge that the team most ruthlessly focused on the task at hand is likely to be the victor.
Rajon Rondo vs. Lakers' Backcourt. In what should be a long series between a pair of well-coached, defensively engaged teams, this matchup will continually shift and evolve with the inevitable adjustments. That said, the source and size of the Laker effort required to deter Rondo will be a dominant, ongoing subplot. Derek Fisher was huge for the Lakers at both ends of the court against Deron Williams and the Jazz, and against Steve Nash and the Suns. But Rondo's skill set is more akin to the Thunder's Russell Westbrook, who torched Fish in the first round. When the Celtics' point guard is allowed to become a hustling acrobat freelancing on the fly, he electrifies the crowd and galvanizes momentum by his style as well as his substance. If the Lakers are forced to cover Rondo with Kobe Bryant instead of Fisher (and with their bigs showing harder and further out on the perimeter), it will dampen the ignition and sap energy from an L.A. offense already challenged by Boston's suffocating D. Solid minutes on Rondo from the occasionally capable (but ultimately unreliable) backup guards Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown would be a big boon for L.A.
Another intriguing joust will involve Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol at power forward, two extraordinarily coordinated, well-rounded 7-footers who would rather pirouette for position than bang shoulders for box-outs in the paint. K.G. frequently schooled Gasol early in the Spaniard's career, but Gasol probably now enjoys a slight match-up advantage, if only because his knees enable him to move laterally without a wince.
Lakers: Ron Artest. L.A. swapped out Trevor Ariza in favor of Artest in the offseason because Artest is a better defender against the league's larger, premier go-to scorers, such as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and, perhaps most of all, Boston's Paul Pierce. Pierce plays larger than his listed height of 6 -6 on offense, in part because he excels at drawing the foul through an assortment of up-fakes, dribble-push step-backs and lean-in jumpers. But Artest, who is also 6-6 but more muscular than Pierce, has superb judgment on when to leave his feet for a block attempt, and crowds his man so stolidly that step-backs are difficult and lean-ins don't budge him. Consequently, despite drawing the opponent's top scorer on a regular basis, Artest committed fewer fouls per game than any of the Lakers' starters this season. And he held Pierce below his scoring average both at Houston last season and with L.A. this year.
After his ill-chosen three-pointer in the final minute of Game 5 against Phoenix, Artest's poor shot selection has achieved greater notoriety. Opponents have learned to gamble on leaving him open so they can double-team and trap Kobe. And while Artest's accuracy has improved with each succeeding playoff series, expect the Celtics to bait him into jumpers. If he can choose prudence over pride on offense, and continue to clamp down on Pierce on defense, he'll be extremely valuable in this series.
Celtics: Kendrick Perkins. With the justified glorification of Rondo this postseason, Perkins has become the unsung hero among Boston's new Big Four. He is the best on-ball defender on a team that lives and dies by its defensive prowess. And his dominant, bruising style in the low-block catalyzed the Celtics victory in the 2008 Finals, making Gasol and Lamar Odom appear soft for their lack of response. Without '08 stalwarts, such as James Posey, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe, there is less gristle in the Celtics' beef this postseason. Meanwhile the Lakers have added Artest and 7-footer Andrew Bynum (who was hurt in '08), who may be limited with a torn meniscus but can nonetheless contribute. Gasol and Odom will be bent on debunking any perceptions about their softness. In other words, Perkins' nasty nature beneath the hoop will become more important than ever during this series, especially when L.A. goes smaller and Perk guards Gasol while Garnett is matched with Odom.
It seems silly to regard either of these teams as an underdog. Both won championships the last season they had their full complement of players (Garnett was hurt last year). Both feature battle-proven stars who don't flinch in the clutch, and relatively thin, inconsistent benches that could make or break them. If you drew up a dozen of the most-likely scenarios for how it could play out, half would favor the Celtics, half would favor the Lakers.
Expect the Lakers to repeat for three reasons:
1. They have home-court advantage and are undefeated at the Staples Center this postseason.
2. Kobe Bryant will always find a way to win. It goes beyond the ridiculously difficult shots he routinely makes at the most opportune moments. There is a will to win emanating from Bryant that no other current player comes close to possessing. There is tremendous leadership -- born of wisdom and intuition -- in when he chooses to trust his teammates on the court and when he wrests the burden all for himself. Kobe has cut back on the pouting, he's eliminated the ego-driven need to withhold field-goal attempts to demonstrate his value, and he's minimized the fruitless arguments with the refs over frustrating calls. He's been all about the business of winning. LeBron James was the rightful MVP of the 2009-10 regular season. Kobe is in the process of earning the MVP of 2009-10 postseason.
3. They're the only team whose victories I've been able to accurately predict this postseason. Superstitious Celtic fans don't want to see me break the pattern and belatedly hop on their bandwagon.
But if they can overcome another home-court disadvantage and beat Kobe and the Zen Master, circa 2010, that 18th banner hanging from the rafters will be among the most impressive in their long and storied history. Lakers in seven.