The dynamic for each team has changed. The Lakers are experienced, confident and driven to avenge 2008, when they arrived at the Finals a year earlier than expected. But three years of togetherness have woven the Celtics into the league's most cohesive team, with more big-time playmakers than any defense can stop -- Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Rasheed Wallace are creators as well as scorers, and even Glen Davishas made the big playoff shot. If they apply teamwork to overcome Kobe Bryant's hunger, then this will turn into one of the greatest Finals of all time.
The Lakers are more physical than they were in 2008, with the addition of Ron Artest and the presence of Andrew Bynum. But they were still pushed around at times by the undersized Suns in the Western Conference finals, which does not bode well for their matchup against the sturdier Celtics. In '08, the Celtics bullied the Lakers in the post, and they still have an advantage there with Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. This time around, they should also be able to run around the Lakers on the perimeter, with Rondo's quickness continuing to cause problems.
It's about time the NBA finished the season with an epic, back-and-forth Finals, and that's what we'll get. The talk early will be about containing Rondo and Bryant, as well as the matchup between Pierce (subtle, crafty) and Artest (blunt, bludgeoning). Then we'll move on to a couple of Old Guy Moments. I'm guessing Rasheed Wallace will have his, as will Derek Fisher, who seems to have some sort of contractual guarantee that he hit at least one game-winner every postseason. In the end, though, this is going to be about Pau Gasol and Garnett. While Bryant will produce his usual stream of excellence and Rondo and Pierce will be effective, the series will come down to which multi-talented power forward has the greatest impact. The guess here is Gasol.
Size matters, and the Celtics' ability to use their's will be critical. In 2008, the Celtics frontline bullied the Lakers all over the floor. Though L.A. will have physical center Andrew Bynum in the lineup, the size advantage still goes to Boston -- if they can keep all their bigs on the floor. Perkins is one technical foul away from an automatic one-game suspension, Garnett's balky right knee looked a little shaky at times in the conference finals and it looks like Rasheed Wallace will be touch-and-go all series with back spasms. If Boston's Big Three are healthy, they are still capable of owning the Lakers troika of Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom. But if they can't dominate the front-court matchup, things could get a little sticky.
I'm going with history. In their 11 meetings in the NBA Finals, the Celtics have won nine titles. The last came two years ago, when Boston's Big Three got the championships they so desperately craved. Regardless of what they may say, I have to think that they are more than mildly surprised they are in this position given the meager production they had over the final few months of regular season. Now, they can remember what it feels like to win it all and have come too far to be denied. Fisher will once again be exposed by Rondo's quickness, Garnett will help neutralize Gasol, and Boston's bench is stronger than L.A.'s and will be responsible for winning at least one of the games.
Kobe will always find a way to win. Tying Michael Jordan with six titles isn't just a pipe dream, and Boston will come to understand that much in this series. This Lakers unit has been together for more than two full seasons now, and that's two full seasons of Phil Jackson getting in Gasol' ear about how soft he played in 2008. Of course, the Celtics have been together just as long, and no one has ever accused them of being soft, but they are playing with house money ever since they dropped Cleveland in Round 2. Rajon Rondo is likely to continue his star ascendance against the elder Derek Fisher, but Ron Artest and the Lakers' agile bigs will likely make life miserable for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Boston joy ride will come to a hard-fought end for the Celtics.
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