To those of you who've been waiting for an NBA Finals preview from me, you've been patient, and I appreciate it.
For the last few days I've been going back and forth, up and down, left and right, trying to find an interesting angle, something out of the ordinary to share with you. Much like Kenyon Martin playing Scrabble though, I've really got nothing.
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry? Overplayed. Kobe continuing to obliterate LeBron in the "Best player in the world," debate? Ehh. East Coast vs. West Coast, Rajon Rondo's back, or the fact that Ron Artest is attempting to become the first certifiably insane person to win an NBA title? Booooooooring.
So instead of trying to sell you on a bogus bag of goods, I'm just going to give you a straight, ho-hum, player for player, position for position breakdown of everything you need to know heading into these Finals.
No fancy gimmicks. No crazy theories. Just, roughly 3,000 words of good old-fashioned basketball talk.
Point Guard- Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
I know what you're thinking, "This one is totally one-sided." Well to loosely quote Bill Clinton, "It depends on what your definition of is, is." Or in this case, your definition of "one-sided."
Now is Rajon Rondo the better player in this matchup? Of course he is. He's younger, quicker, more athletic, is a better passer, a better man-to-man defender, better at jumping passing lanes. Sounds pretty good to me. Plus, Rajon Rondo just sounds like the name of a basketball player. Derek Fisher sounds like a guy who's trying to sell you life insurance.
But here's the thing: Fisher is mostly definitely limited in what he does. What he does do though, he does very well.
Remember, in a must-win Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals, it was Fisher who came through with 22 points, including five in the final minutes. In maybe the Lakers most important game of the season, only Kobe Bryant scored more points.
Scoring aside though, the $64,000 question is whether Fisher will be able to defend the ultra-pick, way more athletic Rondo. Obviously, just looking at it on paper, things aren't looking pretty.
But here's my response to that: Didn't Fisher do a pretty good job checking Steve Nash last series? Sure Fisher may not have great foot speed, and might have some trouble staying in front of Rondo, but he's not exactly Zydrunas Ilgauskas either. And for what has naturally eroded over time, Fisher makes up for in smarts. He wouldn't be in the league still otherwise.
Looking back at that Suns series, Fisher didn't completely shut down Nash, but then again, nobody ever will. Thinking back though, how many times did Nash penetrate with Fisher forcing him in the paint, only for the Suns guard to be met by Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom, with nowhere to go? It seemed like half a dozen times a game.
Remember too that Rondo's back isn't nearly 100 percent, no matter what he might be telling the media. It doesn't seem like much of a coincidence to me that Rondo's two lowest assist totals of this entire postseason came in the last two games against Orlando. The guy is hurting.
The advantage here goes to Boston, but not by as much as you'd think.
Shooting Guard- Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant:
Ok, it's official, Kobe Bryant is the best player in the world. I bet you sure are glad you came here for that hard-hitting analysis, huh?
Against Phoenix, Bryant was so dominant, so overwhelmingly good, that my buddy Mark texted me the following, "Damn, now I know what it was like to be a Jazz fan in the mid-90's." Couldn't have said it any better myself.
Kobe's going to get his points obviously, but from a defensive standpoint, I'm not so sure I really like this matchup for him.
Don't get me wrong, Kobe is the best perimeter defender in the league, there's no if's and's or but's about that...But... At the same time, if I'm a Lakers fan, I'd probably prefer him to save his legs a little on defense for the sake of his offense. Especially when it involves chasing Ray Allen up and down the court, through pick after pick, elbow after elbow, over the course of quarter after quarter and game after game this series.
Obviously, you've got to assume that Allen will have his worst series of these playoffs, Kobe's simply on another level defensively than J.J. Redick was last round (Although I thought Redick actually defended Allen very well). But how much will the exertion on defense take a toll on Kobe and his shaky knee (Remember, he just had the thing drained of fluid like two weeks ago), if this series goes six or seven games?
Advantage: Los Angeles
Small Forward: Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest
Well, this is why Ron Artest is in L.A. To defend every Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, or other scoring wing that the Lakers might match up with in these playoffs. And to his credit, the guy came through big-time against Durant and Oklahoma City in Round 1.
But as good as he's been defensively, how much can the Lakers give up if the guy just isn't scoring?
I know Artest is averaging 11.5 points a game these playoffs, but other than the most recent Phoenix game, do you ever remember him having an impact offensively for 48 minutes? Doesn't his average seem like it's much closer to seven or eight points a game? Not to mention that he's only shooting 27 percent from behind the 3-point line in these playoffs. Think he'll get some open looks out there?
As for Pierce, the guy had a semi-renaissance against Orlando, averaging 24 a game, after scoring just 13 a game against Cleveland the series before. While Artest will be the best perimeter defender he's faced, Pierce will still get his points from the foul line, with his herky-jerky, up-and-under, fake-jump-and flail my arms game that he's mastered over his career. He went to the line at least 10 times in five of six games against Orlando, and I expect him to get there almost as much this series too.
Scoring aside, his true value will come when he's asked to match up with Kobe defensively. Which as we all know, is no small task.
Power Forward: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol
This one's a little hard to gauge, because technically, it's Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett. Except with Andrew Bynum limited, my guess is that it'll be Kendrick Perkins who is actually checking Gasol more than anyone.
Regardless of who defends who, Gasol is still the best big man in this series, and with Rondo less than 100 percent, I'd argue the second best player overall too. And yes, it pained me to say that.
Looking at the raw numbers shows just how dominant Gasol has been, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds a game in this postseason. But as nice as the stats are, it's his overall game that's impressed me the most. In the first few rounds, Gasol knew that Oklahoma City and Utah had no one to guard him, and he responded by playing like a conventional big man: Finishing hard around the basket, crashing the boards and getting physical on defense. With Phoenix opening things up a little, so did Gasol, who showed great passing and the ability to hit a mid-range jumper during the Western Conference Finals.
Remember too, that if the Celtics elect to play Hack-A-Pau like they did Dwight Howard against Orlando, he'll make them pay. He finished the regular season as a 79 percent free throw shooter, and is hitting 78 percent in these playoffs.
I guess if you're nitpicking Gasol's game it'd be easy to say that he wasn't the same player in the last three games of the Phoenix series, when he only averaged 15 points and seven rebounds a game. Then again, he was also exerting much more defensively after the lightbulb went off over Amare Stoudemire's head in Game 3, and he started attacking the basket rather than settling for jump shots. Personally, if I were a Lakers fan I wouldn't be all that worried.
As for Garnett, he definitely came back down to Earth against Orlando, after playing out of his mind against Cleveland. Still though, he's good every game for 10 points, seven rebounds, tough defense, a few perimeter jumpers to stretch the defense, and of course a handful of angry, grinning, jaw-jutting scowls. My guess is that if Doc Rivers can get that from a guy who has become the Celtics fourth option on offense, he'll take it.
But as much as it pains me to say it, the advantage here goes to Gasol.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Center- Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum:
I've got to believe that simply because of style of play, we'll see more of Bynum than we did against Phoenix. How much he'll play and how effective he'll be is another question. I'm pretty sure not even he really knows the answer to that.
Perkins on the other hand will most definitely be a factor, setting screens, rebounding, defending Gasol at points, all the while continuing his streak of being the scariest looking guy in the NBA. Honestly, every time I see him get mad, it reminds me of an angry bouncer at last call, getting ready to toss one last drunk idiot to the curb for the night.
Going into this series though, here is the tiny little caveat that no one is talking about: Remember that technical foul Perkins got against Orlando that was supposed to leave him suspended for Game 6? Remember how it got overturned and he was allowed to play? Now remember, that he still has six technicals, and will again be suspended if he gets another one. Is he really going to make it through this whole series without getting a "T?" What if it happens at the wrong time? Would Big Baby Davis be able to handle Gasol or Bynum for four quarters? Worse off, what if Perkins doesn't get a technical? Is the toughness and aggressiveness that he's played with all series going to take a back seat just so he can stay on the court? Is missing Kendrick Perkins for one game better than having him play passive for five, six or seven?
We'll get into all this a little more later, just know that it'll be the dark cloud hanging over Boston this whole series.
Funny side story: Way back on Easter Sunday, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the Cavaliers-Celtics game at the TD BankNorth Garden. I was even luckier to sneak just a few rows behind the bench and not get kicked out. I was literally 10 feet off the court.
Anyway, as the game went on, being so close, I started noticing a lot of little things. One that stood out, was that every time the game went to a timeout, while all the Celtics gathered around the huddle, there was little Nate Robinson. He was always a solid 10-15 feet behind the huddle, playing to the crowd, dancing to the music, and just having a good old time. He didn't have a care in the world and was literally the textbook definition of "The guy who was just happy to be there." If you'd offered me 1000-1 odds that day that he'd have any impact on any Celtics game I wouldn't have touched that bet. Seriously. And I have a gambling problem.
Yet on Friday night there was little Nate Rob slashing and dashing, kicking and driving, going right at Dwight Howard in Game 6. I never thought in a million years I'd say this, but that same guy from Easter Sunday, the guy who seemed more interested in dancing to Lady Gaga than anything Doc Rivers had to say, that guy was the difference in the clinching game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Some world we live in huh?
As for the rest of the Celtics bench, you know what you're going to get from them: Physicality from Glen Davis, instant offense from Rasheed Wallace, good perimeter defense from Tony Allen, and the ugliest set of dreads in the NBA from Marquis Daniels.
The Lakers? Well that Lamar Odom guy sure is good. But what about everyone else? Jordan Farmar comes and goes faster than fall fashion trends. Shannon Brown needs to have his face on a milk carton he's disappeared so much in these playoffs. And Sasha Vujacic, well my guess is that he's all smiles after getting the upper hand on Goran Dragic, in what has become the NBA's most unintentionally funny rivalry (And just for the record, I'm on Team Goran in this one). What're you gonna get out of him?
Give me the Celtics bench all day, every day.
Coaching-Doc Rivers vs. Phil Jackson:
Doc, if you're reading this (And I'm most certainly positive you're not), don't take this the wrong way. I like you. But Phil is working on ring No. 11 right now, meaning that if the Lakers win this series, he literally won't have a finger to put it on.
I'll take him. Thanks.
Advantage: Los Angeles
A Few Closing Thoughts:
If I were a Boston fan I'd be worried about three things coming into this series:
1. Kobe Bryant: I really hope that somehow the Celtics never got a chance to watch Kobe's Game 6 against Phoenix. Because if they did, they should be terrified.
Now I was pretty young to fully appreciate Michael Jordan's prime, but I've never, ever seen a player make more, tougher shots than Bryant did in that last Phoenix game. Sure I've seen Shaq and LeBron be more physically dominating, but not with the degree of difficulty Kobe brought Saturday night.
My point is that if there was ever a time where one player could singlehandedly swing a series, it seems like this might be it.
2. The Impending Perkins Suspension: We already touched on this earlier, so I won't get too deep into it here. I just find it hard to believe that the guy can make it through seven games without throwing some tantrum that gets him T'ed up. Doc Rivers even told reporters Tuesday that he's "bracing for the worst."
3. What No One Is Talking About Is This: All playoffs long, the home court in these series have played out 2-2-1-1-1, meaning that the higher seeded team played Game's 1 and 2 at home, followed by Game's 5 and 7 there too. Well in the Finals that shifts to a 2-3-2 format, meaning that the Celtics will have to start and end with two games in Los Angeles.
Why does this matter? Well against Cleveland and Orlando, the Celtics stole two games on the road early in each series, and were able to close things out in Boston in Game 6. In this series, Game 6 is at Staples Center, meaning that even if they can steal one of the first two games in L.A., they'd need to win three straight in Boston, or face having to come back to Los Angeles to finish things out. And to try and put it nicely, the Lakers just don't lose that often at home. Again, just saying.
Every shot is contested. No one gets an easy dunk. Big Baby Davis, Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins each have six fouls, and damn well intend on using every one of them. And you know what? Eventually it wore down Cleveland. And against Orlando, it took the Magic three full games to adjust to the physicality that the Celtics brought. I watched all those games (and I'm sure you did too), and believe me when I say, Orlando spent more time whining to the referees in Game's 1-3 of the Eastern Conference Finals than worrying about themselves. Love them or hate them, the Celtics get in your head.
Now with that said, I do believe that the Lakers are way tougher than people give them credit for. But like Orlando, I don't know if they've seen a team quite like this. Sure Utah was physical, but not with the size and strength of Boston. And against Phoenix I seem to remember a lot more uncontested lay-ups and dunks than hard fouls.
Which is my last point: What happens the first time that Gasol gets hit hard, or Kobe drives in for a layup and gets mauled? What happens the first time KG throws an elbow, or Glen Davis sends Lamar Odom sprawling to the ground? Whether the Lakers realize it yet or not, it's going to take time to adjust. And by then it might be too late.
You add that in with the better starting five, deeper bench, and tougher road to get here, and to me, the Boston Celtics are your 2010 NBA Champions.
Final Verdict: Celtics in 6
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