One by one the Celtics have sent the All-NBA team off on early vacations. The Green have struck a blow for the basketball purists with their balanced team play. At one end they stifle superstars with layers of defenders seemingly connected with invisible threads that keep them moving in unison; and yet still flow back to contest the seemingly open looks of the supporting cast. On offense they have used a combination of hammering favorable match-ups and Rondo’s dissections to create open looks. The Celtics’ brain trust of Doc and Thibodeau have shrewdly thwarted opponents’ strengths, leaving role players fighting to “overcome the pucker” as Sheed might say. The offense has been consistent in production while widely varying the contributors—always multiple but seldom the same night to night or series to series. This has been accomplished with a combination of Doc’s strategic selection of mismatches and his faith in his on-court quarterback to blend his drive-and-kick with exploiting those match-ups and feeding the hot hand. The results have been a relentless march through the Eastern Conference powers—a drive seemingly easier than in 2008 in spite of much stiffer competition.
It is only fitting that the final (or should that be Final) hurdle is the Lakers. This is destiny—these two franchises have met in far more NBA Finals than any other pairings, and have brought out the best in each other. If not preordained, it is right, it is good, it is as it should be.
This opponent will not be the Aces and Spaces that allowed Doc to adroitly position his pieces to pick apart the cannon fodder of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Led by two All-Stars at the top of their game, Kobe and Gasol, the Lakers’ “supporting cast” is far from journeymen. Bynum is the young big with size, agility, and skills for which every team lusts. If L.A. was done in by the 2008 MVP of the Finals, then no better counterstroke could have been acquired than Artest who has always given Pierce fits. If you are going to pick a weak link then you are left with Derek Fisher. The Derek Fisher that personifies the wise veteran experience so touted by Doc. The Derek Fisher who has hit numerous killer three’s. The Derek Fisher who sent the Spurs home in 2004 with a game-winner off the inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds to play—you just can’t get a jump shot off in four tenths of a second, and yet I watched again and again and the clock started on time and the ball was out of his hand when the red light came on, just incredible. And that’s your weak link?
The best prize fights usually feature boxers with contrasting styles. These Finals’ opponents have advantages at different positions. While you can make a fair case that most of the match-ups are close to even, there are two that stand out as out of balance. Rondo is faster than anyone on the Lakers’ roster. No amount of wisdom will let Fisher match up well with Rajon. He has a clear advantage in speed, rebounding, steals, creating shots for teammates, ball handling, and, well just about everything but outside shooting. On the other side Kobe is arguably the best in the game today (LeBron I think you are still second, a close second, but second). Watching the last few games of the Suns series I was struck at how Bryant repeatedly rose above a strongly contesting defense and hit impossible shots—except when you hit 8 or 10 in a row can you still call them improbable? Ray Allen is a great shooter but he seems to fare better with a screen or two or at least a Rondo penetration to create a little bit of space. Kobe eschews the help of a screen, goes one on two or three, and just uses his leaping ability to rise above the defense, square up, and knock down the jumper. When it’s against your beloved Green it is like daggers in the side, or bamboo slivers under the nails, or Redd Foxx’s “the big one,” but you have to give the man props, Kobe is a singular talent.
In the third game of the 2008 Finals the Lakers finally found an answer to Rondo by putting Kobe on him. Bryant could lay off Rajon and with the space and Kobe’s length he was able to somewhat contain Rondo’s drives. Since Rajon was loath to shoot anything but lay-ups this proved to be an effective counter. I suspect this countermove will be in effect much earlier, sometime in the first game if not from the outset. Then again the 2010 Rondo is an improved shooter, a shrewder and more creative floor general, and much better at using picks to initiate his defense-collapsing forays into the lane. Regardless of how L.A. plays it, Kobe is looking at some long nights of fighting through picks (chasing Rondo or Allen) and eventually this has to sap his energy available for the offensive end.
To contain Kobe the Celtics will use some of the same containment tactics that proved effective in limiting Wade and James. The problem is that Bryant’s sidekicks are a much more potent group. Gasol is an All-Star in his own right with smooth moves around the basket and a deadly jumper ranging out beyond the free-throw line. Bynum loves to hammer home the slams opened up by Kobe’s assaults. Fisher’s best offense is from the three-point line and Artest just couldn’t seem to miss from the corner three in the last Suns’ game. I don’t think these guys will fade in the heat like Lewis and Carter did for Orlando, Jamison and Williams did for Cleveland, and Beasley and Chalmers did for Miami. Besides if Kobe is as hot as he was in Phoenix, being covered won’t matter—and the Celtics better hope their offensive efficiency is up to the task of outscoring the Lakers. As Tommy is fond of saying, you don’t have to stop the other team all the time, you just have to score one more point than they do.
It seems unlikely that either team will smother the other in this Finals’ match-up. The depth and quality across the lineups suggest that there will be few mismatches to exploit with strategic chess moves. In this barroom brawl the staying power and resolve will likely be deciding factors. Let’s just hope the zebras and medics don’t become deciding factors because this should become one of those titanic struggles that add luster to the long history of tumultuous clashes between these two storied franchises. [Discuss on CG Forums!]