With the Conference Finals over with, the NBA Finals have come down to two franchises who are no strangers to each other. The Boston Celtics and the defending champs, the LA Lakers, will once again battle for supremacy. The Celtics are coming off a very impressive series win over the Orlando Magic, who were on fire throughout the playoffs until they ran into the Boston buzzsaw, falling to the Celtics in six games (a series that could have been even shorter if the Celtics hadn’t taken their foot of gas pedal for a game or two). The Lakers are also coming off a six game series, but were given a much harder battle from a very scrappy Phoenix Suns (who if not for a last second tip in by Ron Artest in Game 5, just might have been in the Lakers spot right now).
One could argue this Finals matchup features the league’s most talented team squaring off against the league’s hottest team. The Lakers, considered by many to have a chance at two or three straight titles after last season, seemed to lack that edge a certain parts of the year. They also did not appear as deep or as cohesive this season with the lost of small forward Trevor Ariza and big man Andrew Bynum struggling with injuries. Still, to give credit where it is due, the Lakers did find a way to get back to the Finals. The question for them is if they can tangle with the hottest team in the NBA.
Yes, the Celtics are on fire right now. A team that at one point in the season appeared old and washed up – a team desperately looking for the fountain of youth appeared to have found an extra gear in this year’s playoffs. Their defense has been top notch in the postseason. And while the Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are playing more like the Big 3 of two seasons ago, it is the emergence of Rajon Rondo as one of the NBA’s young stud point guards that is really lifting this team right now.
And that’s what it might come down to in the final series of the season. The Lakers did what they had to do to get to this point, and no one can take that away from them. At the same time, they did have some advantages throughout the playoffs. They were fortunate to get by a young but very game Oklahoma City Thunder squad who lost more because of inexperience rather than lack of talent. The Lake Show then blew past a Utah Jazz squad that they usually dominate and were also battling injuries. They then went on to defeat the Suns, but not without showing some chinks in their armour, most notably being befuddled by the Suns’ zone defense.
And that’s what separates the Celtics from the Lakers’ past opponents. Their D is in a whole different league. They also feature a more physically imposing frontcourt than that of the Jazz and Suns – which will no doubt negate the advantage that Bynum and Pau Gasol have enjoyed for much of these playoffs. Bynum, while having his injured knee drained after the Suns series, is still hobbled and unlikely to play heavy minutes during the Finals – leaving Gasol to deal with Garnett and Celtics’ center Kendrick Perkins.
For the Lakers to have a true shot in this series, it will be up to the man considered the best closer in the game. Kobe will have to be on top of his game each and every night, and will have to erase the memory of the great defensive job Pierce did on him two years prior, when the C’s captured the title. And if there was any player to ever count on to get the job done, it would be Kobe. And it’s very likely that he will put up a couple 40 point gems in what looks to be a long series. But one factor to note going into these Finals. The Celtics have proven they are capable of at least slowing Kobe down in a playoff series . The Lakers have yet to show that they can slow down a speedy and talented guard like Rondo. And that may be the deciding factor.
Celtics in Six.