By now you’ve read and heard every possible breakdown of the Celtics, the Lakers, the matchups, the coaches, the benches, the trainers … hell there was probably an ESPN the Ocho feature on the water boys, given the hype of this NBA Finals.
Among the facts, figures, Xs, Os and historical nuggets …
The Celtics return the same starting five that undressed the Lakers two years ago. Kevin Garnett isn’t the same player he was around this time in ’08 (more on that to come); Ray Allen is still Jesus Shuttlesworth; Paul Pierce is still capable of being the best player in the world on any night; Kendrick Perkins can shut down any big man in the league one-on-one; Rajon Rondo — the weak link of the ’08 squad that got benched midway through the Finals — is currently the best point guard in the NBA.
The Lakers return a new, better and stronger starting five than they did in Round I vs. the Celtics. Kobe remains in his prime; Derek Fisher can always knock down daggers; Pau Gasol is tougher, more mature and more fluid in the triangle offense; Andrew Bynum, though hobbled, is at least playing this time; Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza are a wash in production but Artest has a history of defending Pierce that makes him more valuable than Ariza was.
As opposed to ’08, the Lakers have home-court advantage and are 8-0 at Staples Center in these playoffs and 28-3 over the last three postseasons. They played the Celtics twice in that 31-game stretch and went 1-1.
The Celtics are 5-3 on the road this postseason, winning twice apiece in Cleveland and Orlando (who were a combined 76-13 at home this year).
As was the case in ’08, the Lakers (15 titles) are trying to get within striking distance of the Celtics (17) while the Green want to bury them while the closing window of the Big Three remains open.
There are more individual legacies on the line than any Finals since the Magic-Bird days.
The Celtics, who are the third-lowest seed (No. 4) to make it to the Finals since the league went to a 16-team format in 1984, arrive having disposed of the teams with the two best records in the league.
Kobe didn’t trust his teammates enough in ’08, but they gained championship experience last year and are a far tougher and more physical team as presently constructed. Which leads to …
X-Factor No. 1 – The Physical Factor
There is no doubt Gasol is a bigger and more physical presence than he was, not to mention a better overall player. Bynum’s size is an asset and Artest brings that bit of nasty and other bit crazy that the team lacked in ’08. Surrounding Kobe — no one has ever disputed his singular toughness and tenacity — is indeed a wholly different cast for The Rematch. But …
The Lakers are still a Western Conference team and for the better part of a decade the West has featured an up-and-down, run-and-gun style of basketball. Ever since the redux of the Bad Boy Pistons smacked the Lakers in the mouth in 2004 and unseated the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, the give-me-your-lunch-money teams (Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Orlando, Boston) have all resided in the East. It’s no coincidence that until last year, the Spurs were the only outfit to prevail out of the West since LA.
When you look at the teams the Lakers have gone through to get here, backyard brawls aren’t what come to mind when characterizing the series’. The Thunder were a young upstart, full of energy and buoyed by a rambunctious home crowd. Hardened they were not. The Jazz were decimated by injuries and, fully aware of the Laker punching bag they had been in recent past, rather willingly said uncle so they could start their summer vacations. The Suns — who have been known to be as rough as flannel sheets — dug down and banged admirably with a drastically undersized group. Who knows what happens if Artest doesn’t put back Kobe’s airball at the buzzer in Game 5?
So give the Lakers their due. They have grown and toughened since that ignominious defeat on the fabled parquet. But is that enough?
While the Lakers were busy taking care of the likes of Oklahoma City and Phoenix out west, the Celtics were taking the best shot each of the two biggest menaces in the game today had to throw at them. In succession. Pierce barely made it through the six-game bout with Lebron while Dwight Howard literally turned the Eastern Conference finals into an MMA event on hardwood.
To expect Los Angeles to match the physical intensity of a team that got knocked down by the two biggest bullies in the school yard only to rise up like nothing had ever happened, well that’s something we’ll all need to see to believe. That’s something that will take a more deep-seated will to win, a more lasting and insatiable hunger.
X-Factor No. 2 – The Hunger Factor
It’s impossible to argue against Kobe’s drive to win another ring, to match Magic with five and be within one of joining Michael Jordan with six. It’s no secret the Black Mamba wants to go down as the greatest of all time.
Yet he stubbornly underplays the tradition he’s a part of, the history he’s trying to make. Call it focusing on the goal at hand if you want, but that reeks of rationalization. The weight of that Lakers jersey got noticeably heavier after ’08, and it was a kind of force that couldn’t be lifted last year, when the Celtics were too hobbled to make it back to the ball.
Kobe is surrounded by legends — from Magic to Kareem to Worthy to Cooper — who all have something in common: they beat their hated rivals. For Kobe to barely acknowledge the history and rivalry between the two teams has got to be telling. Even if he surpasses Magic and meets MJ with six rings, his legacy will include a giant asterisk if he ends up losing twice to Boston. Magic knows this. Laker fans know it. And most importantly, Kobe knows it.
Then you have the Celtics, and the Big Three. Pierce was asked after the Cleveland series how it felt to best Lebron. His response in a nutshell: “We didn’t come to training camp this year saying ‘let’s beat the Cleveland Cavaliers’. Our goal is to win championships.”
You can be certain Pierce too feels the weight and burden of history. He may have gotten his one, but he knows very well that all the great Celtic teams and players before him won multiple championships. The expectation to excel above and beyond greatness is merely a byproduct of the town he’s called home for his professional life. Daunting as it may be, it’s something he embraces.
Same goes for Ray Allen, who is 1A next to Kobe in terms of dedication to the craft and care for his body. How hungry is he to head up a few more floors (wink wink) in the Celtics Pantheon? He talked about running into Jordan after the Celtics won in ’08. MJ told him they were lucky, that anyone could win one. He challenged him to win another and then come see him.
Then there’s Garnett. The man who was discounted after so many thousands of ferocious NBA minutes and a knee injury combined to give him a dose of reality. The truth is, if he hadn’t had Bill Russell — in addition to Doc Rivers — in his corner, he probably wouldn’t have been able to turn back the clock like he did vs. Miami and Cleveland.
Garnett reveres Russell, would probably jump off the Tobin Bridge if Russell told him he would respect him more for it. The two have formed an immensely close bond over the last few years, with the pupil gaining a wealth of knowledge from the exemplar.
Time was, an aging and underperforming Celtics contingent rallied for one last hurrah under the tutelage of a player-coach who already boasted a ring for all ten of his fingers. It was 31 years ago the Russell-led 1968-69 Celtics drove the most painful stake yet through the hearts of the then Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers, beating Los Angeles in Game 7 at The Forum.
Kobe may want this one like he’s never wanted anything before, but this is KG’s last hurrah.
Celtics-Lakers XII. Here we go again. Again.
Celtics in seven.