They meet for the twelfth time in the NBA Finals. It certainly didn't seem likely at the end of the regular season when both teams limped to the finish line. The Celtics won just three of their final 10 games and finished in fourth place in the East and the Lakers lost six of their last 10 games and went from competing for the best record in the NBA to finishing with the third best record. But the two have shown they are the best teams. What has been lost in all of this is that the Celtics might have done the Lakers the biggest favor of the postseason (Well, maybe Jason Richardson did when he forgot to box out Ron Artest). The Lakers faltered down the stretch and not couldn't catch the Cavs for the best record in the league but fell behind the Magic as well. But the Celtics beat both teams to ensure the Lakers would get home court advantage in the Finals. How important might that be? The Lakers are a perfect 8-0 at home in these playoffs and as long as they protect home court they will repeat as champions.
There's also another break that went the Lakers way. Kendrick Perkins picked up two technical fouls in Game 5 against the Magic but one was rescinded. That kept his total in the playoffs at six technical fouls and it means his next one will garner an automatic suspension. Perkins was one of the big reasons the Celtics were able to beat the Lakers in 2008 because of his strong defense on Pau Gasol. Heck, Doc Rivers is already pretty much conceding Perkins will pick up that seventh technical, "Unfortunately, I hope [he] doesn't, but you know it's going to happen.
Many NBA fans are groaning over the fact that it's the Lakers and Celtics again. Sure, they will watch and these Finals will get huge ratings but fans aren't happy about it. These are the Yankees, the Patriots and the Red Wings of the NBA. But is there anyone more hated in this matchup than Sasha Vujacic? Kevin Garnett has received some negative press over the past couple years but Vujacic is still the player fans most love to hate. Now Phil Jackson has created an incentive that could cause fans to despise the Slovenian even more. Shelley Smith of ESPN reports that Phil Jackson is offering $50 to the players for each charge they take. It's mainly meant as a challenge to his big men but Vujacic seems on board, "Their whole team is kind of a charging possibility taking team. ... They are a very smart team that can go from block to a charge, so we've been working a lot on charges and how to take them and stuff, so we'll see." So Vujacic is going to add the flop to his arsenal of annoying things he does?
The last thing I'll say before I get into the keys to the game is there is a lot of analysis on the two regular season games between these two teams and what it means for these Finals. Those two games mean very little. I'll still reference the two briefly below but keep in mind both these teams are playing much better than they did in the regular season. Both games were one point victories with Kobe Bryant making a ridiculous shot over Ray Allen (following a questionable offensive foul on Paul Pierce) and another where Bryant didn't even play. There are a few individual matchups that remain the same but don't put much stock in either of those games.
KEYS TO THE SERIES
Artest vs. Pierce
Ron Artest has really stepped up his defense in the postseason. First he stifled this year's scoring leader, Kevin Durant and recently he held Jason Richardson to six points below what he was averaging in these playoffs. Neither of those players are ideal for Artest to be guarding but Paul Pierce is that ideal player. Artest's physical play hurt Pierce during the regular season as Pierce was held to 26 points on 8 of 20 shooting in his two games against LA. But even if Artest shuts down Pierce it's no sure thing the Lakers will win. LeBron James held Pierce well below his averages and the Celtics still managed to win that series.
Containing Rajon Rondo
Ever since the 2008 NBA Finals, Bryant has taken on the responsibility of guarding Rondo. Bryant has dared him to take the mid-range jumper while attempting to stop him from driving to the rim. This is the same strategy Kobe used against Russell Westbrook in the first round of the playoffs and it's one of the big things that propelled the Lakers to victory. But Rondo is a few years older and more mature than Westbrook and is starting to hit those mid-range shots. Can the Lakers effectively bottle up Rondo and force others to beat them?
Can the Celtics Run?
A big part of how productive Rondo can be is how much the Celtics can run. The Lakers defense has played much better in the postseason but they have been beaten with fastbreak points. Although, they've shown that they have the ability to shut it down (they did it against the Thunder and the Suns when it mattered most). The Celtics weren't able to run much on the Lakers in the regular season and haven't done it in the postseason either. The Celtics aren't built to run - but Rondo is. If he's able to get out on the break and either get an easy shot around the rim or kick it out to Ray Allen it could be quite deadly. This would be ideal for Ray Allen who wouldn't have to work for his shot on the offensive end when he already has his hands full with Bryant on the defensive end.
What Will Ray Allen Have Left in the Tank?
Allen had an awful regular season. He shot his lowest percentage from three-point range in over 10 years. It seemed like the 34 year old was finally done. But his numbers are up across the board in the playoffs and he's hitting 42% from distance. But will Allen still have his legs to put up those threes after chasing Bryant around on the offensive end? His minutes will surely be monitored and Tony Allen will take on the challenge of guarding Bryant to give Ray Allen a rest. The Lakers defense will be looking to collapse on Rondo and that could free up Ray. The Lakers should always have a body on the sharp shooter but there will be times that he'll get good looks.
How Effective Will Fisher and Artest Be on the Offensive End?
This could be what determines the series. The Celtics and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau will most likely plan to double Bryant and Gasol and force others to beat them. It's really the only thing that has slowed down the Lakers offense in the playoffs. But Fisher and Artest have both shown they can produce. Although, not consistently. Artest has to be able to knock down a few open three-pointers but pass on any contested shots. Fisher has been phenomenal recently and has hit the clutch shots like he always does in the playoffs. There's a really good chance this will be his last season starting for the Lakers. Can he add to his legacy?
How Much Can Bynum Contribute?
Lakers fans are still wondering how the Finals against the Celtics would've turned out if Bynum had been healthy two years ago. Well, they might be wondering the same thing after this series as well. Bynum has a torn meniscus and will need surgery after the Finals. He had his knee drained and has been limited in practice. In the regular season Bynum was too big for Kendrick Perkins. Bynum has probably three inches and 10 lbs on Perkins and used it to be a big contributor in the regular season. He had 33 points and 20 rebounds in their two contests but probably won't be able to have that type of impact now. What will he be able to contribute? The answer to that question could go a long way in determining the winner.
My predictions haven't meant much this postseason but why stop now? Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are both looking for revenge after the 2008 loss. Gasol and Bryant will both put up big numbers and the rest of the Lakers will do just enough to win this series. Lakers in six.