Welcome to David Stern‘s version of Nirvana. These NBA Finals offer the two best teams in the league, the most possible star power and, for good measure, almost a half-century of history between them. The Lakers and the Celtics don’t need anything else to sell this series to the viewing public, but for all the drippy nostalgia and perfect-for-TV story lines, there is also the promise of fantastic basketball.
Best Lakers Matchup
Kobe vs. Ray Allen
Duh. This is the game within the game in the series. Not so much how Ray defends Kobe but how the Celtics defend Kobe and, more importantly, how Kobe responds to it. During their two regular-season games, the Celtics dared Kobe to be a jump shooter. He obliged, missed a lot, and the C’s won by double-digits both times. The Spurs tried the same thing in the Western Conference finals and Kobe dissected them.
Best Celtics Matchup
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce vs. Everybody
Garnett has owned Pau Gasol over the years, and after three straight series that included the ultra-athletic Josh Smith, the supremely-physical Cavaliers, and his evil twin Rasheed Wallace, Garnett finally gets a slight, earthbound opponent without defensive fangs.
Pierce, meanwhile will allegedly open up with Vladimir Radmanovic on him. One would think Lamar Odom would draw the assignment, but then that would leave Vlad on Kendrick Perkins. The matchups will change throughout the series, but it’s hard to see a clear Laker edge in any of them.
X-Factor Matchup No. 1
Since Andrew Bynum went down, the Lakers have been playing without a true center. They do have a lot of skilled big guys who shoot and pass well. That could play havoc with the Celtics’ defensive rotations, but they may also never get a rebound.
X-Factor Matchup No. 2
The Lakers faithful are strangely unmoved by the prospect of wily vet Derek Fisher trying to keep up with Rajon Rondo. The reason is that they handled Deron Williams and Tony Parker rather well, so why worry about a no-shot point guard who sometimes plays out of control? The reason, as we all know by now, is that while Parker settled for jump shots, Rondo (on his good days) will attack the paint relentlessly.
X-Factor Matchup No. 3
There’s no sense in beating around the bush. Phil Jackson has won nine championships. Doc Rivers had never made it out of the first round before this year and he also manages to send the entire region into spasms whenever he goes to the bench. Doc has kept his Sam Cassell fetish under control, but he will be under tremendous scrutiny.
The Lakers have Kobe and Phil. The Celtics have homecourt and two huge matchup problems in Pierce and Garnett. The easy pick is the Lakers. They are the chic choice of NBA scribes and stat-heads alike.
But the Celtics have been defying expectations all year long. Remember: They were not supposed to win 66 games during the regular season. They were not supposed to beat the Pistons. (For that matter they were also not supposed to get stressed playing the Hawks). Since the beginning of the playoffs, the Celtics veterans have felt that their best chance is right now. Not next year, not the year after.
This is it. Celtics in seven.