No, this is not the 2008 Finals again. It’s completely different. The Celtics have a very different looking bench and an All-Defensive point guard. The Lakers are better and are the reigning champions. But I’m still tipping history to repeat itself and the Celtics to walk home with championship #18. Here’s why.
It’s a boring a stubborn phrase, but it’s true. “Defense wins championships”. Boring because I use it all the time. Stubborn because you so desperately want to argue against it, but you know it’s true. It is an indisputable fact that the Boston Celtics are the best defensive team in the NBA when they’re playing well. The best because individually they have a bunch of supremely talented defenders: Rondo is a defensive pest, Paul Pierce is a tough wing defender, Tony Allen brings defensive energy off the bench, Perkins is a very underrated interior defender, as is Sheed, and KG still anchors the whole thing. Beyond their individual talents, they understand better than any team how to work together on the defensive end. The Celtics play what I call “unselfish” defense because they don’t care who stops the opposition player – they will give up positioning or a first-step to an opponent if they know they’re headed towards other defenders. They don’t care who gets the stops – as long as someone does. It was that kind of defense that won the Detroit Pistons a championship in 2004. Contrary to popular belief, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were never elite defenders – they were just extremely good at funneling players towards Wallace & Wallace, who were in turn good at making players think twice about driving to the hoop. You end up with a defensive system where everyone looks great because of execution, spacing and common understanding.
The Lakers are a great defensive team too, when they want to be. But I don’t think they’re naturally defensive. It’s not their go-to game. That much was evident by their ability to run-and-gun with the Suns with absolute ease – something few teams can do while remaining in control of their offense. The Lakers would rather go in that direction than the other – to a slow, grinding game where everyone is ultra-accountable defensively. What is going to shock the Lakers even more is the fact they’ve faced nothing like this Boston team so far in the playoffs. The OKC series was an acid trip. The Suns were on speed. These Celtics are going to be a long, slow drag. Even the Jazz weren’t anywhere near their defensive best thanks to missing AK47 for a couple of games (and him not being 100% for the rest), as well as Okur. Simply put, the Celtics will be two, five, maybe ten times better defensively than anything the Lakers have handled thus far. The Lakers will adjust, but it puts a Game 1 upset firmly in the “very likely” basket for me.
Live by the Kobe, die by the Kobe. I’m pretty sure the Boston Celtics play Kobe Bryant better than any team I’ve watched over the last few years. I dunno, maybe I think that solely because of the 2008 Finals. What they do so well isn’t rocket science – it’s simply making Kobe shoot tough jumpers. They close off all his driving lanes, much like what Phoenix did in the last couple of games of the WCFs, and force him to the 18-25 feet area where Kobe has to shoot contested jump shots. We all know that worked for Kobe in Game 6 against Phoenix, but that kind of diet is not sustainable, not even for someone like Kobe. Proof of that is the 2008 Finals where Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and James Posey all defended Kobe very well from that 18-25 range for six straight games. These Celtics defenders never bite for Kobe’s shot fakes, so Kobe can always create space or fade away if he has to. In 2008 it didn’t work for him. The real question is, if Kobe gets the same looks this year, will he knock them down? You can’t doubt there’s a bit of extra pressure on Kobe shooting tough J’s against the Celtics than there is against the Suns, namely because Kobe knows he doesn’t really want to have to chance meeting KG and Perk at the rim. Those jump shots, even with a defender in your face, are like gold for Kobe in these Finals. And he knows it.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and sometimes not served at all. I read a quote from Pau Gasol a couple of days ago where he said he would be carrying the bitter memories of 2008 with him every second he was on the floor. No no no Pau, that is bad. If the Lakers are hitting the floor in these 2010 Finals with revenge on their mind, they will lose. They will lose because playing with that kind of mindset will take them off their natural game. The Lakers are not a naturally aggressive team, and if they come 0ut all macho trying to bully the Celtics, then Boston has already won the psychological battle. The Lakers need to focus on playing the same way that got them to a championship last year, and what has got them to this point. Playing extra tough or extra angry doesn’t suit this team. Having said that, if anyone is capable of channeling these vengeful feelings into a steely resolve it’s Zen Master Phil.
Rondo is like, really good now. This is bigger than the Artest addition, or the semi-healthy Bynum addition. Rajon Rondo might be the best point guard in the league right now for all we know. The Lakers struggle against quick guards, and I can see them doing to Rondo exactly what they did against Westbrook. That being stand 5-10 feet back and tease him into shooting perimeter jump shots. It was amusing watching Westbrook react (and not react) to that extra space, like watching a robot malfunction before your eyes. It’s a clever strategy for the Lakers because Rondo doesn’t always make the best decisions when the pressure is on – I’ve seen him make way too many strange moves, or do nothing at all, when the shot clock is winding down. The Lakers will probably try Kobe on Rondo at some point too, but what I’m most intrigued about is the possibility of the reverse: Rondo defending Kobe. We know the Celtics will mostly stick with single coverage on Kobe, and that they will try to force him to shoot tough jump shots. Defending him with Rondo fits that strategy nicely because Kobe will find it very difficult to get round him, and will no doubt settle for mid-range turnarounds. It could be a bad move if Kobe gets hot. It could be a genius move if Kobe forces the issue against a smaller Rondo and discombobulates the offense.
The Celtics are better at in-game adjustments. This is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. The Lakers lead by Phil, are extremely good at making in-series adjustments. But I think Doc Rivers and Co. are better at making in-game adjustments. Mind you, that certainly wasn’t the case during all of the regular season, but its been consistent throughout their recent playoff runs. What evidence do I have to support this? Not much really. Maybe Game 4 of the 2008 Finals, a game the Lakers lead by 20+ points, but that Boston slowly reeled back in over two-and-a-half quarters? Maybe the fact that LA always bounce back well from a loss, but often seem to blow big leads in playoff games? Maybe the fact that when their backs are against the wall, the Celtics fall back to playing great defense rather than trying to play sparkling offense?
You can never count the Lakers out of a game because of Kobe Bryant. He is the Great Leveler. He can make up for his fellow-starters playing shitty, or their bench not contributing. He can even make up for Phil Jackson making lousy decisions. Kobe is so freaking good that he can make everything else irrelevant on the court. Boston do not have that luxury. They need a three, four or five-man effort to generate momentum. It makes them less predicable, and more resilient. They have more reliable options, and they even have more reliable X-factors (if there’s such a thing) in Nate Robinson, Sheed, Big Baby and Tony Allen. I just know one of those guys is going to pop up to win a Finals game for the Celtics. Can you say the same for Jordan Farmer, Luke Walton, Vujacic or Shannon Brown? No, didn’t think so.
I’m tipping Boston in 6. I think their defense will completely disrupt the Lakers flow. I think Gasol will struggle against KG/Perkins and start getting very frustrated. As a result I think Kobe will force the issue a little too much and the Lakers chemistry will decline. Readers of this blog will know how much respect I have for Kobe and his game, but I still question his ability to trust his teammates in big games and big moments. He didn’t prove to me in last year’s Finals that he could do this comfortably. He was lucky in that sense. Even throughout these playoffs, the Lakers’ two biggest non-Kobe moments – Gasol’s tip-in against OKC in Game 5 and Artest’s put-back in Game 5 against Phoenix – both came from Kobe misses. He’s lucky in that sense.
If the Lakers are to beat Boston, two things need to happen: 1) Someone other than Kobe needs to step up, and 2) Kobe needs to let them. Throughout this postseason, and the last two, Kobe and the Lakers have proved both these things can happen.
I just haven’t seen them happen enough at the same time.