The Lakers and Celtics are set to tip off this Thursday for the 12th time in NBA Finals history. Boston owns the edge in the series with a 9-2 record and the Celtics fully expect to extend that mark by one more at the conclusion of the title round. But Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers are the defending champs and will be heading into this rematch of the 2008 Finals with a little redemption in the back of their minds.
Maybe the telling sign of an excellent matchup is the varied opinions on whom the winner will be. The AFRO sports desk has been at it all week over who will close the 2009-2010 season as NBA champions. Stephen D. Riley says Boston. Perry Green says Los Angeles. The AFRO says read their debate and decide for yourselves.
Riley: Celtics will win in six games. Boston’s defense has been unbelievable so far this postseason. They’ve dealt with big time scorers LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and contained superstar big men such as Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. They’ll formulate a game plan to contain another terrifying wing scorer in Kobe and limit Pau Gasol, just like they did in 2008. Boston’s rotation is 10 deep and it’s full of defensive-minded guys with things to prove. The Celtics have the size and toughness to make things problematic for the adroit Lakers.
Green: The Celtics may have the tools to beat the finesse of the Lakers but this isn’t 2008 and L.A. isn’t exactly a pushover anymore. Boston may have contained Shaq and Howard but neither of those “supermen” can score the rock as well as Gasol can. There isn’t a better scoring big man in the league than Gasol, who will be able to play his natural power forward position unlike 2008, when he was forced to play center due to an injured Andrew Bynum. With Bynum on the court, L.A. has two 7-footers to match up with the Celtics’ size. Not to mention 6-foot-11 star Lamar Odom will offer support off the bench while Ron Artest, the best perimeter defender in the NBA, will make the Lakers a very tough team to beat. Lakers win the series in seven games.
Riley: The thing that makes Los Angeles so tough is their twin towers in the middle, Bynum and Gasol. But Bynum, just like in 2008, is hobbled with a knee injury. His minutes have decreased in each round of the playoffs from 29.7 in round one, 24.8 in round two to a paltry 18.2 in the Western finals. A gimpy knee against a physical Boston team spells trouble for Bynum and the rest of the Lakers. Kevin Garnett has the offensive game to attack Gasol in the post and get him in foul trouble. If that happens, then the Lakers’ strength suddenly becomes a weakness. And if Odom has to defend Garnett and/or Rasheed Wallace in the post on a regular basis, it could become a long series for L.A—2008 all over again.
Green: But there’s a difference between not playing at all and playing banged up. Bynum was completely absent from the 2008 Finals but trust and believe he will play this time around. And with an opportunity to help L.A. exact retribution for the ’08 defeat, Bynum may have enough motivation to mentally overcome his banged up knee and get the job done. Let’s not forget Paul Pierce was the hero of the series in ’08 but this time he’ll be guarded by either the very physical Artest or Bryant. Both are as good as it gets at defending swing forwards, which gives L.A. an advantage.
Riley: There’s also a difference between playing major minutes and being a liability. You would be wishing upon a star to expect Bynum to contribute anything significant in this series. Yes, his presence will help to provide a big body but he won’t be out there in the stretch of the game and he won’t be out there in the closing minutes of the game. Artest or Kobe checking Pierce could limit Boston’s main scorer, but this is Rajon Rondo’s team now and the Lakers don’t have a point guard on the roster that can contain him. Bryant checked Rondo exclusively in ’08 but he won’t have that luxury again. Boston goes as Rondo goes and he flat out annihilated Jameer Nelson and Mo Williams (All-Star point guards in ’08) and he’ll do the same to Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar.
Green: I agree, Rondo is the real deal, and may be the best overall player left in the postseason besides Kobe. But that still shouldn’t worry the Lakers. Fact is, L.A. has eliminated the Suns, Thunder and Jazz, three teams with excellent point guards. Some would argue that Jazz guard Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league and Steve Nash is a two-time MVP. Fisher had to defend both of them just to get to this point and was embarrassed at times by their excellent skill. Yet, L.A. still survived, mainly because of one player: Kobe Bryant. The “Black Mamba” has been playing in a league of his own the entire playoffs, scoring at least 30 points in 10 of the last 11 games. The man simply cannot be stopped on his quest of stamping his legacy as perhaps the greatest player in Lakers’ history. Good luck on trying to halt him, Boston. You’ll need it.
Riley: Fisher was carved up repeatedly in the first three rounds, but the Lakers survived because of mitigating circumstances: The Thunders’ lack of experience, the Jazz’s lack of healthy bodies and the Suns’ lack of defense. Boston will come equipped with all three elements plus a point guard who can attack. Plain and simple, the Celtics are built to beat the Lakers; an attacking point guard, a slew of tall defense-minded big men who can shoot and draw Gasol and Bynum away from the rim and a pair of scorers in Pierce and Ray Allen who can make Bryant work throughout the course of the series. Kobe’s been playing out of his mind so far this postseason, but he hasn’t had to work defensively. All three of Boston’s primary scorers could make life miserable for Bryant. Allen will run him off screens and Pierce will make him work while Rondo will attack with his speed.
Green: But Kobe doesn’t mind working. He had to work defensively against the great scoring of Kevin Durant and also had to work to stop excellent scorers like the Suns’ Jason Richardson and Grant Hill. Like Boston, the Suns also played tremendous defense down the stretch of the postseason, a prime example being their dominance against the Spurs during the Western Conference semifinals. But L.A. still prevailed. Point is, this series will be tightly competed and both teams have a great shot at winning it all. But my money is on the defending champs.