Tuesday, June 1, 2010

NBA Finals preview

By Rick Morris

For the second time in three years, David Stern gets what David Stern wants as one of the most storied rivalries in sports returns to center stage in the NBA Finals. Here’s a look at some of the key aspects of this matchup.

^ In any series that features a rematch from the Finals of two years ago, the most obvious starting point for analysis concerns the set of marked changes from that point. For LA, the addition of Ron Artest looms large, as does Andrew Bynum’s upgrade from 2008 injured/inactive to 2010 active/gimpy. On the other hand, Derek Fisher, never confused with Tiny Archibald even back in his “heyday,” is two years older and much less able to keep up with Boston’s new lead weapon Rajon Rondo. The Celts’ former “Big Three” has seen erosion in the last two years, although they have turned back the hands of time somewhat in these playoffs and Rondo clearly is not the same player he was two years ago.

^ While the biggest media angle surrounding the analysis of coaching in this series concerns Phil Jackson’s quest for his 11th crown, the biggest X-factor is Celts’ assistant Tom Thibodeau, who helped shut down the Cavs’ attack in the Eastern semifinals just as he did to the Lakers two years ago in the Finals. He is arguably the game’s best assistant coach at the moment. However, he is also one part of a potential off-the-court circus that could envelop these games. He is almost certain to move into a head coaching position after the postseason concludes and now the teams seeking his services will have to wait almost up to the NBA Draft to have him potentially in place. With David Stern’s selective enforcement of the league’s tampering rules right now, it sets the stage for TT’s name to be wildly floated during these games. Speaking of contracts, Jerry Buss is making noises about instituting the biggest penny-wise, pound-foolish move since the Dolan family burned the Tribe to the ground: forcing Jackson to swallow a huge salary deduction. Buss is about to find out the hard way that when you’re dealing with the ego of Big Chief Triangle, you CAN put a price on coaching a super-talented roster, living in a dream climate year-round and canoodling with the boss’s cougar daughter. So the potential for excellent coaching on both sides could be undercut by contract drama regarding the 2010-11 season.

^ Thibodeau’s penchant for imparting defensive shutdown play is going to be a new element for LA to deal with in these playoffs, just as it would have been had Mike Brown’s Cavs been waiting for them in the Finals. However, in Ron Artest, the Celts will be facing a better defensive stopper than they are generally used to seeing.

^ Here’s a relevant note from ESPN’s early coverage of the Finals: “The visiting team won both regular-season meetings, which would bode well for the Celtics. In fact, Boston is the first NBA finalist with a better record on the road (26-15) than at home (24-17) in the regular season, and is 6-3 away from home this postseason.” Additionally, both games were decided by only one point. Kobe Bryant was not around for the second game, however, which is noteworthy in terms of how close the Lakers came in that game without him.

^ While Boston’s primary challenge will be keeping Kobe in check (or some reasonable facimile thereof), they must also figure out how to deal with matchup nightmare Pao Gasol. TT will have to work overtime on that matter. With rare exceptions, these weapons are the primary scoring threats for the Lakers – although Lamar Odom remains the biggest wild card in the league, capable of playing at an All-Star level when the spirit moves him. For Boston, a temporarily rejuvenated former “Big Three” is joined by Rondo in terms of diversified scoring options. Rasheed Wallace essentially serves as Boston’s version of Rondo, a real difference-maker when he is so inclined. LA is certainly more top-heavy with Kobe, but Boston has more pieces capable of putting up the points on a given night.

^ Strikingly, in the aforementioned matchup of both teams most recently at the top of the mountain, motivation is not in short supply for either squad. Boston is aggrieved about having been written off due to the aging nature of their core and their squalid play down the stretch of the last two seasons. LA feels a massive historic burden relating to Boston, with the repeated devastations of the 1960s never too far from the surface where the Celtics are concerned. None of the four titles won by Phil and Kobe have come over Boston and they lost in their only shot at them two years ago. Memories of the final humiliation in Boston are particularly egregious.

So how does this series take shape? The Celtics will be hard-pressed to come out of the gate strong with a longer wait for the Finals to start and a nucleus significantly more dependant on remaining hot than the Lakers, who based on the respective recent track records have less to prove in terms of being “for real” at this point. Based on their stellar road record, however, Boston is unlikely to be swept in the first two at Staples, setting the stage for a long series. In the end, however, the Lakers are likely to have more left in the tank, especially given the toll that Boston’s defensive style demands from a rapidly aging nucleus. In a series with a chance to be epic, LA comes out ahead in the end. Lakers in 6.

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