Andrew Bynum

The matchup that will determine the 2010 NBA Finals

While both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers bring back teams to the 2010 NBA Finals that are relatively intact compared to the squads that met two years ago, there are some modest differences. Some people have gone from feisty upstarts to content veterans, some have a chip on their shoulder that still exists from the 2008 matchup, even though they’ve won a title since then.

And that’s just the crowds at the Garden and the Staples Center, which is where you’ll find the most important battle in this series.

That’s right. Not Kobe Bryant vs. Ray Allen, or Derek Fisher vs. Rajon Rondo, Allen v. Fisher or even Bryant v. Rondo. Forget KG vs. Gasol, Bynum/Perkins or even Bill Simmons against Ron Artest (although I’d pay to see that). If the Lakers’ E! Network-subsidized fanbase can’t improve on their gutless performance during the 2008 Finals, the Celtics are going to win their 18th championship.

Back in 2008, the Lakers were physically ready to win a championship, but hardly ready mentally. In Game 1, after Paul Pierce “miraculously” came back from a knee injury that was deemed wheelchair-worthy just 15 minutes before, the crowd went absolutely insane and propelled the Celtics to victory in a game the Lakers led by 5 at halftime.

The Lakers were physically intimidated by the Celtics in Game 2, partly because they were verbally intimidated by the fans. The offense settled for jumpers, and Bryant felt the need to do everything himself in Boston.

When the series moved to L.A., the Lakers won Game 3 because they were desperate, and raced out to a 24-point-lead in the infamous Game 4, a game that I blamed on the fans at the time (yes, I am a Laker fan, as I explained in that post from two years ago … if that forces you to stop reading this site, I understand). The Lakers got tentative, the crowd sat on their hands as if expecting the collapse that would soon come, and the series was pretty much over.

Well, the Lakers DID win Game 5 before getting destroyed when they returned to Boston for Game 6, a game that illuminated just how important a great crowd/team relationship can be.

The Lakers like to talk about tough places to play in the Western Conference, but nothing they see or hear compares to Boston. Not Utah, regardless of how many books of Mormon the fans wave angrily at players from behind the basket during free throws. Not Denver, even though all the kids in town want Chris Anderson’s hair and Kenyon Martin’s lips-on-his-neck tattoo. The only fans that can match the vitriol of a playoff crowd in Boston are the ones in Oracle Arena, but that’s like an English Premier League crowd cheering for the San Jose Earthquakes.

So we have your standard, blind drunk, Masshole crowd that knows how to turn the momentum of a game without needing their team to make a highlight play first, against your standard “where’s the camera” group of fair weather bandwagon jumpers that own $5K purses with the Lakers’ logo encrusted in diamonds on the side. Or is it?

Regardless of what Bostonians would tell you, this is not as important of a championship series as the one in 2008. First off, that team seemed preordained to win the whole thing. They dominated the entire regular season, focusing on a tough style of play that had been somewhat abandoned since the NBA cracked down in the wake of too many Knicks/Heat playoff series.

This year’s bunch was so terrible at the end of the season that the Celtics and their fans have a lot more of the glad-to-be-there vibe than two years ago. You couldn’t find one Boston fan who was enjoying themselves in the beginning of April, but now that Rondo’s their new midget LeBron James, everything’s rosey. But are the fans as hungry as they were a couple seasons ago when they hadn’t won a title for 22 years? Doubtful.

Not that Lakers fans aren’t also fat and happy. These days, you’d need Shannon Brown to do a reverse backflip dunk over a healthy Yao Ming to get the Staples crowd going. Except … for the first time since the ’80’s, they have a chip on their collective shoulder. At the end of Game 2 of the Suns series, when Gasol looked like the best big man on earth, the Staples chant was, “We want Boston.” Again and again. And it didn’t seem fake, either.

That’s fine, but the Lakers’ faithful need to finally understand that they’re not watching a movie. Taunting Kendrick Perkins is absolutely vital in this series, as a pissed off Perkins will lead to a suspended Perkins since he’s one technical foul away from getting a 1-gamer. Also important: making the referees feel uncomfortable whenever they call fouls on Bynum, Odom and Artest.

It’s not just enough to make Brown and Jordan Farmar comfortable enough to keep shooting and making threes, or to chant “M-V-P” when Kobe’s on the line. They need to jump on any Lakers runs and scream the Celtics into submission, just as Boston’s fans did to the Lakers in the Game 6 blowout that left the Lakers embarrassed and Kobe looking vulnerable.

There are a few differences that have been mentioned by everyone (a sort-of Healthy Bynum, Artest instead of Ariza, Rasheed instead of P.J. Brown, no James Posey or Leon Powe), but the main difference in this series is the Lakers have home court this time. It’s up to Jack Nicholson and his minions to make sure it’s an advantage.

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