Think about this series long enough, and you’ll get twisted up in your own thoughts. For as long as we can remember, writers and TV analysts have been given one job every NBA Finals: pick the supposed “x-factor.”
Maybe you could say the same thing about every NBA Finals, but this series seems like an especially difficult one to pin that one guy down, doesn’t it?
Most of the recent NBA Finals have seemed a bit more clear on the surface, while this edition of Celtics/Lakers seems deeper somehow.
Last year, the only questions were whether the Lakers could stop Dwight Howard and whether Jameer Nelson would provide anything. In other words, the Lakers were huge favorites.
The year before that, it was the don’t-let-anybody-get-a-layup-after-the-whistle Celtics against the finesse Lakers.
I’m not going to go into Spurs/Cavs, because I have kids to feed. Wait, that’s not true. But I’m not going into it.
Forget “x-factor,” which is just a codeword for “surprising non-star.” After the Finals, which player will we look back at and say, “He was the reason they won the series”?
Rajon Rondo: An obvious answer. The last time the Lakers faced a supremely athletic, long, defensive genius at point guard was Russell Westbrook, and he nearly derailed the Lakers in the first round.
Kobe Bryant: Never played better offensively than what we’ve seen in the last two weeks, if you take into account his efficiency and willingness to pass when it makes sense, not with the intention of making the point that he’s not selfish (a strategy which usually has the opposite effect). At this point if he heads to the right side with the ball and jumps, you might as well count the bucket. And while Ray Allen did an outstanding job in 2008, it’s hard to imagine him hanging with Bryant at this stage, especially with Bryant’s improved post game.
Kevin Garnett: Rondo has gotten most of the headlines, but if KG was the same guy he was during the regular season, the Celtics would have lost to the Cavs in 5.
Pau Gasol: Was left looking like a hybrid of Big Bird and Vlade Divac during the 2008 Finals, but his muscles and his heart have grown since then. Will he play as meekly as he did during the end of the Phoenix series, or dominate every facet of the game like he did against the Jazz?
Paul Pierce: While we kid him about the wheelchair bit a couple years ago, is clearly a healthier player now.
Ron Artest: Crazy enough that nobody would blink if he bought a ticket to tonight’s game and left it for Rue McClanahan (RIP), and then asked if he could guard the seat with one of Mike Tyson’s tigers. Fans react to his 3-point attempts like he’s a puppy lifting his leg and getting ready to pee on that nice rug in the living room. But he’s a much better SF than Vlad Radmanovic or Luke Walton (Trevor Ariza was a non-factor in 2008), and the one guy who’d never let the Celtics’ brand of imitation thuggery affect the way he plays, even for a second. His recent comments about how taking charges is grounds for a fight where he’s from were priceless.
Andrew Bynum: Didn’t play in 2008, but with all the whining about how his knee isn’t getting better, expecting any more than sporadic production would be pretty stupid.
Kendrick Perkins: Had an injured shoulder in 2008 and barely played (the Celtics were so physically dominant that KG easily handled the center position for most of the series). He could either be a rebounding machine who leaves Phil with the terrible option of having to unearth D.J. Mbenga to give the slighter Gasol and gimpy Bynum some rest, or Perkins could be the moron who can’t keep his scowls and complaining to himself when the refs dare call him for a foul.
Derek Fisher: He’s going to have to run through roughly 284 screens this series, and will hit Rondo in the mouth at least once. If he can hit threes consistently, the Lakers will remain calm even in Boston.
Ray Allen: Has been battling trade rumors all year, and absolutely HATES Kobe. He’s almost the forgotten Hall of Famer in this series, but by far the most frightening to the Lakers when open behind the 3-point line.
Lamar Odom: Could either be the best player in the series, racking up lines like 11/19/7/4 with swarming defense, or he could be overshadowed by pregnancy rumors and E! Channel plotlines. Or each game, he could alternate between those two choices (my prediction).
Glen Davis: Got his bell rung a week ago, and he’s still cross-eyed. Oh well, Dwight Howard gave it a shot. Baby played a grand total of 15 garbage time minutes in the ’08 Finals, as he was resigned to watching Leon Powe make the Lakers look privileged and lazy. He’s one of those guys who’ll probably flourish at home and play unevenly at Staples.
What’s changed since 2008?
The Lakers return 7 guys who played in ’08, and so have the Celts. Of the new players who matter, the Lakers have added Artest, Shannon Brown and a semi-upright Bynum. The Celtics have added Rasheed Wallace (and the fact that he’s getting mentioned this late shows how much he’s mattered lately), Michael Finley and Nate Robinson. The Lakers are “missing” Radmanovic and Ronny Turiaf (who was a shell of his current self in the ’08 Finals), while the Celtics are without James Posey, Powe, Eddie House, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell (although it’s a stretch to include Cassell there).
Lakers: Jordan Farmar waited until the very last second to make his contract push. If he keeps playing as if he’d do anything to stay in his hometown, and Brown (38% FG in the playoffs) can keep from shooting his team out of games like a shorter version of Artest, the Lakers’ depth at the guard position could be enough to negate the Rondo-advantage. If Josh Powell and/or Mbenga play any minutes that don’t coincide with a blowout win for the Lakers, the Celtics will be celebrating. Sasha Vujacic should have two main goals: get Perkins to take a swing at him, and distract the Celtics crowd from focusing on the referees.
Celtics: Tony Allen is a streaky scorer who’s adept at stealing the ball, but it’s all about size here for Boston. Everyone marvels at the Lakers’ front line, but it’s a paper tiger with Bynum at 50-75%. Look for Sheed to try to earn his contract in the next couple of weeks, and for KG, Perkins, Sheed and Big Baby to try to prove they’re indeed the strongest, longest, most intimidating group of 4’s and 5’s in the league. Like I said, the Lakers don’t want to see Powell and Mbenga out there. If Sheed sleepwalks through this series and Davis ends up sitting on the bench in tears due to foul trouble for a few of these games, Jackson won’t have to go there.
OK, we get it. These teams have a bunch of basketball players. What the hell is going to happen?
I knew you were going to ask me that. I think it’s obvious what the deal is here. It comes down to the crowds doing what they’re supposed to and Kobe.
Every other important player (and that includes head coaches) would be OK if they lost this series, except for Bryant. The only one close is Pierce, who with a standout performance would become a more important Celtic than Kevin McHale.
Rondo? He’s poised to become an Olympian and an early favorite in the fight with Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and John Wall for the title of “Best Point Guard of the 2010’s.” Garnett and Allen have already cemented their legacies. Gasol’s still got five good years left, and probably looks forward to taking over “Alpha Dog” status in L.A. Fisher’s looking forward to taking over for Phil Jackson, who is already the leader in all-time titles. Doc Rivers seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but Boston just two months ago, so just making it this far is a nice surprise. Odom seems to be pretty happy with everything these days. Artest doesn’t know where he is half the time. Bynum’s probably upset Jackson hasn’t yet given him a trophy for “trying hard.”
This is do or die for Kobe, though. He has to know when Gasol needs the ball, and when Gasol would rather watch him shoot. Kobe has to avoid 9-for-26 shooting nights, visible anger toward his teammates and over-dribbling. He must find a way to keep Rondo from getting inside and taking advantage of slow rotations by Gasol and Bynum. He has to get to the line, even on the road, and make at least 80% when he gets there.
Kobe has to win this championship, or his career will forever seem slightly hollow, relatively speaking of course. Only one Shaq-free title, and it was against a team whose best player was Hedo freakin’ Turkoglu? That’s enough to keep Kobe out of not just the top 5 ever, but the top 10. Beat the Celtics in this rematch, and he’s genuine NBA royalty throughout the rest of his career, no matter what happens after this series.
So we’re either going to get ’04/’08 Finals Kobe, or the guy who’s averaged 52.2% FG, 33 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 7.3 apg since the OKC series. He somehow needs to be the best player on the floor, or forbid himself from forcing the action if the Celtics focus all their defensive attention on him. It’s an incredible challenge, but what else would you expect for a player looking to be known as the best player since Michael Jordan?
Prediction: Not doing it this time. Can’t do it. Picked the Lakers to win in seven in 2008, and was horribly, horribly wrong there. Whoever wins Game 1 wins the series. That’s my prediction. If you don’t like it, I’m sure if you want to pay $30 a month or something you can get one from John Hollinger.
(And let the records show, this Finals preview was 2,800 words less than the one Bill Simmons wrote. Not that anyone’s counting.)