ESPN (the Network) has gone into overdrive pushing the history behind the Lakers/Celtics rivalry leading up to this year’s Finals. If you watch an hour of Sportscenter, about 30 minutes will be filled with footage of Lakers/Celtics games from the 60s-80s, the Ray Allen layup from a few years ago, and random polls like ‘who’s the best bench player in this series?’
However, it’s impossible to discuss this matchup without looking at the legacies (After reading Bill Simmons Finals preview that literally took the words out of my mouth at some cases, I tried and failed to come up with a different angle. I guess you can call this full disclosure). There’s just too much at stake for nearly everyone involved.
A 2nd title in three years would place both teams (the Big 3 Celtics and the Kobe/Gasol Lakers) in the discussion with some of the greatest teams of all-time. Phil Jackson would add to his case as the greatest coach ever with an 11th ring, while Doc Rivers would become one of the few coaches in league history to win multiple titles. Winning this championship would mean a lot to the legacies of eight of these players (Bryant, Garnett, Pierce, Gasol, Allen, Rondo, Artest, Fisher), especially if they play well during the series.
The end result of this series will be more important than most because it will shape the way we remember many of these players and the particular teams of this era. This is one of the few series where we know what’s at stake historically headed into the Finals. That said, how do you predict a winner in this series?
At times, both teams have looked unstoppable on their way to the Finals. At other times, the Lakers have been somewhat slow to adjust to their opponent and can lose their way strategically, while the Celtics have looked old at points during the playoffs.
The better team, I think, is the Lakers. They have the best player, the best post player, the best wing defender, the best coach and a better bench. However, the Celtics have two major advantages: the Rondo/Fisher matchup and they are a much more physical team, especially in the front court.
Fisher’s liability on defense has played out three times in the playoffs so far. He struggled against Russell Westbrook (OKC), Deron Williams (Jazz) and Steve Nash (Suns) at time, but the Lakers overcame this by using Kobe Bryant at times and a strong focus on team defense. The key to defending Rondo is shutting down his driving/passing lanes and making him shoot outside shots.
However, the physical advantage the Celtics have might be tougher to overcome. A lot of this depends on the perennially inconsistent officiating. If the refs let them play, the Celtics have a huge advantage. Gasol and Odom, LA’s healthiest big men, end up on the perimeter a lot and can get flustered by rough play. I’ll stop short of calling them soft, but they are more dangerous has finesse players than bangers.
The Celtics were able to beat up on Dwight Howard for many of the games they won against Orlando, while their bigs ended up in foul trouble in the games Orlando won. Officiating is probably the biggest wildcard in this series.
I think Boston has an excellent shot of winning because of their two advantages. If Rondo is a problem, whatever adjustments LA makes could open up better scoring opportunities for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. If Gasol and Odom don’t show up, it will be hard for an injured Andrew Bynum to hold down the post.
That said, I think the Lakers will win this series in six games. Kobe Bryant is playing the best basketball of his career and seems more focused than ever. He knows how much this championship means to his legacy. Now that the finals are here, we can finally turn off the hype machine and enjoy this rubber match of the two best teams of the past three years.