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By Atlanta Hawks Fan Shotgun Spratling
Special to SportsofBoston.com
(This is a part of Sports of Boston’s extensive coverage of the NBA Finals)
With the storied franchises of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers returning to face off in what once was a seemingly annual showdown known as the NBA Finals, commissioner David Stern and all his faithful sycophants are happy and gleeful.
However, I, for one (and maybe the only one), am not. I have watched both teams throughout the playoffs knowing that both would more than likely end up in the NBA Finals. Call them the two best teams in the NBA (they did have the best records during the regular season) or call it a ratings’ conspiracy covertly orchestrated by Stern and NBA officials, it was almost without a doubt they would face off…and here we are.
But while I was able to easily predict these two conference powerhouses would meet, predicting who will actually win is turning into a rather laborious assignment that has left me with bountiful sleepless nights and napless days (and by bountiful, I naturally mean one).
What I have come to determine in my studies, research, and palm readings is that this series will be determined by the matchups (yea, I know everyone says things like that, but when I say it, it’s true):
Short Guys to Dribble the Ball:
Derek Fisher vs Rajon Rondo – Fisher has the obvious playoff experience advantage. His leadership has meant so much for the Lakers because the Spaniard down low isn’t a leader, and I really doubt how much anyone would want Kobe Bryant to be their leader when he is willing to fire teammates under the bus without the bat of an eye. Thank the Jazz for being a gracious franchise and allowing Fisher to go back to the Lakers, so that Fisher’s daughter could get the best treatment at better facilities in California.
Rondo’s only experience has come this year and while he was in college (made it to the Elite Eight with Kentucky his freshman year). Rondo is quicker, though, and it is will be imperative for him to use his quickness to get into the lane for the Celts. He is the one guy that can stem the lull of constant jump shots Boston sometimes falls into. Fisher is a tough defender, so it won’t be nearly as easy as when Rondo was being guarded by guys like Mike Bibby or Daniel Gibson.
Fisher also has a more consistent three point shot and is a viable option with the game on the line. Kobe probably chooses not to the pass the ball with the game on the line in the Finals, but if someone knocks it away from him, and it ends up in Fisher’s hands, he has the ability to hit a clutch shot. Does Rondo? This can’t be answered because the only way he’s getting the ball in the last few ticks is, again, if it gets knocked away from someone else.
Kobe Bryant vs Paul Pierce – Whether it is Kobe and his angry scowl (it seems he’s never happy despite affairs with white girls, Lakers’ dance girls, and his wife still being gorgeous too) or Paul Pierce throwing up the gang signs, both will try to do their best Denzel Washington impersonation (as Denzel has undoubtedly mastered the role of angry black man) and be the leading man of the series.
Bryant has an indefatigable desire to be not just great, but the greatest. Averaging 31.9 points in the playoffs even while playing with an injured finger for the last couple of months, he has a picture-perfect jump shot, can take it to the hole, scores in traffic, and can do almost anything with a basketball, yet people just won’t tell him he is better than some guy named Michael. Evidently, this drives the man crazy.
When Kobe is on the court, he is able to control his emotions, for the most part, but you can still see the fire is burning within his eyes. He has so much passion for the game of basketball and being the best that it is kind of frightening to me. When his kids get older, I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes them cry while playing 1-on-1.
Pierce, on the other hand, can let his emotions get the best of him at times (ala Game 6 of the Hawks series when he fouled out and picked up a technical during the fourth quarter of a close game). Nonetheless, he is still the heart and soul of the Boston squad regardless of the superstar additions Danny Ainge brought in. He plays his best under the brightest spotlights as evidenced by his 30.2 points per game in the six series-clinching wins Boston has had during his career.
I expect both to be forces for the opposition to contend with throughout the series. And I know KB is a shooting guard and Pierce is technically a small forward, but I think they could spend a good amount of time guarding each other when bench players are in the game. Only an inch separates the two, Kobe always wants to guard the best player (likely to try to establish himself as alpha male/leading role), and I just don’t know how well Ray Allen will do in attempting to guard Bryant (of course this may not happen due to Allen giving up five inches to Vladimir Radmonovic, who he would have to guard if Pierce was on Bryant).
Freakishly Long, Bald Guy:
Kevin Garnett vs Lamar Odom – KG is averaging over 21 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game, leading the Celtics in both categories. However, it has been his decision to settle for jump shots rather than playing with his back to the basket the majority of the time that has many questioning him this postseason.
While 21 and 10 are good numbers, they are not the 24.9/15.3 he posted in his last three playoff appearances from 01-02 to 03-04. Part of that can be attributed to not being the only superstar on the team, but part of it should also be attributed to a less aggressive Garnett.
KG is still, however, the class of this matchup. Even though I’ve been a fan of Odom since he was a Rhode Island Ram for the notorious Jim Harrick, Odom has been like hidden Easter eggs during the playoffs, sometimes easy to find, sometimes you have to search for hours — three times he has scored in single digits, and three times he has scored over 20. He was a deciding factor in the series against Utah (18.2 pts, 11.7 rebs), but he was MIA against Denver and San Antonio (12.3 pts, 9.4 rebs).
Odom will have to step up and play to his true ability level or KG could take over the series in a way that will have Kobe jealous and upset. Some analysts/supposed experts have stated Odom could give Garnett problems with his length because KG doesn’t face many players with the same-type of lankiness, but they obviously are overlooking the first round when KG had to go up against Josh Smith, who has the same body-type as both Odom and Garnett.
Other “Big Three” Member:
Ray Allen vs. Pau Gasol – If you listen to those supposed analysts, this isn’t the NBA Finals but instead a 3-on-3 tournament between KG, Pierce, and Allen vs. Kobe, Odom, and Gasol. While it is indeed the Finals, the importance of these six players is undeniable.
Allen and Gasol will not be matched up with each other, but which one plays better could ultimately decide the outcome of the series. Currently, the sharpshooter and the Spaniard are on opposite tracks. Allen has finally found the touch that makes him the NBA’s best shooter while Gasol had a lackluster series against San Antonio.
Jesus Shuttlesworth scored 19.2 points in the last five games of the Eastern Conference Finals, including 29 points (5-6 from three-point range) in Game 5 — the first playoff game Boston has won when Allen scores 20 or more. Evidently all those half-naked pregame shots finally are paying off.
In contrast, Gasol has seen his numbers decline as the stakes have gotten bigger. After averaging 22.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in the first round, Gasol’s numbers fell to 18.5 and 8.3 in the conference semi-finals. Against Fabricio Oberto and Tim Duncan, the seven footer’s rebounds increased to 9.6, but his points dropped by five to 13.2. More disconcerting to Lakers’ fans, due to his role in the triangle offense, should be the decline from 5.0 to 4.2 to 3.6 in his assist total.
However, look for both of these trends to reverse.
If Kobe guards Allen, Bryant will be draped all over him keeping him from getting into a smooth rhythm. Kobe is one of the premier defenders in the league, and can frustrate the hell out of a shooter.
The Celtics have tried using double teams to force the ball out of the hands of opposing teams’ stars at various times throughout the playoffs. If Boston tries to do this to Bryant and the Lakers, Gasol may also get a few extra easy baskets because Los Angeles moves the ball extremely well. LA put on a clinic in the first round, which is one reason Gasol scored so well against the Nuggets.
Offensive Role Player, Important Defensively:
Kendrick Perkins vs. Vladimir Radmonovic – Perkins is a force down low. He uses his body and weight to get rebounds, much as Glen Davis did in college. How he is able to use his strength when guarding Gasol could determine Boston’s defense in the series. Ideally, Perkins can guard Gasol straight up without the assistance of another defender. Double teaming on either Gasol or Bryant will leave Boston very vulnerable.
Radmonovic will either guard Pierce or Allen depending on the assignment of Kobe. I think it would be tougher for Radmonovic at 6-foot-10 to be chasing Allen through screens, and his size will help negate Pierce’s back-to-the-basket game, but either way, he is going to have his hands full with either Celtics’ star.
Old Guy on the Sideline:
Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers – Rivers is a younger coach, who has made some mistakes during the playoffs (such as not playing Eddie House when they needed a shooter in the first round). Jackson is going for the championship titles record. Anyone actually questioning this?
In the end, the matchups will determine the 2007-2008 NBA Championship, and who will win the matchups?