Revenge Or Reversion For Lakers?

By Jeff Rapp, June 3rd, 2010

When a championship series is basically expected to go seven games, an analyst is sure to overstate the importance of every single one of them.

Well, tonight is Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Finals and this analyst is now going to make the case for why the opening contest could mean a whole lot to both teams.

For starters, the anticipation for yet another battle between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers – their 12th Finals meeting, a record for any major American sport’s championship – is almost sure to lead to a heated Game 1.

Boston wants to establish that it can slow down L.A.’s explosive offense and offset the Lakers’ built-in advantage in the paint. The Lakers, meanwhile, want to show that they have matured since the 2008 loss to Boston and the beatdown at the hands of the Celtics in Game 6.

Plus, both teams simply don’t like each other.

Will should not be an issue, especially in the first encounter.

Then you can add in that the game will be played at the Staples Center, where the Lakers have been fantastic this season, including marks of 34-7 in the regular season 8-0 in the 2010 playoffs. Advantage Lakers, right?

Well, Boston has been especially focused and stingy on the road. The Celtics have won several key games away from home in the postseason and they are the first team to reach the Finals with a better road record (26-15) than home record (24-17).

The pressure is on the Lakers to utilize their homecourt edge but it’s also on Boston to make the first statement, especially because of the tough road that would lie ahead with a Game 1 loss.

And then there is the most amazing statistic at which to point: Lakers mentor Phil Jackson, who holds the NBA record with 10 coaching titles, owns a series record of an astonishing 47-0 in his career after his team captures a victory in Game 1. That’s 47 successes out of 47. That’s better than Rick Barry shooting free throws in an empty gym.

So enjoy what could be an epic series, but remember that you were already tipped off that the Game 1 winner was very, very likely to come out on top.

The following is a quick breakdown of the Finals:

Los Angeles Lakers

Seed: No. 1 in the Western Conference; Regular-season record: 57-25; How they got here: defeated No. 8 Oklahoma City 4-2, No. 5 Utah 4-0 and No. 3 Phoenix 4-2.

Strengths: The Lakers have lived off the mastery of Kobe Bryant and the savvy of Derek Fisher in the backcourt for years, but they have discovered a distinct advantage over each and every foe when they effectively get the ball inside.

That is thanks to the versatility, creativity and mind-boggling skill of forward/center Pau Gasol, the girth of center Andrew Bynum and the very lofty ceiling over Lamar Odom, arguably the most valuable reserve big man in the game.

Los Angeles should be able to more than hold up on the boards and create issues for the Celtics defense with so many variations that can be run off the triangle. And that leads to Bryant, who looks to be playing the best basketball of his career.

If this team stays together and allows Bryant to properly initiate the offense on key possessions, then it is hard to bet against the Purple and Gold, especially with Jackson sitting in the coach’s chair.

Also, the Lakers have played underrated defense this season, and that is a credit in part to forward Ron Artest, the team’s noteworthy free-agent pickup in the offseason after losing Trevor Ariza.

Weaknesses: Bynum has battled injuries throughout his career and missed the 2008 Finals against Boston, which left Gasol’s finesse game vulnerable to the grit of the Celtics. Bynum had his knee drained just prior to this year’s encounter and should be able to absorb some of the body blows inside, but he still tends to soften on the road and wear down over the course of a long series.

Also, Odom is an unpredictable barometer for this team – you never know what you are going to get with No. 7. He is possibly even more important to the defensive efforts, since the Lakers are more than capable of holding teams below 45 percent shooting from the field but sometimes don’t do it because of lack of recognition on pick-and-roll plays by the frontliners.

Plus, it’s clear L.A. is not premier fastbreak team that is going to do much damage out in transition. Showtime has been replaced by Kobe Time.

Good sign: If the Lakers can score in triple figures in games without having to hit bombs from behind the arc, they should be in very good shape in this series. Boston’s defense is tough, but not impenetrable, and Bryant and Gasol are superstars who can get to the line on nights when they don’t shoot a high percentage from the field.

Bad sign: Some sort of mental meltdown by Ron Artest, which is always a possibility.

Key player: That would be the guy they call “Black Mamba.” Bryant was supreme in the six-game conference finals, torching the Suns each time out and befuddling them with his uncanny ability to hit well-guarded shots.

In the 2010 postseason, he has averaged 29.4 points and 6.2 assists a game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three-point range. The Celtics can’t allow that kind of damage unless they want to start their golf season next week.

Synopsis: Enough appears to be in place for Kobe to grab ring number five and for Phil to garner his 11th (not to mention two others he won as a New York Knick). Still, the Lakers have to manage key sequences without panic and hold up to Boston’ physical antics. They also will need some important contributions from the bench to log four wins in this series.

Boston Celtics

Seed: No. 4 in the Eastern Conference; Regular-season record: 50-32; How they got there: defeated No. 5 Miami 4-1, No. 1 Cleveland 4-2 and No. 2 Orlando 4-2.

Strengths: The Big Three has become The Big Four with point guard Rajon Rondo playing at an All-Star level but still dispensing the ball to cagey veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

That core group knows how to work for quality shots and finish off possessions that aren’t the smoothest. Allen can stretch out any defense and Pierce is nearly impossible to keep off the foul line. Garnett still has impossible-to-defend turnaround jumpers from 14 feet and is a respectable straight-on shooter.

But Rondo now is the engine, and he seems to be acclimated to the teachings and needs of Doc Rivers, an intelligent and motivating head coach who has a well-earned reputation for making the right adjustments in series play.

The bench also has played at a high level in the postseason. Forward Tony Allen brings energy and hustle while power forward Glen Davis has logged quality minutes as a secondary scoring option and interior defender. Rasheed Wallace is a wild card who can shoot with range and provide another body to the front line.

Weaknesses: For all their bravado and toughness, the C’s are simply not a very good rebounding team. Plus, they tend to lose grip of leads and get into foul trouble, especially when center Kendrick Perkins becomes ineffective.

Also, Rondo’s high-risk/high-reward style tends to lead to a few too many turnovers. Sometimes the Celtics go a little too fast in an attempt to free up shooters in semi-break situations. And the acquisition of backup point guard Nate Robinson has been applauded but could bite in the Finals as shooter Eddie House, whom general manager Danny Ainge dealt away, was a proven weapon against the Lakers.

Good sign: If Rondo can get into open spaces and terrorize the Lakers the way he did the Cavaliers, Boston could gain the upper hand.

Bad sign: If the taller Lakers control the backboards, the Celtics are going to have to shoot a gaudy percentage or resort to desperate tactics. That just wouldn’t bode well for a shot at banner No. 18.

Key player: Pierce. Two years ago, the hardworking small forward was named Finals MVP after frustrating the Lakers with 21.8 ppg, 4.5 rebounds per game, 6.3 apg, 43.2-percent shooting from the field and 39.3-percent shooting from long range. He hit big shot after big shot.

Synopsis: Pierce’s numbers are likely to abate with Artest hanging on him and the truth is Garnett and Allen don’t light it up every night anymore, either. As dangerous at Rondo is, he’s not going to have consistent success driving into the Lakers’ trees down low unless the Celtics can get the floor properly spaced and hit their share of long-range shots. Without House, that puts a lot of onus on Allen.

Prediction: Payback.
Lakers in 6