Series preview: Celtics vs. Lakers

By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.

The Boston Celtics have won three tough playoff series to advance to the NBA Finals. They have defeated the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic to earn the right to play the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers had the best record in the NBA, the Magic the second best, and the Lakers the third best. They have taken down some of the biggest stars in the NBA in Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. The Celtics are playing their best basketball of the year. They are relatively healthy, playing tremendous defense and are getting great guard play from Rajon Rondo.

The Lakers have beaten three very good teams on the Western side of the playoffs. They have beaten a young Oklahoma City Thunder team, a tough-minded Utah Jazz squad and the talented Phoenix Suns. The Lakers are a much better team than the team that lost to the Celtics in the Finals two years ago. They have played with Pau Gasol now for two-and-a-half years, and Andrew Bynum, who was hurt in the 2008 Finals, is available in this series and could be a huge factor for the Lakers. He has the ability to dominate the glass and score points in the paint for his team. Lastly, the Lakers acquired Ron Artest in the off season, and he will provide them with a tough, hard-nosed defender to put on Paul Pierce.

These two teams know each other very well. There will be no secrets or gimmicks in this series. It will be about who wins the individual matchups, who is more physical and who plays better defense. This series could be decided by the 2-3-2 format of the NBA Finals. The first two games are in L.A., the next three in Boston, and the last two in L.A. if needed. It is extremely important for Boston to steal a game in L.A., because it is difficult to win three games in a row at home. The Celtics need to be up at least 3-2 in this series when they head back to the West Coast.

Boston had their way versus the Lakers two years ago. They played together and played harder than L.A. They were a much more physical team than the Lakers. Their defensive intensity was the biggest difference in that series. The Lakers are the defending NBA champions but it will be their biggest challenge of the 2010 season to knock off the Boston Celtics. This series is likely headed for seven games and it may be decided at Staples Center in L.A. on June 17th.

Five keys to series

1. Decisions with Kobe

Kobe Bryant may be having the best playoffs of his career. Coming into this year’s NBA Finals, he is averaging 29.4 points per game on 48 percent from the field and 41 pecent from behind the 3-point line in the postseason.

Bryant is a big-shot taker and big-shot maker. It appears that he is a lot healthier after getting his knee drained several weeks ago. Kobe looks quicker, is getting to his sweet spots and is elevating better on his jump shot.

The big question coming into this series is how will the Celtics defend him? Will they play him straight-up or will they come and double him? In the past the Celtics have doubled him, especially late in games. They want to get the ball out of Kobe’s hands, and take their chances that the other Lakers cannot beat them. Bryant is a smart and willing passer, and if the Celtics force him to give the ball up, his teammates must make shots.

Bryant is the most skilled basketball player in the NBA. The Celtics know that he can beat them all by himself. They must be committed to getting the ball out of his hands when necessary. Their chances of success skyrocket when the ball is not in his hands. If the Lakers are going to win this series, his teammates will have to step up and make open shots, especially late in games.

2. Guarding Rondo

The Lakers have dealt with some of the best point guards in the league on their way through the postseason. They have gone up against Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash. In order to win the NBA Finals they will have to control one of the most talented newcomers in the league in Rondo.

Rondo got the best of the Lakers in the ’08 series, and he is a much-improved player now. Rondo may be the most improved point guard in the NBA. He is quick and penetrates -- just the type of guard that has given the Lakers fits all season. Back on January 31st in the first of two regular-season meetings with the Lakers, Rondo singlehandedly changed the game. He erased a 13-point Laker lead with his ability to penetrate and get to the paint. Rondo finished the game with 21 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and two steals. The Lakers must be very wary of Rondo because he can affect the outcome of a game by himself. He has his imprint on every Celtic win and can defeat an opponent without putting up huge scoring numbers.

Rondo has speed, quickness, great rebounding instincts, creativity with the ball and is a tremendous defensive presence. Rajon will probably be covered by Kobe because Bryant is a much better on-ball defender than Derek Fisher. In addition, the Lakers do not want Bryant to cover Ray Allen and use all his energy chasing him off staggered screens all game. The Lakers will need to have a strong team defensive effort in order to stop Rondo. They must be able to corral him in the open court and get him under control. They must play off him and bait him into being a jump shooter. They will go under him on all pick-and-rolls and attempt to keep him out of the paint.

3. Best matchup

The matchup everyone is waiting for is between Paul Pierce and Ron Artest. The Lakers were overwhelmed by Pierce in the 2008 NBA Finals. The only answer they had back then was Vladimir Radmonovic. Pierce got where he wanted with the ball, developed an early rhythm and became unstoppable. Eventually, the Lakers were forced to switch Kobe onto Paul and it wore Kobe down and made him less effective.

The Lakers acquired Ron Artest in the offseason to provide them with defense and toughness. The Lakers knew they might see LeBron James, Vince Carter or Paul Pierce if they made it to the NBA Finals. Artest is the key to slowing Pierce down. It will be Artest’s defensive prowess versus Pierce’s scoring abilities. Artest is a street fighter who will enjoy this challenge. Ron is strong and has quick feet and hands. He will make it hard for Paul to catch the ball in his sweet spots, get up into his chest on the catch, take away his jumper and make Pierce put the ball on the floor. In the regular-season series, Pierce averaged only 13 points per game, which is five points below his average.

But Pierce is playing very well coming into the Finals, and it will take a great effort on Artest’s part to slow him down. Pierce scored 31 points and had 13 rebounds in the clinching game versus Orlando. One of the keys to Pierce’s success has always been his ability to get to the free throw line. If he has it going, he can get there 10-12 times per game. If he is making his 19-to-21-foot jumpers and he is getting to the line, he is unstoppable. If Pierce is getting to the line and drawing fouls on Artest the Lakers will have a hard time finding someone else to cover Pierce.

Artest will also put some pressure on Pierce on the offensive end of the floor. Artest will try to bully him with drives to the basket and post ups off the box. Artest is an effective offensive rebounder and Pierce will have to be physical to keep him off the glass. Pierce will be instructed in the scouting report to play off Artest as much as possible and dare him to shoot jump shots. He may make some and get hot one game, but Artest is much more of a weapon when he is cutting, driving and rebounding.

4. Physicality

The last time these two teams played in the NBA Finals, the Celtics won because they were the better team and they were the more physical team. The intensity of their defense overwhelmed the Lakers. The Celtics were much more physical in the paint with Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, P.J. Brown, and Leon Powe.

This year, the Lakers have Andrew Bynum and Artest to change that dynamic. However, the key to the Lakers’ success in the paint will be with Pau Gasol. Gasol did a nice job last year versus Orlando’s Dwight Howard and he must not shy away from physical play against the Celtics.

The Celtics will try to push Gasol around as much as the referees will allow. Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace will try to intimidate him early in the series. If the Celtics can be physical with Gasol and take him out of the Laker offense, they have a much better chance of defeating the Lakers. The Lakers offense bogs down and becomes stagnant without Gasol on the court. It will be interesting to see if Garnett has the lateral quickness to deal with Gasol in the post and off the block. If he can take away the face-up attack of Gasol, Pau may have a tough time scoring in the paint.

5. Celtics’ bench

The Celtics starters from the 2008 NBA Finals are the same: Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Perkins. The biggest difference on the Celtic roster is their bench. Two years ago they rolled out James Posey, Brown, Powe, Eddie House and Sam Cassell. They were a reliable and consistent group of players who delivered for Doc Rivers each and every night.

This year’s version of the Celtic bench includes Rasheed Wallace, Glenn Davis, Tony Allen, Michael Finley and Nate Robinson. Unfortunately for the Celtics, this year’s version is not as talented or reliable as two years ago. They have been productive throughout the playoffs but not consistent.

Sheed has averaged 6.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg during the playoffs. He has had made some big contributions during the three series the Celtics have played, but you are never quite sure what he will bring each and every night.

Tony Allen has been banged up but has provided defense and an offensive spark at times. He is an important piece to the Celtics’ success in this series because of his ability to defend Kobe.

The most consistent bench player for the Celtics this season has been Glen Davis. Davis played a big role for the Celtics in the playoffs last season and they will be counting on him again. Baby is a hard-nosed, versatile forward who can defend multiple positions, make an open jump shot and cause problems for opponents on the offensive glass. He has matured on and off the court and become a much more consistent player. Davis is currently averaging 7.5 ppg and 4.1 rpg while shooting 48 percent in the 2010 playoffs.

The Celtics’ bench in the 2008 playoffs was reliable, consistent and productive. Posey may have been the second most productive player for the Celtics after MVP Paul Pierce. The Celtics will need production from their bench in the 2010 NBA Finals in order to beat the Lakers.

Prediction: Celtics in seven