It's funny how the NBA works. Basketball is a game that's all about matchups and if you had asked me before the playoffs who could knock off the Lakers, then I would have said Cleveland, Orlando, and Dallas. As it happens, the Lakers faced none of those teams and now find themselves in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.
Not long ago, both of these teams seemed like they were headed nowhere. The Lakers were unimpressive for the last month and a half of the season, and the Celtics started struggling well before then. Yet, both teams showed that momentum means little entering the playoffs, and here they are in the Finals.
So who will win this matchup of two classic rivals? I like the Lakers in 7. It's going to be a grind-it-out, drag 'em out kind of a series. But in the end, I think the Lakers' home court advantage is a big deal. Only two teams have ever swept the middle three games at home in a Finals (Detroit in '04 and Miami in '06), and I would be surprised if Boston can do that here. Even if the teams split the first two games in LA, I think the Lakers can win a game in Boston. Having Game 7 of the NBA Finals on your home floor is a major advantage.
But the Lakers strengths go beyond just home court advantage. The 2008 Lakers were out-muscled by the Celtics in the Finals. They also had no answer defensively for Paul Pierce, who won the Finals MVP Award with Vladimir Radmanovic guarding him much of the way. Enter Ron Artest, who was seemingly acquired just for this series. Artest's superior defensive skills will, at worst, contain Pierce, and certainly prevent him from looking like the best player on the court.
Additionally, Andrew Bynum's presence in the middle will be key for the Lakers. After getting his knee drained, Bynum should play better than he did against Phoenix. Bynum missed the '08 Finals, which led to Kendrick Perkins solidifying the post and pounding Pau Gasol. Bynum is physical enough to compete with Perkins, and that will only benefit Gasol.
Still, Gasol will have the key matchup of the series, as he goes against Kevin Garnett. While Garnett is a step slower than he used to be, he still plays the game with great intensity, and his long reach could cause problems.
Rajon Rondo is the one Celtic who is much improved from 2008. The Celtics offense runs through him, and the Lakers will probably use Kobe Bryant on him defensively. It will be interesting to see how that affects the Celtics offense. That could open up some shots for Ray Allen, who remains a great shooter, but Allen doesn't have the quickness that he used to have.
Offensively, the Lakers may need Bryant to take over several games on his own. Rondo might be too small and Allen might be too slow to stop him. The Celtics might look to double-team Bryant, so he'll have to do a good job of starting the triangle offense to rotate the ball to the open man.
Neither team has a great bench, but x-factors do exist there. Lamar Odom expects to receive significant minutes and when he plays well, it's extremely difficult to beat the Lakers. Unfortunately, Odom usually has a great game just once or twice a series. Sasha Vujacic could be an interesting option off the bench for the Lakers if they feel like they need a shooter. While Sasha can be a pretty frustrating player to watch some times, it's easy to forget that he was the difference-maker in the Lakers' Game 3 win over Boston in '08.
The Celtics have an interesting bench with Nate Robinson who could prove a valuable spark plug. Rasheed Wallace is playing hurt, but he's capable of having a big game. Glen Davis is hurt for Boston, and I'm not sure how effective he'll be.
It seems like these teams match up pretty evenly for the most part. The Lakers might look slightly better on paper, but the Celtics seem to play with a tad more intensity. In the end though, the home court advantage will play a significant role, and the Lakers should win their second straight title.
In the meantime, I will be on The Filter with Fred Roggin tonight at 7:30 PM on NBC Plus (Time Warner Cable Channel 225) to discuss the Finals.