Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Don't Ever Give Up: The Finals Preview

This Finals is about two men - Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant.

For Pierce, every game will be a home game (his hometown being Inglewood), and he will be arguably the only player in the contest that will lead his team to victory if he plays well and doom them if he does not. He will be playing against the team he loved as a child and he will be playing to change the way history will remember him. One might say Kevin Garnett is playing under similar circumstances, but Garnett has had many chances for success in his career. This is either Pierce's second or third chance, depending on how you consider the old Jim O'Brien teams, and that makes it much more special.

For Kobe, this game will represent vindication. I don't think it (or anything) will satisfy him, but he doubtless believes winning the Finals by himself will fulfill some sort of legacy or need. If he didn't think that, I can't see why he wanted to be traded out of L.A. Any casual observer watching Kobe can see that he has spent a good deal of his career trying to satisfy his audience, to be something he thinks he should be, and to be loved by everyone. His canned laughter, his attempts at a rap career, and his so-called "style" have all been little steps in this direction, and this Finals will be a big one. I expect Kobe to play like a man possessed.

Don't forget, Kobe's dad was an NBA basketball player. Perhaps he wasn't a great one, but there have always been examples of athletes, artists, intellectuals, and even politicians with famous fathers who display a profound and urgent desire to eclipse their fathers and whose success (and often downfall) is powered more than anything else by a fear of nonacceptance. I'm not sure this explains Kobe's oft-awkward personality, though - as Freud allegedly noted, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

My personal feeling is that Kobe Bryant has already failed in his role as a leader, and that a Lakers victory would be, if anything, a victory for Phil Jackson. The interesting thing about the series is that although it feels like the first game with any historical potential since the end of the Shaq/Lakers dynasty, it will probably be remembered as a one-time event rather than the drawn-out rivalry it evokes.

If one sets aside the geographic and historical implications, the matchup between the Lakers and the Celtics, in theory, is a good one. The Lakers are one of the top offensive teams in the league, and the Celtics are one of the best defensive teams. The best sporting events are generally contests where irresistible force meets an immovable object, but frankly, the playoffs have shown that the Celtics are not exactly "immovable". If they lose this series, that will be their undoing.

The Lakers, despite their consistent success in the playoffs (against some very good defensive teams and also the Nuggets), are a very good but not great offensive squad. They have a two-dimensional point guard in Derek Fisher, a shooting guard who has an extremely inconsistent on-court demeanor in Kobe, a small forward who is frankly not good in Vujacic, a power forward who can't shoot and has taken advantage of matchups against "whoever's not guarding Pau Gasol" (Fabricio Oberto, for instance), and a center who is truthfully more of a power forward and who has never averaged ten rebounds per game in his career.

The Celtics match up well with this team. Rondo is the kind of defender who should be able to euthanize Derek Fisher, but I'm fearful that Boston will try to drop him down on Pau Gasol when the ball is in the post. If this happens, Derek Fisher is all but guaranteed to hit three to five backbreaking three pointers a game, and this may decide the series. (All too often in the Shaq/Kobe years, games were decided by guys like Fisher, Horry, Fox, George, and Lue because they hit those open shots when teams were forced to double down.)

The matchup between Ray Allen and Kobe presents an intriguing dilemma - is it worth leaving Ray Allen in the lineup when he's been the most inconsistent player in the playoffs, especially on defense? Or is it better to give up offense at the shooting guard position and put a big guy like Posey or a small guy like House in and let them try to pressure Kobe defensively?

This dilemma illustrates why it is such a problem that Rondo can't shoot. If Rondo could even occasionally hit three-pointers, taking Ray Allen out might not be a huge problem in terms of running the offense, but when it's Rondo and James Posey out there, you can't really rely on either player to hit a three when the ball's kicked out of a double team or a driving player. That brings the whole offense closer to the hoop, lets the Lakers double-team or crowd the key, and causes problems for Pierce and Garnett. (I know James Posey and Eddie House are not bad at shooting threes. But they're not threatening the way a proper shooting guard should be.)

I think it makes sense to leave Ray Allen in for his offensive potential and hope to god that getting him minutes helps him iron out his problems. To compensate for his defensive shortcomings, I would advocate switching Allen's defensive assignment to Derek Fisher and telling him to only concentrate on stopping Fisher from getting open shots. Ray may be a little slow laterally, but he can do that effectively in a big game.

This puts Rondo in a tough position, because he can't guard Kobe, but neither can Posey, Allen, or House. Rondo at least has a chance of keeping Bryant from penetrating effectively, and honestly, with his long arms, I don't know if its as bad a mismatch as it seems in theory.

Although this defense is vulnerable to pick and rolls, Kobe's perimeter game, and the crippling of Rondo's self-esteem, the Celtics need to have a perimeter guy in if they're going to have Rondo running things out there. Ray Allen is one of the best in the league's history and to limit his opportunity in the Finals could be a terrible mistake for the Celtics. He might be the smartest and best prepared player on either team. He has a history of success against Kobe and of success in the playoffs. Also, he had the second-best dunk-on of the 2000 Olympics (fast forward to 1:20):

The biggest advantage Boston has (and the reason I believe they will win or lose with Paul Pierce) is at small forward. The only player who can possibly guard Pierce is Kobe, and that will leave a player like Sasha Vujacic or Vlad Radmanovic on Ray Allen. Either way, this is a win-win situation, because if LeBron James can't stop Paul Pierce, neither can Kobe. But for Pierce to be unstoppable, he must be aggressive, get to the hoop, get to the line, and hit those terribly hard-looking shots he seems to toss up so easily. If he scores an efficient 25 per game, the rest of the Celtics could more than make up for as much as 35 per game from Kobe.

I'm assuming for the purpose of this article that Lamar Odom will be matched up with Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol will be matched with Kendrick Perkins. I flip-flopped back and forth a few times in my assessment of who would guard who, and to be honest, it doesn't really make sense either way. My rationale for the choice I made is that Perk and Pau play in the post more than Garnett and Gasol do. But who knows what Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers will do.

Lamar Odom is going to have his hands very full whoever guards him. This will be the first series he doesn't have to go up against another Western team's terrible excuse for a center. Garnett should shut him down entirely, and that's a big problem, because Odom has been very important for the Lakers in the Spurs and Utah series. The question is whether he was so helpful because he raised his quality of play or because he took advantage of the lack of skills of his defender. I can't believe it is the former, even though I like Odom, and I think he is due for a serious slump.

Garnett, on the other hand, will be guarded by one of the weaker defenders on the Lakers. In Boston's first meeting, he outscored Odom 21 to 4, and the second time, outscored him 22 to 14. However, both Lakers/Celtics contests during the regular season were before the Pau Gasol trade, so it's impossible to know how this will effect the matchup.

It is Pau that will be the biggest unknown in the series, and other than Pierce, his success may be more important than anyone else's (only because Kobe's is a given). I don't know how well Kendrick Perkins will guard him. The only game Boston played against Gasol (when he was on the Grizzlies) saw him score 12 points on 3-13 shooting (in 40 minutes). I didn't watch that game and frankly know nothing about it. I am familiar enough with Gasol and Perkins to be sure that Perkins will have his hands full, even though he's been playing well. Gasol has all the tools necessary to get Perkins uncomfortable and into foul trouble, and I'm sure he'll do that.

However, the Celtics play great interior defense, and Kevin Garnett will provide help from the weak side along with whoever else is near the key. Pau is the player who can really screw up the team defense of the Celtics if he requires a lot of help to guard, but I'm not convinced he will be able to do it in what should be a very physical finals.

The Celtics have a great advantage in the depth of their bench, but this will only really matter if they decide to get out and run, which I don't expect. Doc Rivers has not done a good job being consistent with his lineups and although the quality of the players on Boston's bench is better, I do not think their play will effect the series in any meaningful way (at least any more than the Lakers bench).

The bottom line, for me, comes down to defense. I can see Boston shutting down every player on the Lakers other than Kobe, whereas the Lakers will have the ability only to slow down Ray Allen. Two heads are better than one, even Kobe's. Celtics in six.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

PS: I leave you with the sage words of Ray Allen circa 2004, immediately after Shaq left the Lakers, on Kobe Bryant:

"He's going to be very selfish and he feels like he needs to show this league and the people in this country that he is better without Shaq. He can win championships without Shaq. So offensively, he's going to jump out and say, 'I can average 30 points. I can still carry the load on this team...If Kobe doesn't see he needs two and a half good players to be a legitimate playoff contender or win a championship in about a year or two he'll be calling out to Jerry Buss that 'We need some help in here,' or 'Trade me' and we'll all be saying, 'I told you so,' when he says that."


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