With the NBA Playoffs starting today, there is nothing left to do but to man up and offer a prediction on who will win the championship.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of all things NBA Finals, with a prediction at the bottom to put the icing on the cake.
Point Guard Battle: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
A lot of the position battles can be argued either way in this series. This is not one of them.
Rondo has the clear advantage over the Lakers’ elder statesman point guard at this point of their respective careers. Throughout this year’s playoffs he has essentially carried the Celtics on his back, averaging 20.7 points, 11.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game. Rondo is the engine that makes Boston’s well-oiled machine run, and he will ultimately be the key to them beating the Lakers. As if his offensive capabilities weren’t scary enough, he is also a great defender with big hands who will do some serious damage if the ball is exposed.
In Derek Fisher, the Lakers have a hard-nosed, veteran leader who is dependable in the clutch and a calming force in the locker room. And that’s it. Years of wear and tear on his body have taken him down from being a talented defender to a being a “smart” (read: slow) defender. On the offensive end, Fisher can provide spurts of scoring every now and then, but nothing consistent enough for the Lakers to rely on.
Shooting Guard Battle: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant
This is a much closer match-up than most critics will want to admit.
Ray Allen is arguably the greatest shooter the league has ever seen. He can get his shot off against anyone in the league, including Bryant. His fast release and ridiculous accuracy will mean the Lakers have to account for him at all times. The only noticeable difference in Allen’s game over the years is the wear and tear on his tires. The player who once had one of the most underrated drives to the basket in the league has slowed down to the point where instances of him getting to the basket are a few and far between occurrence. Still, he can run around screens with the best of them, and he’ll surely tire out whoever has the annoying task of guarding him.
The flip side of the shooting guard coin in this series is Bryant. While Allen wears the crown for best pure shooter in the league’s history, Bryant goes for the almost-unreachable title of “greatest of all time.” The Black Mamba is equally lethal offensively and defensively, and he will force the Celtics to put at least two men on him if they want to slow him down. If he forces the Celtics to switch off from someone -- Ron Artest, most likely -- to throw a help defender at him, the Lakers possess the perfect mix of inside length and shooting talent to make Boston pay.
Small Forward Battle: Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest
Another battle that will be a lot closer than people anticipate.
In Pierce, the Celtics have their star, franchise player and future Hall of Famer. It was Pierce who put on an offensive exhibition against the Magic in the closeout game with a 31 point, 13 rebound and five assist effort. He has the ability to score in almost any situation, and his length will give Artest fits. On the other end of the floor, if they decide to switch Pierce onto Bryant, he has shown by efforts against LeBron James that he has the power to be a very solid defender.
The Lakers on the other hand, have Artest, the player they brought in specifically for this scenario. He brings them much needed toughness, determination and a little bit of craziness. Offensively Artest can be a liability at times. He is prone to putting up bad shots during inappropriate moments, and his defensive capabilities have deteriorated over the years. Still, he has the strength and attitude necessary to slow down Pierce, and he will be one of the defining reasons the Lakers either win or lose the championship this year.
Power Forward Battle: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol
More than any other, this is the position battle that will determine who win the NBA championship.
Garnett is one of the fiercest competitors the league has ever seen. Despite battling injuries for the last two years, he is still the player most key to Boston’s success. Years of banging down low have taken their toll on Garnett’s knees, and he is a much slower defender than he used to be. He will have difficulty keeping up with Gasol and will try to muscle him away from the basket. Further, he will try to use his length against Gasol, and force the Spaniard to take shots out of rhythm. Offensively, Garnett still has a nice shot, but his aforementioned injuries have caused him to shy away from taking it to the hole. As a result, he has essentially become the Celtics’ fourth option on offense.
While Bryant is the best player on the Lakers’ roster, Gasol is their most valuable. He was the key reason the team lost the title two years ago, and he will be the key reason if they win this year. Gasol is a far more skilled player than Garnett at this point in their respective careers. He has a nice jump shot, a relatively quick first step and amazing court vision for a player of his size. On the defensive end, Gasol is extremely underrated and underappreciated. While he was somewhat soft against the Celtics’ frontline in 2008, it was far more the result of him being bodied by two defenders than his own personal shortcomings. Look for him to give the already-slowed Garnett serious fits when the former tries to attack the basket.
Center Battle: Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum
If the aforementioned power forward match-up is going to be a pleasure to watch, this showdown between Perk and Bynum will be almost painful to watch. One offensively inept angry guy, going against an inconstant, constantly injured, immature youngster.
Perkins’ use for the Celtics starts and ends on the defensive end. He is an extremely strong and kind of long defensive player who plays an enforcer role for Boston. When squaring up against soft or small players, he can give the Celtics a huge advantage, but because Bynum is equally big, it will play little to no role in this series. Offensively, Perkins brings little to the table beyond the occasional put back. Further, he will have to control himself and his temper throughout the finals as he is a mere one technical away from being suspended for one game.
Whereas Bynum possesses offensive capabilities Perkins can only dream to have, he can’t stay healthy long enough to show them off. One or two seasons of being injured is okay, but with Bynum this has become a career-defining thing. Said injuries have caused them to be incredibly inconsistent throughout the playoffs this year, and the Lakers have gotten far more use of giving Lamar Odom Bynum’s minutes.
Advantage: Celtics (slight)
Both teams’ benches have had their shining moments in the playoffs.
For the Celtics, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace have provided a solid spark during the playoffs. While Wallace’s consistency has left something to be desired, Davis’ interior play will play a big role as the finals progress. Also, during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Nate Robinson came alive and provided a huge boost for Boston with his scoring, athleticism and energy. If that little energizer bunny’s switch was flipped on in that game and hasn’t been turned off since, it could prove to be one of the turning points for the series.
The Lakers have a very talented reserve unit. However, they’re also extremely, extremely unreliable. Lamar Odom had a monster series against the Phoenix Suns, but it will be interesting to see how he does under the bright lights of the NBA Finals. His length and ability to bang inside will be crucial to any success the Lakers hope to have. Odom alone will not be enough, though. Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and the gang have to come to play. Particularly because you can expect for Rondo -- unless Kobe shuts him down completely -- to put Fisher in some serious foul trouble.
Advantage: Lakers (slight)
Doc Rivers is an amazing coach. Anyone that thinks it’s easy to take three perennial underachievers and make them into a championship-ready unit is out of their minds. He is an excellent motivator, and his unique ability to be a players’ coach while still commanding their respect is something few other coaches have mastered. It was his planning and strategizing when it came to the minutes played of Piece, Garnett and Allen that allowed the Celtics to make it to the finals.
On the other bench, you have the Zenmaster. Phil Jackson has more rings than anyone who has ever coached in the NBA. Regardless of what people who don’t understand basketball say, that means a lot.
Final Prediction: The Lakers are more talented and have far more to prove. They will not get out-muscled again. A healthier Bynum and the addition of Artest give the Lakers the necessary bodies to compete with the Celtics strength. Plus, Bryant has been on a tear since getting his knee drained.
Lakers in 6 or 7