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Lakers/Celtics: A Contrast in Styles

   by Scott Spreitzer - 06/01/2008

I have to say I'm looking forward to handicapping the Los Angeles Lakers/Boston Celtics NBA championship series that begins Thursday June 5.

The Lakers have broken the mold of recent championship contenders that showcased slow, physical teams.

*San Antonio/Cleveland featured halfcourt teams who emphasized physical play, defense, and rebounding. Gregg Popovich was coaching against a protégé.

*Miami/Dallas featured halfcout teams who weren't as physical as San Antonio, but who still ran set plays for their offensive stars rather than opening things up. Pat Riley was coaching against a different Popovich protégé.

*Detroit/San Antonio featured halfcourt teams who emphasized physical play, defense, and rebounding. It was Larry Brown against Gregg Popovich.

Phil Jackson has finally re-crashed the party that he had been excluded from in recent years. And, he's bringing a free-flowing attack that features a fast pace (6th fasted in the NBA during the regular season) and his artistic "triangle offense" that maneuvers the ball in and out to open shooters. He'll be facing another collection of bruisers. This time, it's the Boston Celtics who represent the "defense and rebounding" approach under coach Doc Rivers.

I know many fans have gotten tired of watching wrestling matches parading as basketball games. This year, we have a real contrast in styles. That's a lot more fun to handicap.

Here are the keys to the series in my opinion:

*Can the Celtics find a way to at least contain Kobe Bryant in the latter stages of close games? The Spurs couldn't do this when it mattered. And, frankly, the Lakers have done a pretty good job of avoiding buzzer games anyway. This series is likely to have at least one nailbiter finish if not more. The Lakers have a GREAT weapon in a game like that in Kobe. Boston really doesn't.

*Can the Celtics turn the series into a wrestling match? As fans, we don't want to see that. But if you're betting on Boston, that is what you want. Boston must force the Lakers to play a slow plodding pace, then frustrate the various offensive weapons. If this series has any tempo at all, the Lakers will run off 8-10 points on a couple of treys and a couple of dunks before Rivers can call a time out. It takes a slow team like Boston awhile to make up that many points.

*Can the Celtics earn respect from the referees in tight games? You know Kobe Bryant is going to get calls. You know that Phil Jackson will have the ears of the officials more intently than Doc Rivers will. Seniority rules in this league. Kevin Garnett is respected. But this is a new collection of talent in Boston in terms of working as a unit. When push comes to shove, the Lakers are likely to get the calls. Boston has to do what it can early to keep that from happening.

*Can Ray Allen of the Celtics string together some good games? The world has realized he's basically a spot shooter who can't do much else besides hit open jumpers. Both Cleveland and Detroit did a good job of denying those open looks. Well, Cleveland did a GREAT job of it, while Detroit lost its legs after awhile, allowing him to score. The Lakers are prone to relax occasionally on defense, particularly away from the paint. Allen could conceivably become a big weapon once again if the Lakers don't respect his potential.

Notice all of those keys involve what the CELTICS have to do. I agree with most that the Lakers should be the favorite in the series. They're the best team from the superior conference. And, they've been more impressive round by round.

FIRST ROUND: Lakers won in 4 games, Celtics in 7 games

SECOND ROUND: Lakers won in 6 games, Celtics in 7 games

THIRD ROUND: Lakers win in 5 games, Celtics in 6 games

The Lakers played tougher competition in each round, and took care of business sooner. The fact that Boston has home court advantage could make things more competitive. If the Celtics can't succeed in the keys I've outlined, I don't think they'll be able to make it over the top. But if they DO, they're certainly capable of springing an upset and winning the crown. This will be the first series where Boston isn't a clear favorite. They might respond very well to the underdog role.

Here are the stats I'll be monitoring closely in the boxscores:

*Field Goal Percentage Allowed: The Lakers don't get enough respect in this area in my view. They're prone to relax too much at home. On the road they really clamp down though.

*Rebounding Differential: if the Lakers win this, the series is over. Boston will have to win this by a lot to have a chance.

*Free Throw Attempt Differential: I'm not so much concerned about who's making free throws. I'm focused on who's getting the calls from the refs. We'll know quickly which team is getting the most respect by monitoring this stat.

*Ray Allen's Individual Stats: the Celtics need contributions from all three of their "musketeers." If he fades away like he did in earlier rounds, there's just no way Boston is going to win four of seven in my view.

I can already tell I have a slightly different read on this series than the oddsmakers do. Let the games begin!

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