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NBA Finals Match-Up

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/05/2008

The NBA Finals finds the top two teams in each conference meeting, old rivals the Lakers and Celtics. It’s a battle of matchups and tempo. The Lakers are young, athletic and prefer an uptempo pace, averaging 108 ppg this season. Boston can play both styles, but prefers an intense, defensive style, which has been evident in all their playoff wins.

The matchups are going to be fascinating to watch. In the low post, Boston has star Kevin Garnett and young Kendrick Perkins, who has impressed in the postseason in several games. LA has Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Odom and Gasol have been perfect complements to Kobe Bryant. Note that Bryant, the league MVP, was a poor 15-46 from the floor in the two games combined against Boston this season.

The Celtics took those two games by 19 and 13 points, but Gasol hadn’t joined the team yet. Gasol for Kwame Brown is going down as one of the worst trade in NBA history, if not THE worst. The Lakers should send an Xmas card to first-year Memphis GM Chris Wallace, who ran the Celtics into the ground before Danny Ainge started the resurrection. With Gasol and Odom as running mates, Bryant gets even more room to maneuver. As a team, the Lakers are shooting 47.8 percent in the postseason. Bryant is averaging 5.8 assists.

The Boston defensive transformation this season is largely the result of first-year assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who demands all players hustle on defense and get a hand in every shooter’s face. Boston had the best defensive rating in basketball by a wide margin. In Game 1 against Cleveland, superstar LeBron James was 2-for-18 against the Celtics. It’s hard to imagine Kobe struggling like that, but the point is, the Celtics attack everywhere on ‘D’ (at least at home). They are a poor 2-7 SU/ATS on the road, though.

San Antonio has a couple of regulars from the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, and all Kobe did was score 29.2 points and shoot 53.3 percent in the conference finals. For the 2008 playoffs as a whole, Bryant is averaging 32 points on 51 percent shooting. The Celtics had some success in their two meetings with Kobe in the regular season. He averaged just 25 points on 32.6 percent shooting, going 6-for-25 from the floor when the Celts won their fourth game in five nights on Dec. 30 in LA. He went 9-for-21 in LA on Nov. 23. The first was November 23 in Boston, and the 10-1 Celtics beat the 7-5 Lakers 104-97. The second was December 30 in L.A., when the 26-3 Celtics beat the 19-11 Lakers 110-91. Boston shot 49% in the two games.

That second meeting was interesting, as both teams were fired up. There were six technicals, and Garnett got stitches above his eye. Bryant took 46 shots in the two meetings, which he made into 50 points by going 17-20 from the line. He had only six assists, in the two games combined. Of course, the Lakers are so much better with Gasol up front as a rebounder and all-around offensive option. And Cleveland was 2-0 against the Spurs last year, then got swept in the Finals.

The more interesting matchup is who will guard Kobe? Ray Allen did most of the time during the regular season, but that’s not a good matchup for Boston in a series like this. Allen is much shorter, in his 30s and mainly a long range jump shooter on offense. When Allen had foul trouble, Paul Pierce handled some possessions and Pierce, at 6-7, has been outstanding defensively in the playoffs.

Perhaps some non-stars are going to stand out, as is often the case. Kendrick Perkins had a huge game the first time the two teams met in November. Perkins had 21 points on ten shots, nine boards, just one foul.

It should be an interesting series. The Celtics haven’t looked like the team that won 66-regular season games, needing 20 out of a maximum 21 playoff games to get here. They struggled badly on the road against the Hawks and Cavs, looking lost at times at both ends of the floor. Bryant said this week, 'I'm really looking forward to playing the Celtics, there is so much history between the two franchises, it's going to be an extremely special series.' Let the games begin!

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