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NBA Finals: An Early Look

   by Ben Burns - 05/30/2008

It’s the battle of the Big Men for the NBA Finals! The No. 1 seeded Lakers took care of business, knocking off the defending champion Spurs in 5 games. Their frontcourt of 6-10 Lamar Odom and 7-foot Paul Gasol offers matchup problems on both ends of the floor. In the Game 5 clincher, a 100-92 LA victory, Gasol didn't shoot well, just five for 15 with 12 points. But he had 19 rebounds, one shy of his career best, and took a whopping nine offensive rebounds, tying his career high. Throw in five assists and four blocked shots and Gasol was a force even on a bad shooting night. He also played defense, holding San Antonio star forward Tim Duncan to a subpar shooting night: 19 points on seven-for-19 shooting.

This season must seem like a dream for Gasol, playing with the miserable Memphis Grizzlies before a Feb. 1 trade to the Lakers. For the record, the trade was for Kwame Brown and Jarvis Crittendon, easily one of the most lopsided in NBA history. What was Memphis GM Chris Wallace thinking? He’s the same guy who ran the Celtics into the ground before Danny Ainge turned things around.

Anyway, the Lakers are playing their best basketball at the right time, riding a 16-3 SU, 14-3-1 ATS run into the Finals. Not having home court for the Finals against Boston or Detroit might not be that big of a deal: They will focus only on a split for the first two games in the East, then come home for three straight in LA. Picture the pressure on the Celtics or Pistons: They HAVE to win the first two games at home, or risk a huge uphill climb on the road.

Taking a look at the regular season matchups between the Lakers and the top two teams in the East, we find that the contests really don’t mean that much, other than the outstanding defense played. On November 23rd, the Lakers lost at Boston 107-94, as Kevin Garnett scored 21 points with 11 rebounds, and Kendrick Perkins had 21 and nine for Boston. The Celtics shot 50%, the Lakers 42%. Kobe Bryant was 9-of-21 shooting (30 points). The Lakers played with center Andrew Bynum, who is now on the shelf, but without Gasol, who was still in Memphis.

On December 30th in LA, the Celtics whipped the Lakers again, 110-91. Paul Pierce scored 33, Garnett had 22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, and Ray Allen scored 19. The Lakers shot just 34%, but played without Gasol or Bynum. Bryant scored 22 for Los Angeles, going just 6-of-25 from the floor. Boston won the rebounding battle both games, but let’s say the Lakers are much better now.

The Lakers won 103-91 at home over Detroit back in November, even though they shot 38% (the Pistons shot 43%). Bryant wound up with 19 points and seven assists despite starting 2-for-14 shooting (he finished 6-of-18). But the Pistons were missing Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess, both of whom were hurt. The Pistons won the rematch, 90-89, on January 31st in another defensive game: Detroit shot .439%, the Lakers .426%. LA dressed just 11 players because of injuries, which is why Kobe had 39 points on 12-of-25 shooting. Bryant had an unusual triple-double, adding a career-high 11 turnovers and 10 rebounds to his scoring total. Don’t read too much into these meetings, as there were a lot of injuries and shorthanded benches. The Lakers play better when Kobe is passing and getting others involved, rather than taking all the shots. All four of the games were played with ferocious defense intensity, which isn’t surprising as they are outstanding defensively. Note that all five of the Spurs/Lakers games just played went under the total. In fact, the Lakers are now 10-5 under the total in the postseason. Matched up against one of the top two defenses in the league, the Finals should prove an extremely interesting and hard-fought affair.

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