Records: Lakers 33-14 (2nd in West), Celtics 35-11 (1st in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (1st in NBA), Celtics 108 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (9th in NBA), Celtics 100.1 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal (out)
The Lakers Coming in: Just when you start to think that maybe the Lakers have finally moved past their extended first half of the season malaise, they produce yet another confounding dud against the Kings last night. As Darius wrote in his preview yesterday, the game represented a typical trap game before tomorrow’s matinee showdown with the Celtics — and the Lakers fell for it, hook line and sinker. The loss itself wasn’t alarming considering the team’s shoddy defense from the outset; what has to make you question the Lakers’ current mindset, though, is the fact that this veteran team spoke candidly before playing Sacramento about how they refused to look ahead to Boston…then were guilty of doing exactly that. Luckily, that’s what magnified regular season games like tomorrow’s are for — to test their collective championship mettle with only two and a half months left until the playoffs begin. I fully expect that the loss to the Kings has long been forgotten already and for the Lakers to come out with a playoff mindset that’s been lacking for most of this season.
The Celtics Coming in: The Celtics, who have been ravaged by injuries to their front line throughout the first half of the season, received great news this week when injured center Kendrick Perkins — out for seven months after injuring his knee against the Lakers in last year’s Finals — was given the go-ahead to return to the court. With Shaq ailing of late and Jermaine O’Neal out indefinitely, the timing of Perkins’ return couldn’t be better for the player who Doc Rivers believes would have been the difference in Game 7 last year. He should also dramatically help the C’s on the glass, too, where they are currently worst in the league with only 38 boards a night. Even with Kendrick’s return, the Celtics were perhaps also guilty of looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, suffering their worst loss of the season, 88-71 against Phoenix. Still, at 35-11 and with a comfortable three game lead in the loss column over Miami and Chicago back East, this healthier Boston squad appears primed to officially begin their march to another NBA Finals.
Celtics Blogs: Celtics Hub always does a great job documenting the boys from Bean Town.
Keys to game:
Ah. And so we meet again. By now, every party involved knows the story between these two teams. The ending has shifted over the past few years, but the essential pieces remain the same.
Both the Lakers and Celtics can put the ball in the hoop, but as we all witnessed last June, the verdict between these rivals is almost always determined by defense and rebounding. Unlike last year’s Finals, the keys to both teams’ defenses are finally back and healthy. Andrew Bynum was limited throughout that series, but has made a sizable difference to the Lakers’ D since returning from injury this season. The same can be said for Kevin Garnett and as I mentioned above, Perkins, too. The presence of Shaq, almost specifically brought in to combat the Lakers’ front line, has the potential to change things a little, but we already know Bynum isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Big Fella. Pau Gasol — so clutch against these same C’s in Game 7 — seems to really elevate his level of play against Boston, especially on the defensive end, where his underrated defense against KG was a difference-maker in last year’s Finals. Kendrick’s return will no doubt help the Celtics on the boards, but one of the Lakers’ most valuable strengths in their recent title runs — and for tomorrow’s game — has been their ability to flat out rebound the ball.
The Celtics’ backcourt has run amok on the Lakers basically since the 2007-08 season. The plot line is usually similar: Rajon Rondo dominates extended stretches of games and Ray Allen seemingly gets wide open shot after wide open shot. Despite his improbable poor shooting in Game 7, how many point blank shots did he have in that game? Enough to make most fans crawl into the fetal position on more than one occasion. Though Kobe has had many adversaries over the years (Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, etc.), personally, I’ve always enjoyed his head-to-head battles against Allen. At least with Kobe, you know you have a player who has consistently displayed the requisite skills needed to slow down a guard of Ray’s caliber. If only finding a solution for Rondo — averaging a jaw-dropping 13 dimes a night — were so easy. I give all the credit in the world to Derek Fisher for his clutch play against Boston in Games 3 and 7 of the Finals. That said, he has not once proven himself capable of deterring Rondo from controlling the tempo of the game during the past three seasons against the Celtics. As a result, the Lakers team defense becomes even more important against a disciplined team like Boston. The key here, as always for L.A. (or anyone facing the C’s for that matter), is to try to disrupt Rajon’s flow by enticing him to shoot the ball. The game of percentages is simple here; who would you rather have shooting that eighteen-footer — Rondo or Allen/Pierce/KG?
Major characters aside, how many times have we seen the Nate Robinson’s, Ron Artest’s, Glen Davis’ and Lamar Odom’s single-handedly alter the outcome of games between the Lakers and Celtics? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, Odom stands out to me as a player who could make a huge difference against Boston’s slower front line. With Shaq, Perkins and Davis already with their hands full with Bynum and Gasol, who is left to try and stop Lamar? While I whole-heartedly believe that both L.A. and Boston’s rosters are the most complete, evenly matched in the NBA, the Celtics don’t really have an athletic wing defender who has the length and speed to match up against the Lakers’ versatile assassin. From a defensive standpoint, I think that the Celtics’ inability to stop Odom is almost tantamount to the Lakers’ glaring weakness at point guard. As we saw during Game 7, it was Lamar who quietly triggered L.A.’s comeback from 13 down in the third quarter by using his long arms and dribble penetration to repeatedly get inside the lane or grab a pivotal offensive rebound.
Over the past four years, both the Lakers and Celtics have proven themselves capable of beating the other on the road. You want to believe that STAPLES Center will come to life and give the Lakers an edge as it did in last year’s Finals, but I’m not really sure that it even matters much at this point. These two battle-tested teams know each other intimately by now. It’s an unquestionably an important game for both teams; for the Lakers — who haven’t beaten a true title contender yet this season — and for the Celtics, who are finally almost whole again for the first time this year. Win or lose, tomorrow’s game already seems more like foreshadowing for a greater climax to come, though. But, if anything is going to jolt the comatose Lakers out of their extended 2010-11 nap, it’s a hard-nosed victory against that one-of-a-kind shade of green.
Also, be sure to check out the awesome fan-made promo vid at the top of the page to relive some of the greatest moments of the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, 2.0. I’ve got goosebumps; what about you?
Where you can watch: 12:30 p.m. start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710 AM.