We’ve talked Boston’s O vs. the Lakers’ D and vice versa. We’ve discussed the history of the rivalry. And we’ve even gotten the Celtics’ perspective. But the wait is over; it’s now time to play the games. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is tonight and the Lakers are now in the position that they’ve played for all season – the chance to defend their championship.
But after three playoff series of varying difficulty, nothing can really compare to this stage nor prepare the Lakers for the challenge ahead. The Celtics are the best team that the Lakers will face these playoffs and it’s not really close. They are a team that operates within a defined structure on both sides of the ball and executes at an extremely high level while playing even harder. They are a true team. And in order for the Lakers to win the series – but especially game one – they’ll need to be mentally and physically prepared for what Boston is going to throw at them.
And even though we’ve covered some X’s and O’s, there are a couple more points that haven’t been explored that I’d like to touch on. We’ve already talked about the potential of Kobe guarding Rondo. And in his press conference yesterday, Phil Jackson said that Kobe would “occasionally be on” the C’s dynamic PG. And while the intricacies of that match up have been discussed ad nauseam, there is one aspect that we haven’t discussed nearly enough – the cross match. Phillip linked to a post at NBA Playbook yesterday that talked about a potential pitfall of Kobe defending Rondo being that when Rondo grabs defensive rebounds, Kobe will have to then find him in transition (as Rondo likely won’t be guarding Kobe) and this could create scenarios where the Lakers don’t have their preferred match ups in place; that the Lakers may bungle their defensive assignments and either allow driving lanes or give up open three pointers when transitioning from offense to defense. And this is definitely a concern for the Lakers D.
However, just as big a concern should be when Kobe grabs defensive rebounds and the Celtics then have to find their proper assignments in transition (as Kobe would be defending Rondo and now the C’s PG has to make a decision on whether to stay with Kobe or go find Fisher). Back in 2008 (and as recently as the OKC series when Kobe guarded Westbrook) one way that Kobe was able to get easier looks for himself and create offense for his teammates was by forcing the cross match in transition and then going to work on the smaller defender (the PG) that did not have time to switch off and find his own man. If Kobe is able to get matched up on Rondo a lot (or even just on a handful of possessions) this can be the opening that he needs to get himself (and his teammates) the easy baskets that the Celtics don’t often surrender. Especially if Kobe is able to get to the low post by executing the move that he performed so well against Utah – the back down dribble in transition on the secondary break. Once Kobe has the ball in his hands and he identifies a smaller defender on him he instantly calls for the side to be cleared so that he can go to work on the low block. And whether it’s Rondo or one of the Allen’s, this will be something for us to watch for tonight when Kobe is bringing the ball up the court in a semi-break for the Lakers. Because when Kobe is able to create post up chances off the dribble (without having to fight his defender for post position, burning energy and the shot clock) he’s even more deadly with his array of quick pivots, turn around jumpers, and shot fakes-then-step throughs.
A second piece of the game plan that we’ve yet to explore fully is what role Andrew Bynum will play in this series. We’ve heard that ‘Drew had his knee drained and that while the swelling is down, the pain is still there. And while I’m no doctor, I would think this is to be expected. Bynum has a partially torn meniscus and that pain isn’t just going to vanish because he had some fluid removed from his knee. After all, he’s going to need surgery to repair the damage. That said, I expect ‘Drew to be a bit more than just a big body on defense that clogs the lane on penetration and grabs rebounds. Bynum is still a capable player in the post and is still a player that sets a damned good screen (both in the P&R and in the weak side actions of the Triangle). While I don’t think we’ll see the 19 and 11 player that Bynum was in one of the games vs. the C’s in the regular season, I do think he’ll get plenty of isolations in the post where he gets a chance to go at Perkins and KG one on one without help. And these are chances that I think Bynum can be successful in (he’s still got some of that polish, even if he doesn’t have all his lift). I also think that Bynum will grab a couple of offensive rebounds each game due to the combination of his size and the extra attention that Gasol will get in Boston’s help schemes. Offensive rebounds that lead to put backs and free throw attempts.
But these are trends that will play themselves out over the course of the series. When looking at tonight specifically, I think it all comes down to the first and fourth quarters. Being at home, the Lakers have an opportunity to use the energy of their crowd to come out and set the tone. If they’re able to establish their style of play (an early jumper for Kobe, some good post ups from Bynum and Pau) it will go a long way towards getting their momentum moving in a positive direction. As for the fourth quarter, the Lakers must sharpen up their execution down the stretch and get the buckets they’ll need against a tightening Celtics defense. Remember, the C’s are prone to offensive dry spells and it’s in those stretches where their defense picks up the slack and allows them to stay in the game. If, in the last 6-8 minutes of the fourth, the Lakers can create some distance, they should be able to win this all important game one and set the tone for the entire series. All of this is easier said than done, but if it was as simple as just speaking it, what’d be the point in playing the game?
In the end though, this game will come down to so many little things that we could go on forever exploring the intricacies of this Finals match up. And there will be plenty of time to do so after we have some games under our belts and some film to look at. So for now, just sit back and enjoy the show. The two teams that are playing the best basketball in the league are about to play that all important game 1 in the race for the championship. There isn’t a better time to be a Lakers fan and we should all savor this moment. Because even though this is the third straight season that the Lakers are in the decisive series, these chances are pretty rare. We all remember the down years, don’t we? Tonight, all I want to see is that focus and execution that we know the Lakers are capable of. Now, let’s get that win.
(And in case you needed any more inspiration for the game, check out LD2K’s most recent offering to get you in the mood for the game.)