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Saturday, October 25, 2014

NBA Finals Preview: Seven Things To Keep An Eye On

The NBA Finals are almost upon us.  While very few people (myself included) expected to see a Boston Celtics-LA Lakers Final for the second time in three years, I haven’t heard many people groaning about it.  The rivalry between these two teams is unquestionably one of the most exciting in professional sports.  The players don’t seem to like each other.  The fans certainly don’t like each other.  Celtic fans see Jack Nicholson sitting court-side and view him not as an incredible actor, but an obnoxious Laker fan.  Laker fans see Donnie Wahlberg court-side and still don’t know who he is.  LA wants revenge and the Big Three are facing their last real shot at a title.  It should be fun to watch. 

With all the buzz surrounding the series, there are plenty of story lines and themes to keep tabs on going forward.  I’ve come up with a little list of what I think are the most important.  Feel free to chime in if you think I missed something.

7. Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers

Coaching can be overrated.  Coaching can be underrated.  However you want to view it, it’s certainly a factor.  Two years ago, the Boston Celtics were hungrier, more physical, and more disciplined than the Lakers.  They won mainly because of the Big Three.  They also won because Doc Rivers out-coached Phil jackson at various points throughout the series.  The Zen Master’s specialty is getting in the heads of the officials and opposing players.  Rivers’ specialty (with the help of assistant coach Tom Thibodeau) is getting his team to play intense, lock-down defense.  Jackson has to find a way to get his team to match that intensity.  Rivers has to find a way to limit Kobe and Pau’s offensive surges.

6. The benches

The bench match-ups are going to be a huge key in this series. If everyone plays at the top of their game and is healthy the edge goes to Boston easily — but that’s a rare occurrence for a team’s bench. The Celtics absolutely need Rasheed Wallace to be a factor in this series. They were able to beat the Lakers two years ago by throwing their weight around and dominating the game inside the paint on defense with their size. It remains to be seen if Glen Davis will be himself or a bit shy because of his concussion. There’s no Leon Powe to come off the bench and fight for rebounds and take a charge. There’s also no James Posey to come in and give them a timely three-pointer. Wallace, who is shooting over 40% from beyond the arc this postseason, needs to be both of those guys for the Celtics if his back is healthy.

Another player to keep an eye on is Nate Robinson. If he can duplicate the show he put on in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it can be the difference between winning and losing a game this series for the Celtics. Boston will also need to lean on Tony Allen this series — mainly on the defensive side of the ball. Although knee problems have limited him and he is no longer as explosive as he once was, Allen can be a very effective man-to-man defender. If Kobe Bryant gets into a rhythm and starts looking like he can’t be stopped, Doc Rivers will lean on Tony Allen to slow him down.

When health isn’t a factor (I know, it always is) the Lakers’ bench can’t match the Celtics’. One of Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum will be leaned on to contribute as kind of a 6th starter — granted Bynum’s knee holds up which we’ll get into later. If Bynum is able to start every game and log minutes, the Lakers bench will receive an enormous boost with Odom being the first man called upon. LA needs someone who has been quiet this postseason to step up, or they’ll be in danger of losing games in the second quarter. They need either Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic to contribute more, or the Celtics smothering defense will wear out LA’s starters. Vujacic, who could once give the Lakers timely three-pointers off the bench, has been absent thus far in the postseason. Shannon Brown and Farmar will be leaned on most heavily, and the Lakers will need them to respond to the challenge.

5. Which Kevin Garnett will we see?

Two years ago Kevin Garnett locked down Pau Gasol in the NBA Finals, holding him to 14.7 PPG and 10.2 RPG.  Gasol is now a consistent 20-10 player, and it will be interesting to see if KG can still get Gasol off his game or if he’s lost a step.  Garnett’s knee certainly isn’t what it used to be, and that becomes obvious when he lays in an alley-oop from Rajon Rondo, which seems to happen a lot these days.  KG also had the edge in scoring and rebounding over Gasol two years ago in the Finals, with 18.2 PPG and a whopping 13.0 RPG.  I doubt he can duplicate that production, but if he can’t slow Gasol the way he once could and Bynum is able to contribute on offense, the Celtics could have major problems with their interior defense.  Gasol has stated openly that he needs to, and will be, more physical in this series than his was in 2008.  We’ll see.

4. Will Andrew Bynum be healthy enough to become a factor?

Bynum has been playing on a knee that will require surgery this off-season.  After having the fluid drained from it on Tuesday, he says the knee feels no better.  This could be a major problem for LA.  If he is unable to log a decent amount of minutes each game (a minimum of 15), the Celtics could overwhelm the Lakers with their size — especially off the bench.

3. Rajon Rondo

In 2008, Rondo was the wild card for the Celtics.  If he could stay away from youthful mistakes and get the ball in the hands of The Big Three, Boston would have a chance to win it all.  He was able to do just that, but his role on the Celtics has since changed.  Boston now goes as Rondo goes.  They not only need him to get the ball to scorers — they need him to score.  Derek Fisher has been surprising at times with his ability to shut down top-tier guards but it will be interesting to see if he can slow Rondo, who has quickly emerged as one of the best overall point guards in basketball.

2. Kendrick Perkins’ technical situation

Simply put, if Kendrick Perkins can’t control his temper, he’ll be missing an NBA Finals game.  The NBA rescinded the 7th technical foul he was given in the Eastern Conference Finals — essentially admitting that he shouldn’t have been ejected from the game — but that still leaves him with six.  If he gets slapped with another “T”, the Celtics will take a huge hit defensively.  Perkins is one of the better low-post defenders in the game, and his presence will be crucial for slowing down Bynum, Gasol, Odom, and even Bryant when he takes it to the rack.  I’m sure Rivers will beg him to keep his mouth shut and learn to stay out of the officials’ faces during games.

1. Who will guard who?

The most intriguing aspect of this series for me will be who finding out who will be defending who.  We know Ron Artest is going to guard Paul Pierce.  The question is can Ray Allen stay with Kobe Bryant.  Allen did a decent job of it two years ago, but that was two years ago and he hasn’t gotten any younger.  Pierce admitted that having to guard LeBron James earlier in the playoffs limited his abilities offensively.  If Allen can’t handle guarding Bryant, Pierce will have to share the responsibility and that could hurt his chances of replicating the 24.3 PPG he put up against the Magic.  At the same time, Kobe will probably spend most of his time guarding Allen, unless Fisher can’t stay with Rondo.  Allen will need to do what he does best on offense if Bryant is guarding him — run around constantly without the ball and come off screens.  If he forces Kobe to have to chase him around for 24 seconds every time the Celtics have the ball, it could help limit a few of the runs Kobe is capable of going on offensively.

All that being said, I like the Celtics in six.

Sources:
Gasol motivated by Finals ‘smackdown’ [Yahoo! Sports]
No change in Bynum’s drained knee [ESPN Los Angeles]
Photo Credit: Getty Images



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