So the Conference Finals turned out to be more competitive than they at first appeared. Boston, after thrashing Orlando in the first three games, let off the gas a bit allowing the Magic to win a couple before closing out the series by stomping Orlando in game six. The Lakers carried the momentum from the two big wins in game one and two against Phoenix to hold off a furious Suns rally to win that series in six as well. I said before the series that if Phoenix didn’t win one of the first two games in L.A., then they had no shot. They didn’t, and despite playing much better, nobody’s taking four out of five from L.A.
Now it’s on to the finals, a much talked about rematch of two years ago when the Celtics beat the then-upcoming Lakers around like a rag doll. This time, however, the Lakers appear to be the better team and they have the home court. Will it matter? It certainly could. Just like the Phoenix series, Boston absolutely must at least split the first two games in L.A. Unfortunately for them, L.A. is 8-0 at home in these playoffs winning by an average of about 10 points per game. Of course, that is a little misleading because of a 24 point win over OKC and a 21 point win over Phoenix. In reality, they won some other home games by scores of 3, 5 and 2. While they’ve been consistently good at home, they haven’t been totally dominant. And they certainly haven’t played a team with the drive and will of Boston. The Celtics are 5-3 on the road so far in these playoffs, with two wins a piece in Cleveland and Orlando. Can the Celtics win in L.A.? Yes, they can.
Like all great basketball, this series will come down to physicality. Can Ron Artest bully Paul Pierce or vice versa? Can KG, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace push around the Bynum-Gasol-Odom frontcourt? Can anybody stop Rajon Rondo or Kobe Bryant? The one thing I think that may be the deciding factor is that Boston will not be intimidated by the Lakers. OKC played them tough but they were too young to know any better. Utah was bruised and bullied from the get-go. Phoenix never really seemed to believe they could actually win the series, especially after the game one thrashing. L.A. will have to beat Boston because they are not going to give up.
The center matchup is going to be a key in this series, namely whether Bynum’s knee will hold up or can Perkins stay away from his next technical which will result in a one-game suspension. If Bynum can’t go at any point or is ineffective, then Gasol will move into the center spot where he is simply physically overmatched, as was evidenced by the 2008 Finals. If Perkins does miss a game in what will prove to be a testy series and Bynum is healthy, then it will be exceptionally difficult to keep L.A.’s bigs from dominating. Boston is the first team L.A.’s played that can actually match up with the Lakers size, which is their greatest advantage. That and the guy named Bryant. If Kobe goes off like he did in game six against Phoenix, then nobody’s beating L.A. But if he plays like he did against the only other team that really challenged him, OKC, then Boston will likely win.
After the first round, it was pretty obvious that the Lakers were going to win both those series. Boston, on the other hand, was prohibitive underdogs both against Cleveland and Orlando yet they handily whipped them each. One more time, Boston is considered a big underdog. Can they make it three straight upsets? Yes, they can.
This series is about more than just the favored defending champs hanging another banner, this is about the legacy of this version of the Lakers. Despite dominating the Western Conference, they were whipped by Boston in 2008. Last year, they cruised to a title, but against a lesser team in Orlando while Boston’s injuries gutted any real chance at a repeat. Now Boston is largely healthy and playing well. If L.A. loses this series despite being the big favorite and holding home court advantage, it really calls into question last year’s title, as well. If the Celtics had been healthy last season, would L.A. have taken that one? It’s an interesting question that we’ll never get an answer to, but another Boston win this year will definitely take some of the luster off that 2009 title.
For the record, I’m picking the Celtics to win this series in 6. I think they win not one, but two games in L.A. And congratulations will go to Rajon Rondo as the series MVP, averaging very nearly a triple double.
By the way, I’m 11-3 in picking series winners, losing only Dallas and Denver in the first round and San Antonio in the quarterfinals. Not too shabby.