2008 NBA Finals Preview
by Trevor Whenham - 06/04/2008
By now you've heard the typical stories about the finals a million times - Kobe Bryant is pretty good, Kevin Garnett has never before been successful in the playoffs, the Celtics and the Lakers used to be major rivals, and the like. In providing an NBA Finals preview I could just mail it in and cover all of that same tired ground again, but there's no fun in that. Instead, let's look at six factors beyond the headlines that could be significant in the series which gets underway Thursday night in Boston.
1. Rebounds - During the regular season the Celtics had a small edge over the Lakers, though both teams had a positive margin. The Celtics were fourth best in the league, with three more rebounds for than against per game. The Lakers were close behind in eighth with a 1.37 rebound per game advantage. Things have changed significantly in the playoffs. The Celtics have improved taking down 3.25 more per game than they have given up. The Lakers, on the other hand, have tanked. They have given up 3.4 more rebounds per game than they have had. That's the third worst average in the league behind only Toronto and Washington. It obviously hasn't hurt the Lakers too much, but if you are a believer in the power of the rebound then you will want to be on alert.
2. Defense - Again, Boston has an edge here. They have given up just 87.2 points per game in the playoffs, the best of any team. They've only given up more than 100 points four times in 20 games. The Lakers have played a much more wide-open game, allowing 99.5 points per game. That's consistent with what happened in the regular season when the Celtics allowed 11 fewer points per game than the Lakers. In other defensive categories the teams match up more closely. Boston has the lowest opposing field goal percentage at 42.1, but the Lakers aren't far behind at 43.3. Three point percentage is even closer - 32.08 vs. 32.16. The Lakers have a tiny edge in steals - 7.33 versus 7.30 - and a bigger one in blocks - 6.13 to 4.40.
3. Offense - If the Lakers allow significantly more points yet they are favored in this series then it only makes sense that they score significantly more than the Celtics. L.A. is the highest scoring team in the league, averaging 105.9 points per game, which is almost 4.5 points per game better than any other team. Boston is much less prolific, averaging 91.6 points. The Lakers also have a significant edge in shooting from everywhere except the foul line. This illuminates the most stunningly obvious yet fundamental truth of this series - the winner is going to be the team that can best assert themselves and their style of play. Boston will win if they can slow down the explosive offense of the Lakers, and particularly the two biggest threats. The Lakers will win if they can break the series open and make it a shootout. Take your time figuring out which one of those scenarios you think is more likely and the ultimate result will be clear.
4. Kobe Bryant - I promised not to dwell on this, but there is one aspect that is somewhat relevant. Bryant hasn't had his best games of the year against the Celtics. He averaged 31.9 points per game on the season, but scored just 28 in the first game and 22 in the second. A couple of things make that only sort of important. First, the second game fell in the midst of a minor slump for Bryant - he scored 15 points the next game out against Philadelphia. More significantly, both games happened before Pau Gasol was a Laker, so the reality of the offense has changed significantly.
5. Kevin Garnett - If we are going to look at the heart of one team then it's only fair that we look at both. Garnett averaged 21 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. He met or exceeded his totals in both games against the Lakers. In the first game he had 21 and 11, and he boosted that to 22 and 12 in the second game. These weren't the biggest breakout games of the year for him, but he clearly didn't struggle, either. Given the Lakers' defensive focus, or lack of it, the one thing we can be comfortable with is that he will mostly be allowed to play his game. Paul Pierce will be happy to see the Lakers in town, too - he averaged 19.4 points per game, but tallied 53 in the two games against Los Angeles.
6. Matchups - Given that the Celtics can't do much about Kobe, and the Lakers will control Pierce and Garnett instead of containing them, the series could come down to two key matchups. The first is Boston's Kendrick Perkins against Gasol. Gasol is excellent at transitioning, and Perkins will be the man mostly in charge of primary coverage of the L.A. big man, so he will be significantly tested when it comes to sticking close to Gasol and not letting him get open. If he can do that then his team stands a good chance. He won't have to do it alone because the team will help when they can, but he still needs to be consistently strong in coverage. The second matchup is the battle of the point guards. Boston's Rajon Rondo is young, but he's carried himself well this year, and he's gaining confidence with every game. On the other side, Derek Fisher is only 33, but he has been around so long that he seems as if he is about 79. He's not an elite point guard, but he knows the Lakers' system and is a great fit for it. Neither player is a difference maker in the Steve Nash or Chris Paul mold, but both are key to their team's success, and the one who best excels in this series could lead their team to victory.