Zen Masters and Big Tickets: An NBA Finals Preview

 

Disregard Bryan's antics. It's go time.

It’s that time of the year, Casualtists… Time to win back all the money I’ve squandered on Cavs/Spurs bets. I will take a shot at Mike Brown should the opportunity present itself. What the hell was I thinking? (*hides head in shame*)

The following is a position by position breakdown of the 12th glorious installment of the greatest rivalry in sports (challenge me on this… I dare you). Thankfully, the playoffs stopped sucking about 10 days ago. I think the momentum carries over, and if it doesn’t, I place 100 percent of the blame on Doc Rivers. Let’s do this. 

Center: Andrew Bynum vs. Kendrick Perkins

Lakers: Bynum is one of the most frustratingly inconsistent big men in the game. He’s a worldbeater one night (21-11, on 8 of 10 FG in game 5 vs. OKC) and a total dog the next (2-7, on 0-5 FG in game 5 vs. PHX). You can, however, bank on the on-again, off-again seven-footer to come down with some debilitating leg injury precisely when it matters most. And this season is no different. Bynum tore meniscus in his right knee during game 6 of the Thunder series and posted a gaudy – for Michael Doleac – 7.4 pts, 6.9 rebs in the 10 games since. His banging, slow man’s style definitely matches up better against Perkins and Garnett than it does against the run-you-out-of-the-gym Suns, but at this point, his main contribution comes solely from his girth. He’s a mismatch on paper, at least, and another big body for the C’s bench to deal with. Still, he doesn’t match the intensity of Boston’s bigs and – surprise of surprises – just got his knee drained Monday. That worked out well for Kobe… Kobe’s not 300 pounds. 

Celtics: You might be tempted to overlook Perkins’ 5.6 pts and 6.4 boards in the 2010 playoffs thus far. And you probably should. Boston measures this guy’s contributions in nitty-gritties: boxing out, keeping offensive possessions alive on the glass, diving for loose balls, playing hard-nosed D… This is where Perk both excels and has the edge on the far more talented Bynum. He’s not a game changer, but he is a gamer – a guy who’s been molded into Little KG sans any of Garnett’s skills. He’s feisty as hell, always hustles and has yet to meet a charge he didn’t like to take. If he catches Gasol with an elbow to the nose, Boston’s getting its money’s worth.

Advantage: Lakers, by a nose. Bynum’s healthy size advantage is offset by his lack of mobility and hair-pulling inconsistency. The guy’s a walking crapshoot. 

Power Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett

Lakers: I’m of the opinion that the Lakers are at their best when Kobe and Gasol are sharing the workload. The Big Acquisition destroyed the undersized Jazz to the tune of 23.5 pts, 14.5 rebs, then backed it up with four 21+ point games in the Phoenix series. He’s not the soft European pansy that critics accuse him of being, nor does he shy away from a challenge. His offensive numbers are up across the board from the regular season, and that he makes free throws in the clutch just makes his 20-11, .565 FG% 2010 playoff resume all the more impressive. Gasol is the ultimate No. 2 guy – he’s an alpha dog in his own right, but willing to defer to the alpha dog when the situation dictates. It’s a shame Kobe didn’t learn this lesson six years ago. He’d have seven rings by now.

Celtics: This next sentence has been hanging over me for a solid two months now… I sincerely apologize, Kevin Garnett. Yes, it is true that I not so long ago compared KG to both Sir Paul McCartney’s one-legged ex-wife and a dying golden retriever. This was around the time Garnett was carrying his right leg in a briefcase and hobbling up and down the court like a scurvy-stricken Betty White. Now he’s, dare I say it, Kevin Garnett again. Thirty-four year-old men are not supposed to heal like that. Didn’t happen to Chris Webber. Didn’t happen to Jermaine O’Neal. Didn’t happen to (insert 7-foot old guy). KG’s spin through the rejuvenation machine turned the Celtics’ season around. He’s not the maniacal f-bomb dropper he was two years ago, but he’s the maniacal f-bomb dropper you’d expect that guy to be two years on. The man is IN-TENSE – a little slower on both ends, but still the ferocious guard dog presence his team needs. His attitude is the kind of attitude that wins championships. Plus he’s perfected his baseline J. He’ll kill L.A.’s bigs if they collapse on Rondo in the paint. 

Advantage: Lakers. Gasol’s the more effective player at this point. If we’re measuring heart, Garnett’s second to none.

Small Forward: Ron Artest vs. Paul Pierce

Lakers: Asking me to speak seriously about Ron Artest is like asking Jessica Simpson to do a nude flick. Ain’t happenin. Ron Ron’s something of a savant – like Rain Man, except with a knack for jacking up ill-fated threes instead of counting cards. His defensive aptitude is still painfully overrated by people who haven’t seen him play in three years, but his gritty demeanor and general emotional instability still make him a pain in the ass for older, slower guys (ahem, Paul Pierce). He’d be a hell of a weapon if he ever adopted the Dennis Rodman mentality (the basketball part of that mentality, anyway). The guy’s buggy and crazy enough to be an offense-destroying pest. Unfortunately, he’s too busy being an offense-destroying pest for his own team. After almost single-handedly giving away game 5 of the Phoenix series with poor decision making, Artest redeemed himself with a miracle game-winning put-back at the buzzer. He then further boosted his confidence with a 10 of 16 FG performance in game 6. Phil Jackson is shaking his head right now – the last thing he needs is a Ron Ron with confidence. 

Paul Pierce: After the suckiness from his miserable Cleveland series subsided, Paul got back to reminding people of the guy that destroyed LeBron and Kobe in the ’08 playoffs. He lit up Orlando’s dead dog defense for 24.3 points on 51 percent from the field, while getting to the line at will (10+ free throw attempts in five of six games). His monster closeout game was particularly impressive: 31 pts on 9 of 15 FG, 9 of 10 FT, 13 rebs. By all accounts, Pierce has fully recovered from his slew of knickknack injuries and on track to torch the Lakers like he did in ’08. If Artest successfully gets under his skin, you could see a cameo from the Bad Body Language Monster, but I have full confidence in the championship pedigree. Boston needs to exploit this advantage, because they don’t have many.

Advantage: Celtics. I think I just told you that.

Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. Ray Allen

Lakers: Honest to goodness, I just got a little chill when I typed Mamba’s name. It feels hallowed at this point, right? You feel me on this one? No…? Look, I know that you hate Kobe. I know he’s got an awkward Jordan fetish. I know he does that weird clinched-jawed grunting thing to fire himself up. And I know he’s four wins away from title No. 5. He’s one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen. Period. Quick story: my friend PK and I had the “is Kobe just old?” discussion after game 5 against Oklahoma City. We weren’t the only ones. Ask Mike Wilbon, or anybody at TNT. Kobe had scored 25 points in his last two games. Durantula was running circles around him. Okay. So here are his point totals in every game since that April 27 conversation: 32, 31, 30, 35, 32, 40, 21, 36, 38, 30, 37. Kobe heard the whispers. Now he’s in full Eff You Mode. He’s also the best player in basketball. I don’t know how you stop that. 

Celtics: In the words of the Great Dan Patrick: you cannot stop Ray Allen, you can only hope to contain him. Back in February, I begged Danny Ainge to hang on to Allen at the trade deadline, arguing that, at 34, he was still the most capable of The Big 3 of contributing in the long run. Then I compared him to a late-career Reggie Miller or a “billionaire’s Steve Kerr.” As my father would say: once again, I have been proven correct. Bear with me while I make a list of all the things I like about Ray… I like how he’s old and still has the quickest release since Dan Marino. I like how he’s old and still dunks in your grill at every opportunity. I like how he does that “yessir” finger sign after every big three, and I like how that move makes me wish I was black. I like how Ray almost won game 4 of the Orlando series by himself even though Boston had no business stretching that one to OT. I like Momma Ray, who always comes decked in a #20 C’s jersey and has all the fire of her son. And I really like how Ray will run Kobe off of every moving screen and twice as many back picks. The guy’s a warrior. And a series away from ring No. 2. How many you got, Reggie Miller?

Advantage: Come on. Lakers

Point Guard: Derek Fisher vs. Rajon Rondo

Lakers: Can’t knock D-Fish. He’s been doing pretty much exactly what he’s been doing since his first L.A. season 14 years ago: busting his ass, carrying himself like a pro, popping up every now and then as the Lakers’ third scoring option. His playoffs numbers this year are all up from his regular season totals and his career playoffs averages. Yeah, he’s still a ridiculously streaky shooter, but he’s been on more often than not recently, hitting double digits in 10 of 16 postseason games. That “liability” tag looks pretty stupid when you read 11 points, 46% FG, 39% 3FG. Now the defensive end is another story, which brings us to this guy…

Celtics: Rajon Rondo. He’s been every bit as good as his 17-10-5 playoff numbers would suggest and all of a sudden put his name in the discussion with Nash, Williams and Paul as the best point guard in basketball. From a consistency standpoint he’s not there yet – even though that 15 footer’s getting better by the day – but his 29 pts, 13 assts, 18 rebs performance in game 4 against Cleveland forecasts a higher ceiling than all of those guys. This is the matchup Boston needs to dominate if they’re going to challenge L.A… They will. Fisher couldn’t stick with Rondo if he was made of Velcro. He will get into the paint at will, which means open jumpers for KG and slash and kick threes for Pierce and Allen. I still don’t understand how defenders haven’t figured out that fake-behind-the-back to layup move. Whatever. Rondo’s awesome. Best guy on the team. And now he’s got the keys to the car. 

Advantage: Celtics. If Phil Jackson sleeps, Rondo is the guy that haunts his dreams. 

Bench: Odom, Brown, Farmar, Walton, Vujacic vs. ‘Sheed, Big Baby, Allen, Robinson, Finley 

Lakers: I don’t think it’s much of an overstatement to say that the L.A.’s reserves consist of Lamar Odom, Lamar Odom’s reflection and the shadow of Lamar Odom. Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton have been worthless. Shannon “Throw It Down” Brown’s good solely for a spectacular highlight now and then, and the only reason Sasha Vujacic gets off the bench is to mix it up with his fellow Slovenian bros. So it’s a good thing that Odom’s rounded game picks up the slack. After ho-hum series against the Thunder and Jazz, he rebounded in the uptempo Suns series with at least 15 points in four of six games and at least 10 boards in five of six. Odom can guard multiple positions, too, and his work ethic makes the voluptuous Rasheed Wallace look like the disinterested assclown that he is.

Celtics: Here’s the thing about the Disinterested Assclown: he’s really, really talented. Almost despite himself. ‘Sheed was a disaster all season – a walking man tit who made Bostonians think that the -20 degree weather was the second worst part about January in New England. He didn’t try. Didn’t care. He jacked up threes that made Doc Rivers want to end his own life right there on the sidelines. ‘Sheed shot 28 percent from downtown during the regular season… on 290 attempts! The playoffs? Better. A lot better. Up to 41 percent. And after disappearing in the Miami series, he’s shown signs of being something other than a Pudgy Technical Waiting To Happen, scoring at least 10 in five of 12 games since. ‘Sheed’s also a solid defender when he pretends to care. Tony Allen is a solid defender always. The rest of the bench is undersized, and Glenn Davis, in particular, will have a hell of a time banging with the Lakers’ bigs. Don’t buy the Nate Robinson hype. He had a nice game 4 against Orlando. That’s where it ends.

Advantage: Boston’s better top to bottom, but Odom’s essentially the sixth starter on a loaded team. Lakers.

Intangibles: Phil and Jack vs. Doc and Irish Drunks

Lakers: Phil Jackson collects championship rings like some guys collect toy trains. Yeah, he’s had great teams, but he also has this unparalleled ability to get the absolute most out of every one of his players. He never panics. He never calls hasty timeouts. He’s the guy who said, after back-to-back losses to Phoenix, if we can’t deal with this adversity, we might as well call it quits. The Zen Master tag is legit – he has an uncannily calming influence and mans the sidelines like a professorial Genghis Kahn. Total control, always. As for the rest of Tinseltown, did you see Jack Nicholson wave the flag at Indy last weekend? Great shape for 73. Now add Leo, Denzel, Sly, JT, 12,000 Kobe jerseys and Lakers Girls. Screw the late arriving crowd. The Stapler will rock.

Celtics: The TD Garden gets loud, but hits a wall when it comes to chants with the “r” sound. Example: YOU-SUCK-LUH-MAH. I mean, will Odom even know they’re talking about him? Negative points for booing your team during the regular season, too. Otherwise, Boston’s home court has a lot going for it – namely, boisterous New Englanders who know basketball and can’t hold their liquor, disturbing green leprechauns and, of course, Sean Grande, one of the best play-by-play guys around. I’m a big Doc Rivers guy as well. He’s no Xs and Os whiz, but the man’s passion and coaching-from-the-gut style perfectly matches the fire of his superstars.

Advantage: Lakers. Two words: ten rings.

Prediction: I feel foolish picking against Boston since they’ve proven me and everybody else wrong for 2 straight months. But I like the Lakers in six. They’re too big up front and have the best player on the court. Kobe gets one for the thumb. Phil gets one for the toe. And Shaq cries himself to sleep at night. 

– Robbie

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