Can the Celtics “Beat L.A.”?

Hooray for the Boston Celtics. They’ve peaked at the ideal time. Paul Pierce is playing out of his mind. Rajon Rondo is the best player on the court. Ray Allen keeps coming up with clutch three-pointers. The Celtics have taken down some NBA superstars in Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. But as hard as it is to believe, the Celtics have an even taller task ahead of them in defeating the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers combine many of the facets that made the Heat, Cavaliers, and Magic great. They have a singularly dynamic superstar in Kobe Bryant, just like the Heat and the Cavaliers had. But unlike those teams, who had superstars and nothing else, the Lakers also have Orlando’s height up front, making them a danger to score from a distance AND to rebound and score in the paint. What follows is a position by position analysis of each team and who I think has the advantage.

Center: The Celtics definitely have the defensive advantage in Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum, but the Lakers may have a slight offensive edge. Still, Bynum has been incredibly streaky this postseason because he is still finding himself after his latest injury. Meanwhile, Perkins has been a model of consistency in terms of defense (when he is not on the bench for fouls or getting ejected for b.s. technicals). If he can keep cool, I think the Celtics have a minor advantage at this position. The Lakers are not as strong a three-point shooting team, so Perkins shouldn’t have to come out of the paint as often to help out with screens and pick-and-roll plays. This will free him up to bang bodies with Bynum and Lamar Odom, and I think the matchup favors us.

Power Forward: When he’s healthy, I will take Kevin Garnett over most power forwards in the game. The problem is, Garnett didn’t look healthy in his series against Orlando. He was slower, less intense on defense, and not able to jump as high as he used to. Now he has to cover Pau Gasol, a slashing power forward who can drive to the basket. So it comes down to a slightly hobbled, perimeter-shooting power forward against an attacking, rebounding power forward who’s looked good all postseason. In this case, the edge goes to the Lakers.

Small Forward: This position is pretty obvious. It’s Paul Pierce, who’s averaging over 19 points per game, vs. Ron Artest, who’s averaging 11.5. Paul Pierce is one of the keys to our offense (along with Rondo), whereas Artest is a defensive forward who’s a liability on offense (his last game against Phoenix excluded, his average drops to under 11). Paul Pierce has been battle tested by LeBron James, and covering Ron Artest should be a cakewalk by comparison. Now, Pierce sometimes covers Kobe Bryant. If this is the case, the matchup favors the Lakers. But then Artest will cover Ray Allen, and we have the advantage there.

Shooting Guard: Two words: Kobe Bryant. He is playing ungodly this postseason. And as much as I love Ray Allen, he can’t cover Kobe or out-shoot him. Kobe is one of those players that you can’t stop, you can only hope to contain. Hopefully, no one else on the Lakers finds their shooting form. If this happens, then Kobe can be double-teamed and the Celtics have a chance. If you’re adding Kobe to an already successful offense, you’re going to be awfully difficult to beat.

Point Guard: The Derek Fisher vs. Rajon Rondo argument is almost as one-sided as the Bryant-Allen one. Rajon Rondo, should the Celtics win the finals, will in all likelihood be the Finals MVP. As long as his muscles aren’t spasming, he should have no trouble getting around and defending Derek Fisher. He has the advantage of being the best player on the court most of the time (especially whenever the Lakers rest Bryant, which Rondo doesn’t really seem to need). If he can get the Celtics offense going, their defense should contain the Lakers enough to enable some victories.

Bench: It’s Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar vs. Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and Tony Allen. Farmar is a bad defensive player who can shoot threes, whereas Allen is a plus defender who is not known for scoring. Let’s call this a wash, although I think Tony Allen will have more of an opportunity to impact games with his defense than Farmar will with his offense (he could annoy Kobe). Rasheed Wallace, when he’s on, is better than Lamar Odom. When he’s off, it’s probably a wash. And I love Glen Davis and don’t think very much of Sasha Vujacic. I think he can be confused and beaten on defense and contributes nothing offensively. Meanwhile, Davis can shoot from the perimeter, pick up rebounds on both sides of the court, and take charges. Glen Davis gives the Celtics’ bench a slight advantage.

Coach: Phil Jackson has way more rings, but Doc Rivers has one too, and he has lots of experience coaching this particular rotation of players in the playoffs. He draws up plays from timeout better than Jackson does, but Jackson is more efficient in his play-calling. I like Doc Rivers, and I think he’ll be motivated to enter his year-off (which I think he’ll take) on a high note, but the advantage goes to the Lakers.

So how does it all work out? The Celtics are better at center, small forward, point guard, and bench, but the Lakers are better at power forward, shooting guard (they get a +2 here since it’s Kobe Bryant), and coach. The final score: 4-4. Add to that the Celtics’ road success, and you have an almost completely even series, at least on paper. So it all comes down to guts and instinct. If the Lakers destroy Boston on the boards, they will probably win. If the Celtics can rebound with the Lakers and keep them out of the paint, they will probably win. So in the end I’ll go with the pattern we’ve seen the last few series from Boston and give my final prediction: Celtics in six. Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!

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