Beyond the lore and obligatory conjuring of ghosts, Sunday's matchup between the Lakers and Celtics is a meaningful game between two of the league's best squads. It is still, despite Boston's recent struggles and any road woes for the Lakers, a potential Finals matchup. That makes it big. Very big. Gabby Hayes big!
Brian Kamenetzky, Land O'Lakers: Let's start with Kurt.
It's Lakers vs. Celtics. The big Sunday afternoon game on ABC (12:30 pm PT). All-Stars aplenty. But how important, in terms that don't hearken back to classic series of bygone eras, do you think the actual game is?
Kurt Helin, Forum Blue and Gold: Honestly, I think it matters more to the fans than the teams. These rivalry games matter a lot to the fans. But these are two veteran teams that have won titles and know what it takes, and they know that games in January don't determine the outcome of games in June. What really matters to the teams is getting to June, and so in the sense that both of these teams want to build momentum with a quality win it matters, but neither really needs it for their confidence.
In terms of getting back to June, both teams made off-season acquisitions to help them get another title. Zach, how is Sheed fitting in as a Celtic and what does he bring to the table?
Zach Lowe, Celtics Hub: Sheed is fitting in exactly as you'd expect him to--he's frustrating, occasionally brilliant, obviously creaky and out of shape and jacking some ill-advised 3's. Over the last 20 games or so, he has dialed back the 3-pointers (he was attempting nearly 11 per 36 minutes at one point, a figure not even Antoine Walker ever approached), and he has moved into the post more often--and he remains, at times, devastating from there.
His defense and rebounding are more problematic. Age has really slowed him, and against quicker big guys, he resorts to playing the angles and trying to knock the ball away. He's good at that, so it's far from a crisis, but really skilled guys are too good for him. Most distressing: Quicker big guys are getting around him for offensive rebounds. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if he gets in better shape and turns it up for the post-season.
I'll throw this one to whomever wants it: If you had a chance for a one-time-only do-over on the Ariza/Artest decision, would you do the same thing again?
Brian Kamenetzky: I'll take this one.
It's an interesting question, because the swap (as it were) hasn't necessarily gone smoothly for either team. Ariza's numbers in Houston have been spotty, while Artest hasn't exactly found a groove on a night-in, night-out basis. Interestingly, none of Artest's struggles have had anything to do with common preseason concerns that he'd stunt the offense by stopping the ball or blow up the squad with chronic weirdness (or worse). Instead, his effectiveness has been blunted by mundane stuff like injuries.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Would anyone out there hit the "reset button" on the Artest-for-Ariza quasi-swap?
Kinda boring, really.
As far as, to use a phrase popping up in political talk a lot this week, "hitting the reset button" on the exchange? I'd keep things as they are. Artest is, when healthy, still the better player and was a major reason the team's defense improved so much over the first part of the season (something becoming more clear as Artest's mobility has diminished). While Artest may not shoot gaps like Ariza, that he doesn't tend to cheat as much simplifies and stabilizes that end of the floor.
Offensively, Ariza did provide an effective presence as a slasher cleaning up near the basket and knocking down 3's, but as a shooter Artest has actually been more effective, and he drives and posts better than TA.
Andy Kamenetzky, Land O'Lakers: Well, if Artest's feet never recover, I might "hit the reset button," because I'd take a healthy guy over a stopper with bad wheels. And I might hit the button simply because it would be cool to have that power, like Zack Morris calling "time out." Opportunities like "reset" just don't come up that often. But assuming he recovers, I'm fine with how Artest has played, all in all. I thought he was making progress over the first couple of months and there were times where he was terrific. He had the league's second highest +/- at one point. As I always say about stats, they don't mean "everything," but they generally don't mean "nothing," either.
And judging by what I read in the Houston blogosphere, they might not mind a shot with the reset button. Ariza has often been less efficient and more of a ball stopper than the man nicknamed "Dribble Dribble."
As for the question thrown my way, I'm interested in two bench matchups: Lamar Odom against Rasheed Wallace and Shannon Brown against Eddie House. House can obviously get hot in a hurry (or shoot a team out of a game if given a long enough leash, which I'm hoping for) and Sheed's enjoying a very good January, probably his best month since joining the team. He and LO could be a terrific "battle within the battle," a battle of two guys capable of thrilling or frustrating the hell out of their fans, as Zach alluded to earlier.
In any event, the Lakers bench needs to step up, whether that's Lamar, Shannon or Jordan Farmar. They've been pretty good as a collective this month, and at times, inspired. But on the road, second units often have a tendency to disappear. That needs to be avoided, especially against a quality team in their house.
Okay, Kurt, you're up. Pick a matchup among the starting five you're most interested in, whether because it's a key to the game or just fun as a basketball fan.
Kurt Helin: The matchup that may have the biggest outcome on the game is Derek Fisher — very quickly followed by Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown — on Rondo (Kobe may even get a shot at key moments). The Lakers' inability to stop quick point guards is legendary, and Rondo has been maybe the Celtics MVP this season. If Rondo can get into the lane all night long he is going to get a lot of layups, or guys like Garnett and Sheed are going to get some wide-open looks on the kickout. Phil Jackson on ESPN Radio Thursday expressed frustration with the team not stopping penetration well, and if they don't Sunday afternoon it could be a good day to wear green.
That said, foot problems and all, I want to see Artest on Paul Pierce. One of the key selling points of the Artest/Ariza swap was to have the physical defender that could stop Pierce's parade to the hoop from the 2008 Finals. Somebody who could take him out of his game. But Pierce — good LA lad he is at heart — responds to a challenge. Get in his face and he pushes back. I think this could be the most entertaining matchup of the day.
Zach, how are the Celtics generating offense right now? They shoot a lot of 3's, it seems.
Zach Lowe: The C's are only a tick above league average in 3-point attempts (a shade short of 19 per game), but more disturbing is the decline in their accuracy---from about 40 percent last season (one of the dozen best marks ever for a team) to 35 percent this year. Having Sheed shooting about 29 percent is a big part of that, but Ray Allen and Eddie House have both been less accurate this season.
In general, the C's offense is about what you'd expect---lots of screen/rolls involving Rondo, lots of pick-and-pops with KG, a healthy dose of KG hitting cutters from the post and Pierce working the mid-range game in isolation and off of screen/rolls with KG. The C's love the KG/Pierce screen/roll, especially in crunch time, hoping to force the defense to switch.
The C's are at their best, though, in delayed transition. Rondo is deadly at finding shooters on the semi-break. It makes you wonder why the C's are at the bottom of the league in pace.
Kurt mentioned the Lakers' point guard troubles. Laker fans dreamed of a Bryant-Odom-Gasol-Bynum-Artest super-big line-up, with Kobe playing the point. To everybody: Is this just unworkable? And who do think plays the crunch time PG minutes for LA in the post-season?
Andy Kamenetzky: The "5 big man acoustical jam" lineup was semi-unrealistic from the outset, beyond whatever "X's and O's" feasibility. This isn't just a matter of subbing in Ron Artest for Derek Fisher, as a lot of people seemed to view the scenario. It's matter of first getting Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in sync, as they haven't played a lot of games together. Then getting Lamar Odom, Pau and Drew on the same page, because they'd played roughly zero combined minutes as a trio heading into the season. If those three aren't working the triangle correctly, that not only hurts the overall product, Artest's ability to learn the system suffers.
Jesse D. Garrabrandt/NBAE via Getty Images
Will Shannon Brown end up playing late minutes when the truly consequential games roll around?
This would have been a tall order with everybody healthy all season, much less with Artest and Pau missing so many games. Thus, I picture more possessions with DJ Mbenga running the point than the five big guys on the floor at the same time.
As for the point guard in crunch time, I think Shannon Brown is most likely the candidate, but matchups/situations can obviously change that.
Zach Lowe: But I like the idea of Artest on the bongos in that jam session.
Brian Kamenetzky: Only if he has a beret and pointy beard. I think that can be arranged.
The limited run with Gasol, Odom, and Bynum on the floor at the same time hasn’t really produced major results. I don’t think they’ll try to push the envelope. Like Andy says, it’s just too much to do at one time, and while the length would be spectacular, it puts a lot of guys in positions to which they’re not accustomed. I will, however, put this group on the floor together once I get an Xbox.
As for the guards, I still think Fish gets late minutes when it really matters- that’s a tough relationship for Phil to go away from- but PJ has gone with Farmar and Brown late in lot of fourth quarters recently, and I don’t expect him to stop completely. Some of that is to help keep Fish fresh (as opposed to fresh fish), but it’s given the backups a chance to gain a little traction, and they’re playing well. If Fish can’t get his shot back and continues to turn the ball over, some combination of “Bromar” could get more run in critical playoff minutes than some fans might predict.
Kurt Helin: Personally, I want to see Phil Jackson do something as an experiment he tried in and used in the past: Sasha Vujacic at point. Farmar has played well of late and deserves some extra run. But Sasha has played that spot fairly well in the past, and when he gets a little burn he seems to find his 3-point shot again. But big picture, Sasha tends to play better when he gets a little more run, and we're not going to know if he can do it if he just gets two minutes here or there. I'd like to see him get a real run at the PG spot. Maybe even let him take on Rondo for a few — he may pick up three fouls in two minutes, or he could surprise. But with everything at PG, why not give it a shot?
Brian Kamenetzky: Okay, last question for Zach, and then let's get a game prediction from everyone.
Can you describe the attention paid to KG's health in Boston? I know L.A. is constantly on edge with Kobe's finger, but everyone knows he'll end up playing. Can't say the same about Garnett. What's the fear level about his body again breaking down?
Zach Lowe: We're on about DEFCON 2 right now (1 is the worst, right?). It's sort of an all-encompassing hysteria. Every game is evaluated not as just a win or a loss but also as a game in which KG looks healthy, slow or somewhere in between. Boston fans are scarred from last season, when we clung to the "wait til KG gets healthy for playoffs!" notion only to find out just before the post-season that he would miss the playoffs--followed by the revelation over the summer that KG had a huge bone spur and a strained tendon in his knee. So there is constant fear that KG's knee could get worse at any time or is already worse than the team is letting on.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
You think Lakers fans worry about Kobe Bryant's finger? Try being a Celtics fan waiting for KG's knee to give out.
Boston fans obviously know the team can't win a title without at least a semi-healthy Garnett. Personally, I think it's crucial he stays in the line-up consistently form here on out. Alternating 10 games in the line-up with 10 games out just forces Garnett to start the game-shape conditioning process over again every time. It won't be enough just to have KG in the line-up against, say, the Hawks in the 2nd round. They'll need him ready to play 35 solid minutes.
As for a prediction...
Weirdly, I'm feeling a Boston win here. This team is angry, going home and has the bigs to suck the Lakers into an ugly defensive game. LA has been the better team so far this season, but Boston sneaks out a win here--94-91.
Kurt Helin: This seems like such a hard game to predict because I'm not totally sure what to expect from both teams. The Celtics just blew a big lead to Orlando, will that mean they come out needing to make a statement, or will the Lakers know they can come back if down? The Lakers laid an egg on Christmas Day in a game they should have been more fired up for (though that may not have changed the outcome). But I think the Lakers are starting to find themselves on this trip and this will be the game that proves it. Two good defenses, so it will be lower scoring.
I'll take the Lakers 91-87, and the star of the game will be Jordan Farmar, who will steal the ball from Rondo late to seal the victory.
Brian Kamenetzky: The Lakers haven't shown all that well against the best teams in the league, particularly on the road. The party line says they're unconcerned, that the goal is to win in the spring, not now. But after a frustrating loss to in Cleveland resurrected questions about toughness we all thought the team was done having to answer, Sunday's game becomes more important. They don't want to listen to us ask them if they're soft for another 30-plus games. I expect the Lakers to be focused, and think they'll get a signature win on the road.
I'll say 99-93 LAL.
Andy Kamenetzky: The Lakers have been playing well of late and appear to have regained some focus. After both losses to Cleveland, I get the sense of a conscious effort to come out dialed in and play well. Not because a game against Boston is a "must win" or they have something to "prove," but because the Lakers will have reached the point where it's about securing a successful road trip, and they want one. It's also an opportunity to create a very high note for the trek, and I think they'll cash in. At the very least, a loss won't be the result of failing to show.
Taking a cue from Jared Wade, I expect both teams to play hard.
(Our thanks to Kurt and Zach for participating.)