- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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How much can the 2008 Finals tell us about this year's matchup?
So much of the 2008 Finals is instantly familiar: Paul Pierce dribbling the ball at the top of the floor as Ray Allen darts past a Kendrick Perkins baseline screen. Kobe Bryant working on the left block as he watches to see where the Celtics' double-team will come from. Rajon Rondo leading the Celtics in transition, looking for his trailers as they spot up at the arc.
These are sequences we'll see play out again dozens of times over the next couple of weeks, but for every possession that looks like a replica of the present-day Celtics and Lakers, there's a reminder that basketball teams and players are living, breathing, evolving organisms. Two years might not seem like a long time and the transformation might seem undetectable on a given play, but the Celtics and Lakers have changed in vivid and subtle ways.
These two teams have been wildly successful over the past two seasons. Each has won a championship by exploiting its strengths, and the crux of those strategies will likely remain the foundations of their respective game plans. But each will have to make adjustments to counter the turnover in personnel on both teams.
A few major themes from 2008 Finals that could inform what unfolds over the next two weeks:
Boston's Offense vs. the Lakers' Defense
From the opening tip of Game 1, Phil Jackson's defensive strategy is to deploy Lamar Odom -- assigned to Kendrick Perkins -- as the Lakers' primary help defender. The effect of this tactic is multifold. First, since Perkins is often set up down low, Odom is free to glide along the baseline to cut off Pierce's penetration or to pick up Allen as he dashes off screens across the floor. Here's a practical illustration: Pierce holds the ball up top, while Odom sees the action unfold. Will Derek Fisher require Odom's help on the other side of that Allen screen? Will the Lakers need him to meet Pierce in paint? Will Perkins cut behind Odom to the weak side, where a ball reversal to Kevin Garnett will eventually find him wide open underneath. That's a lot to consider for Odom, who has his head on a swivel for many of these half court sets. Often he makes sound decisions and acts decisively. At other moments, he moves to the ball ... but is a step too slow. Sometimes, Boston's off-ball movement and Pierce's attack is so effective that there's little Odom can do.
By making Odom their centerfielder, the Lakers cast their lot with Gasol as the defensive matchup on Garnett. Gasol gets plenty of help from Odom and, later, from Bryant (see below). At times, the Lakers actually double Garnett off the ball down in the low post. Garnett has a decent, though unexceptional offensive series. Where he really hurts the Lakers is on the offensive glass. Garnett collects 22 offensive rebounds in the series. He's also effective at exploiting the Lakers' aggressive double-teams. When Odom slides over to cut off a driving Garnett in the second quarter of Game 2, Garnett skids a little bounce pass to a diving Perkins along the baseline. Perkins goes up strong, drawing a foul from a recovering Gasol for the 3-point play. Boston also sends cutters off back screens to the vacant basket area where Garnett finds them. In general, when things turn sour at the offensive end for the Celtics, they generally reroute the offense through Garnett in the post and allow him to go to work. This is the lubricant that gets things flowing again for Boston. It'll be interesting to see if that's what Rivers turns to when he needs to reboot the offense in the 2010 Finals.
Given what we've witnessed from Rondo over the past couple of years -- and especially in this postseason -- the most striking feature of the Lakers' defense is its willingness to leave Rajon Rondo at will. Once the Lakers return to Los Angeles for Game 3, Jackson switches Bryant onto Rondo, and Bryant doesn't even pretend to guard Rondo in the half-court and spends most of his time blitzing the ball. It's worth noting that Rondo is playing with a gimpy ankle and is still a net plus on defense, but this doesn't discourage Doc Rivers from inserting Celtics' reserve guard Eddie House into the lineup at crucial moments to open up his offense. It's safe to say that nothing has changed more about this matchup than Rondo's growth since 2008.
Although Perkins still affords the Lakers an opportunity to regularly send help, the days of 5-on-3 basketball against Pierce, Garnett and Allen are over for the Lakers. Fortunately for the reigning champs, they don't need as much help in 2010 as they did in 2008. For one, Ron Artest can do what 2008 starting small forward Vladimir Radmanovic can't -- make Paul Pierce labor. In the last Celtics-Lakers Finals meeting, Pierce abuses Radmanovic off the dribble, both in isolation and on side pick-and-rolls where Pierce would spin baseline without resistance. In these sets, the Celtics cleverly situate Perkins and Rondo up top on the weak side to lengthen the commute for Odom and Bryant. When Pierce isn't beating up Radmanovic one-on-one, he and Allen work the 2-3 pick-and-roll to perfection, earning Pierce a mismatch against Derek Fisher or getting Allen an open jumper against a slow-to-recover Radmanovic.
The Lakers' Offense vs. the Celtics' Defense
Walling off the paint has been the top priority of the Celtics' defense since this current core was assembled in 2007. Of all the subplots and tactical maneuvering that we'll see unfold in the 2010 Finals, this figures to be the most constant holdover from the 2008. Not much has changed about the Celtics' stingy defense this postseason. You've heard all the basketball tropes: You can't beat the Celtics in isolation. You can't let the Celtics set their half-court defense. In order to be successful, you must move the ball from side-to-side.
The Lakers struggle mightily against the Celtics' defense in their six-game series two years ago, but on the few occasions Los Angeles has success, they employ these principles. In an effort to force the Celtics to make more difficult decisions, they initiate high pick-and-rolls for Bryant and Gasol, drawing traps on Bryant, which prompts the Celtics to rotate. This opens up narrow seams in the lane through which Odom dives to the tin for a pass, or space on the weak side for Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic or Jordan Farmar to launch a 3-pointer (they combine for a respectable 41 percent clip from beyond the arc).
The Lakers have success early in the clock putting the ball on the floor and driving one-on-one against the Celtics. This allows the Lakers to beat the Celtics’ help defenders to the rim. On one possession with the Lakers teetering in the second quarter of Game 2, Gasol beelines to the hoop before the Celtics' help can arrive, something he does more than once when the Lakers have their offense humming. Even when the Lakers are in deliberate half-court sets, we see a lot more clear-outs for Gasol and Bryant to work one-on-one in the post. When Gasol is inspired, he demands the ball on repeated occasions to work against Garnett, and he’s successful doing so in Game 2. Before halftime, the Lakers even run a 3-4 pick-and-roll with Radmanovic and Gasol, which draws a mismatch for Gasol on the right block which results in an easy bucket and a foul. We've seen that the Lakers aren't afraid to depart from their traditional system when necessity dictates. Against Boston's strong base defense, we should see some reprise of these actions.
It's easy to forget that in June 2008, Bryant and Gasol were still getting to know each other as partners in the offense. So much of the Lakers’ offense is derived from Bryant playing off Gasol at the pinch post -- dribble hand-offs for drives, spot-ups out on the wing, cuts off a rub -- but these actions aren't as fluid in 2008 as they are today. As a result, it's evident that Bryant doesn't yet trust the offense the last time the Lakers faced off against the Celtics. We've seen over the past six weeks that Bryant has fully -- almost beautifully -- integrated himself into the Lakers' offense, something that never really happened for a sustained period of time in the 2008 Finals.
In that series, whenever Bryant makes his move, the Celtics react with sharp timing. What's fascinating about watching the Celtics' defense is the variety -- yet consistency -- of these reactions. Sometimes the double comes from up top (off Fisher), and sometimes from the baseline (off Odom). As intuitive and decisive as Bryant is with the ball in his hands, these different looks impel him to deliberate for a split second. This is just enough time for Boston's pressure to make their incursion into the lane, giving Bryant no space to work. Garnett, in particular, moves with great purpose. He spends much of his time guarding Odom one-on-one, but he's a master multitasker, able to straddle primary and secondary defensive assignments.
The Celtics rarely make bad decisions, which is half the battle against an adept offense like the Triangle that relies on systematic movement. The Celtics throw a variety of looks at the Lakers. Sometimes, Allen or Pierce will front Bryant in the post. And when they do, the back line defender -- be it Garnett, Perkins or P.J. Brown -- is always poised to rotate if the entry pass hits Bryant over his defender. James Posey torments the Lakers with his length and makes life inordinately difficult for Bryant. Posey rarely needs help, which puts a further stranglehold on the Lakers' offense as the rest of the Celtics' defenders stay at home on their assignments. Can Tony Allen replicate Posey's contributions? We'll see.
A couple of inspired Thunder performances aside, the Lakers haven't encountered a defense that operates with such brutal efficiency this postseason. Bryant has been a lethal jump-shooter for the better part of that stint -- and he'll have to repeat those performances and work to find open teammates when Boston's double-teams arrive.
The Lamar Odom Factor (and what Andrew Bynum's presence means)
It’s almost a cliché to tag Lamar Odom as the Lakers’ bellwether, but in those fleeting moments in the 2008 Finals when Odom flashes the full breadth of his game, the Lakers are unstoppable -- even against a defense as stubborn as Boston's. Take the first quarter of Game 4, when the Lakers outscore the Celtics 35-14 (in a game Boston ultimately wins). Odom attacks from opening tip (Literally. He slices through the lane off the bounce 12 seconds into the game). After Odom gets to the rim a few more times in the first, P.J. Brown plays off him to cut off the drive -- so Odom steps back and drains consecutive jumpers from 18 feet. Odom finishes 6-for-6 in the quarter with 13 points and five rebounds.
Odom received the lion's share of the minutes up front over a gimpy Andrew Bynum against a Phoenix offense that relies on transition and the pick-and-roll - schemes against which mobility is essential. Conventional wisdom suggests that against a more convention Boston offense, Bynum becomes a much more important factor. True ... but if Jackson chooses to use one of his two big men as a rover, Odom would again be a logical candidate to defend Perkins and offer help when needed. Another line of thinking would be to put Bynum on Garnett, and grant Gasol a reprieve against the less potent Perkins. Restored to health, Garnett has been a solid contributor this postseason, but he's not quite the same guy who was in constant motion as a primary target off the pick-and-roll in 2008. Instead, he's settled in off the block and done most of his damage as a face-up jump shooter and as a supporting actor with his high screens.
Even with a bum knee, Bynum figures to be an upgrade over Ronny Turiaf -- and certainly Radmanovic who sees a fair number of minutes at the 4 in 2008 -- the two players whose minutes he'll claim. Gasol has become a considerably better defender and rebounder, so we shouldn't underestimate him as a help defender from the low side. Odom's athleticism allows him to move freely, but Bynum's size will be imperative against Pierce's dribble drives, Allen's willingness to attack the basket when confronted with a close-out, and Garnett's work in the post.
Rajon Rondo (and a little bit of Kobe Bryant)
Phil Jackson said Wednesday that he expects Bryant to spend some time guarding Rondo. In 2008, the rationale for this assignment is the freedom it affords Bryant to use his instincts as an untethered ad hoc defender in the half court. The Lakers challenge Rondo to shoot as close as 15 feet and to finish at the rim against Odom. Rondo doesn't fare well. His mechanics are jerky and when he's able to break through the defense and get to the paint, he rushes his finishes.
Two years later, Bryant will get the defensive assignment for entirely different reasons. Rondo has emerged as the rudder of the Celtics' offense. His penetration, orchestration of the pick-and-roll and playmaking -- even in a crowded half court -- generates dozens of quality looks for the Celtics per game. Rondo is also infinitely more confident as a shooter and finisher. Defensively, Rondo is the head of the snake for Boston. His lanky limbs and ability to deny entry passes help snarl the flow of opposing offenses and make it that much easier for the rest of the Celtics to crowd the paint.
In some sense, the performances of Rondo and Bryant in 2008 are the biggest takeaways when rewatching the 2008 Finals. Both performances seem dissonant when viewing them through the prism of 2010. Neither has a particularly good series. Rondo's struggles have more to do with his youth and injured ankle than anything else, while Bryant can't get his preferred menu of shots against a stifling Boston defense. Rondo's maturation over the past 24 months will likely render his 2008 initiation a distant memory. For Bryant, two additional years honing his on-court rapport with Gasol will present Boston's stalwart defense with a more difficult challenge. Throw in Bryant's newfound patience, selective aggressiveness and ridiculous proficiency as a jump-shooter coming into the series -- and it's possible the 2010 Finals won't look anything like what we saw in 2008. Then again, there's something eerily familiar about the dogged consistency of Boston's starting unit, even with Rondo assuming a bigger role in the offense. Those of us who've regarded this team as a lesser model of the 2008 team have been continually proven wrong.
As much fun as it'll be to watch the Celtics vs. Lakers Finals matchup, the Change vs. More-of-the-Same contrast between 2008 and 2010 will be just as interesting.