A (Probably Too) Rational Look at the NBA Finals

Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers.  It’s what the NBA executives want (although they’d never admit it), it’s what the television gurus want (and they’d openly admit it), but most of all, it’s what the fans want.  Why?  Possibly it has to do with the following statistic: by the end of these finals, those two franchises will have won exactly half (31 of 62) of all the NBA Championships ever played. 

In a series matching these two proud organizations, long on tradition (which means there’s also a large contingency that despises each – as a dynasty tends to attract), everyone has an opinion on who will win and why.  Maybe it’s my mathematical background (or maybe it’s because I grew up in New Jersey and can still remember the Captain, Willis Reed, limping out for Game 7, being overcome with emotion and screaming like crazy when the Knicks pulled out an impossible victory), but I tend to view this series from a completely logical viewpoint.  Because of regional loyalty that existed when I was growing up (you never got to see any team other than your own on a consistent basis), I grew up as a fan of neither Boston nor LA.  Not a hater, but if the Knicks couldn’t be there at the end, well, just call me when the next season started.

To analyze this matchup, it’s like every other where the top two teams are involved – some factors favor one squad; some point toward the other.  First of all is home court advantage.  It initially looked as though this was so strongly going to determine the winner, there’d be no reason to watch.  But then, all of a sudden, teams started winning away from home.  So, Boston’s home court advantage, while a major plus for the Celts, isn’t as important as we all thought when Round Two of the playoffs was following a “home team inevitably wins” theme.

From a “who has the most dominant player” perspective, even Boston fans have to admit there’s no one playing basketball right now (on this planet anyway) who’s even close to Kobe Bryant.  Kevin Garnett is sensational and deserves more credit than any other Celtic since Larry Bird (and Bill Russell before him) for getting the “Men in Green” this far (starting with the first game he strapped it on for Boston) and, yes, he is the defensive player of the year … but Kobe’s unstoppable and he’s on the same level as defender as KG.  It’s been noted that Kobe’s such a great defender, he’s the only guy who can stop Kobe!

“But we have the ‘Big Three!'” cry the Celtic faithful.  True, but Bryant, Gasol and Odom are a formidable trio as well.  Therefore, it may come down to a game of one-on-one matchups.  From a size perspective, Boston is pretty much forced to put Perkins and Garnett on Radmanovic and Gasol, but the problem isn’t just finding a defender for Kobe (and that problem can in no way be minimized), but who plays the 6’9″ Odom (another guy who can shut himself down, but in a different way than Kobe taking bad shots, i.e. nobody has ever described Kobe with the word “knucklehead,” a moniker Odom occasionally answers to)?  Rondo and Allen are too small to guard Bryant and if Boston’s going to put Paul Pierce on Kobe, it’s bound to cut into his offensive effectiveness.  Sam Cassell and Eddie House can’t guard any of the Lakers’ starters other than Derek Fisher (and even that’s not an easy cover).  James Posey has the size, but foul trouble is a major concern with him (and anyone else who draws the assignment of guarding Kobe).  And with Tom Thibodeau running the defense for the Celtics, don’t expect to see too much zone being played.  I was fortunate to meet “Dr. Tibs” at one of our “self-improvement seminars” (see 5/2/08 blog) and, while he’s an absolutely brillaint defensive mind (as well as one helluva nice guy), the word “zone” doesn’t make its way into too many of his conversations.

On the flip side, defending Garnett on the block (if he’ll spend most of his time there) is no slice of heaven for any of the Laker bigs.  And do the Lakers put Bryant on Pierce in an attempt to take away the guy who’s been the Celtics most effective scorer or do they put him on the non-offensive minded Rondo and let him play free safety?

As far as the respective benches go, much has been made of the confidence Phil Jackson has shown in his “Wild Bunch” of Turiaf, Farmar, Walton and Vujacic.  Recall how he played them (and none of his “big three” when they were down 17 points).  Their opponents have seen some heroic play from bench members and some unlikely ones at that.  The Celtics bench, while not as productive as their Laker counterparts, have given the Boston coaching staff some solid contributions.

Speaking of coaching, the Zen-master himself, Phil Jackson (whom analyst Jeff Van Gundy used to refer to as “Big Chief Triangle” for a couple of apparent reasons), might have met his match with Glenn “Doc” Rivers, an up and coming motivational expert in his own right, e.g. showing old Muhammed Ali fights to his guys to show how to deal with adversity and, no matter what’s happening to you, make sure you get in your swings, too.  Phil’s been there more often, but when it gets to this point, it becomes more a players’ game anyway.

In all, it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks (although it makes for interesting water cooler, or watering hole, chit-chat), so let’s watch, enjoy … and, if you have a favorite, pull for your team.  Looking at “equality of rights before the law” as “the same rules of the game apply to all players,” the quote by Teddy Roosevelt sums up the true reason players play and fans watch:

“Our aim is to recognize what Lincoln pointed out: the fact that there are some respects in which men are obviously not equal, but also insist that there should be an equality of self-respect and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at least an approximate equailty in the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows.”

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