Czar’s 2010 Finals Preview

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe 2010 NBA Finals kicks off tonight at the Staples Center with the Lakers hosting the Celtics in Game 1 of the series. For some, the NBA Finals has lost appeal as a result of LeBron James’ absence from what would have been billed as a Kobe-LeBron matchup to decide once and for all who is the league’s best player. For others however, particularly older NBA fans, this Lakers-Celtics matchup is as appetizing as can be.

In the history of the league there have been 63 titles won. In 52 appearances the Boston Celtics and Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers have accounted for more than half of those with a combined total of 32: seventeen banners for Boston and fifteen for the Lakers. Regardless of who comes out victorious in the next battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy, the latest installment will augment this incredible history of two-team dominance and intensify what is arguably the greatest rivalry in sports.

It’s very difficult to discuss today’s Lakers-Celtics rivalry and not think back to their legendary rivalry in the 80’s when both teams dominated their respective conferences for much of the decade. In fact, there are some parallels and interesting storylines when comparing the two. For example:

  • The current Celtics Big 3 of Garnett-Pierce-Allen and the old front-line of Bird-McHale-Parrish
  • The Lakers guard/center combos of Kobe/Gasol and Magic/Kareem
  • Kobe going for his 5th title to match Magic as perhaps the greatest Laker of all time
  • Pierce potentially elevating himself into the pantheon of all-time Celtics greats should he win another title

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty ImagesHaving said that, there are many differences in today’s rivalry. Most notably, it does not feature the two best players in the game. The fact that Magic and Bird had a personal rivalry dating back to college which extended to their being the leaders of the two best teams in the NBA made those Lakers-Celtics games among the most compelling the league has ever seen. The 80’s matchups also featured teams with diametrically opposite styles. While today’s Lakers are certainly more offensive minded than the stingy Celtics, they certainly do not have the freewheeling, fast-breaking approach of the old Showtime Lakers who personified Hollywood glamour.

Today’s Celtics may not have the marquee player they had in Bird years ago, but they do have the same offensive balance those teams did (if not more), and they also win with great halfcourt defense and clutch shot-making. In Rajon Rondo, they not only have a player on the verge of stardom, but they also have perhaps the most athletic player on the floor which the old Celtics teams certainly did not have. By contrast, today’s Lakers rely much more heavily on one player than the Lakers of the past did. While Pau Gasol is by all accounts an outstanding NBA player, he may not pose the same threat that the great Kareem once did. Also missing are the James Worthy and Byron Scott types who made those Lakers so hard to handle. Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest are significant contributors to this team, and they will have to be for the Lakers to win. But there is no denying that this team is about Kobe.

That brings us to our next storyline, which is Kobe’s attempt to elevate himself into undeniably one of the greats to ever play this game. In some people’s minds he is already there, but for others he needs to win this series in order to fully cement his legacy. For Kobe, a fifth championship would be his second “solo” effort without Shaq and put him one shy of Michael Jordan’s six rings with the Bulls (the comparison to the ubiquitous Jordan has always been inescapable for Kobe). Given the way the 2008 series ended, the Celtics are arguably the one team left in the league that presents a psychological hurdle for Kobe to overcome. To win another championship under these circumstances will not make his legacy as extraordinary as Jordan’s but it will make the comparison between the two much more logical than it ever has been.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

There are a number of other subplots to take into account when considering the outcome of this series:

  • Will the Lakers be able to defend home court against the Celtics, who this season became the first team in NBA history to reach the Finals with a better road record than home record?
  • Does Kevin Garnett have enough spring in his legs (we all know he’s never lost that raging fire in his heart) to win another title for Celtic Nation?
  • Can Pau Gasol extend his excellent post-season play and help deflect some defensive attention from the Mamba, #24?
  • Will Coach Doc Rivers and his Celtics staff be able to match chess moves with the Zen master Phil Jackson and his record resume of 10 coaching championships?
  • How will Andrew Bynum’s gimpy knee and Rondo’s hip soreness affect their abilities to play and contribute?
  • Can proud son of Inglewood, CA, Celtic Captain and 13-year NBA vet, Paul Pierce keep floating and spinning and snaking and stepping back and scoring with former defensive player of the year Ron Artest draped over him?
  • Which bench player will have the biggest impact on the series: Lamar Odom, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis?

The main plot of the 64th NBA Finals series is straightforward: One team will outplay its opponent by a margin necessary to win four games and be crowned Champion. But the subplots are where the seasoning, spice and multi-layered intricacies lie. Yes, the rich, ring-filled legacies of these teams will amplify the series. And yes, the rosters of players from past championship incarnations wearing these same uniforms will be present with most NBA fans and writers and talkers. But the 2010 NBA Finals will be decided by the 13 players on each Conference Champion squad and the coaches who helped guide them to this moment.

Watch the first chapter of this page-turner unfold tonight on ABC at 9:00 PM ET.

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