Six weeks ago, if somebody asked you whether you'd be interested in another Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, you might have said yes, but there's no way you'd be doing backflips over the idea.
I couldn't be more excited for the next two weeks of basketball. We lucked out. There's no obvious favorite in this series; it's a legitimate toss-up, and it represents the saving grace for what so far has been a pretty terrible NBA playoffs. As NBA fans, after sitting through the past six weeks, we deserve this.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the key questions coming into the series with an "NBA Finals FAQ."
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The Lakers spent the entire season teasing us, frustrating us and generally underwhelming everyone. And this was the team that had the good regular season. They finished first in the West and still looked like the overwhelming favorite to make the Finals for a third straight year, which is precisely why everyone wanted them to fail. That, and it just didn't seem like anyone on the team cared that much during the regular season.
The Celtics, on the other hand, just dispensed with the illusion of caring altogether. Facing injuries and age, Boston's veteran core paced themselves throughout the regular season, essentially playing possum while everyone frothed over the Magic and Cavaliers.
Now, L.A.'s hit another level. Kobe Bryant, specifically. You may not like the Lakers, but if you're a basketball fan of any kind, you have to appreciate the spectacle of Kobe at his absolute apex, just murdering people with impossible shot after impossible shot, with a few menacing glares thrown in, just to remind you how ruthless he is. Right now, Kobe is as good as he's ever been, the Lakers are clicking on all cylinders, and we're all just lucky to be along for the ride.
The Celtics have been just as good, but in a completely different way. In each of their three playoff series, they've faced a team with a superstar that dwarfs anyone on their roster. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and then Dwight Howard. Each of those guys was the best player in their series with the Celtics. But, in each case, the Celtics had the next best four. With Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, it's been a team effort for Boston.
And even if you hate the Celtics, just like Kobe, you have to appreciate what's happened over the past few weeks. You've had a proud, veteran team take things up a notch. Everyone's been better than they were in the regular season, and suddenly, the Celtics look like a worthy adversary to the most talented team in the NBA. And it's a perfect clash of styles.
On one side, we've got a team with the best individual player in basketball. On the other, a team that's already knocked out three of the NBA's top five players by playing team basketball, kicking ass on defense, and coming up big when it matters most. How awesome is that?
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST SUBPLOT TO THE 2010 NBA FINALS?
You mean other than "the first and third-highest payrolls in the league made the NBA Finals and it's not a coincidence"? Ehh ... screw it. Talking about the league's financial inequity is sort of a wet blanket discussion at this point, so let's just move on.
WHAT'S THE SECOND BIGGEST SUBPLOT TO THE 2010 NBA FINALS?
The 2-3-2 Finals format. And, as a corollary, Game 1.
There are a lot of differences between this year's finals and the Lakers-Celtics series in 2008, but none more important than the Lakers' home court advantage. It means they get two games at home, go to Boston for three straight, and then finish with Games 6 and 7 at home. Every year, that weird format seems like a mere formality, but it completely alters the tone of a series.
Suddenly, if the Lakers hold serve at home, the Celtics basically have to win three straight games at home to have any chance at winning the series. Since 1985, that's only happened twice: in 2004 with the Pistons and L.A.'s complete implosion, and in 2006 with the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade's 1,600 trips to the free throw line. Nothing's impossible, but statistically, there's an 8% chance the Celtics win three straight.
So, basically, if they want to keep things competitive through the end of the series, Boston has to win one of the first two games in Los Angeles. And since Phil Jackson's 47-0 in NBA Playoff Series where his team wins Game 1, winning Thursday night should probably be the priority. It's not to say the Celtics have no chance if they lose Thursday night, but it gets a lot tougher.
A win Thursday takes the pressure off Los Angeles for Saturday night's Game 2, and even if they lose Saturday, the Lakers just need to win one of the three games in Boston to come home with a chance to win in 7.
Now, if Boston wins tonight? Then we're back to a series that's a complete toss-up. The pressure shifts to the Lakers for Game 2, and the Celtics can potentially close out the series with a sweep in Boston—still not likely—or winning either Game 6 or Game 7 in Los Angeles. In other words, Game 1 of the NBA Finals is a lot more important than Game 1 of any other playoff series.
If this seems confusing, just remember these five, simple points:
- The 2-3-2 series means Boston has to win three straight games at home in order to hold serve.
- That's incredibly difficult, and pretty unlikely.
- So, Boston's probably going to need to win two games in Los Angeles.
- If they lose Game 1, Boston faces a do-or-die game in the second game of the series.
- If they don't get Game 1 or Game 2, do you think they'll get Game 6 AND Game 7?
The 2-3-2 format changes everything. Which is why the NBA should change that stupid rule, but that's a discussion for another time. For now, Boston's gotta win Game 1.
CAN RAJON RONDO SURVIVE ANOTHER SEVEN GAMES?
Rajon Rondo's the youngest member of Boston's superstar core—by a lot—but he's played 99 games so far this season. And unlike the Celtics veterans, he never hit "cruise control" mode to keep himself fresh for the playoffs. If he had, the Celtics might not have made it.
Regardless of his youth, though, wear and tear is now a factor with Rondo. He's suffered from back spasms and cramps in his legs the past few weeks, and those aren't freak injuries coming out of nowhere—that's stuff that happens when your body is just, plain worn out.
On Wednesday, he talked to ESPN about his current bill of health:
I'm about 67 percent today. I won't be 100 percent by Thursday, but I'll be like 94.7. Right now, nobody in the Finals is 100 percent. If you find someone let me know who is, let me know. You can ask the Lakers, too. One of our rookies might be 100 percent.
He's coming off nearly a week's rest, and he's been incredibly resilient regardless, but it's definitely a nagging concern for Celtics fans. The fall he took in Game 6 of the Orlando series was rough, but the problem is, he's been taking those hits for 99 games now. It's not a surprise that they're affecting him more now than they did in November. That's just the way the human body works.
For the sake of the series, let's hope Rondo can stay healthy.
IS PAU GASOL SOFT?
This is a polarizing question among NBA diehards. People who love Pau Gasol say he's got the best footwork of any big man in the league, he's got a feathery touch around the rim and out to 15 feet, he rebounds as well as anyone, and he's a great passer. People like me—skeptics—say all those things are true, and Gasol's still soft. Nobody's saying he's not good, but if the game turns into a street fight, Gasol is not going to be the guy that's hitting anyone in the face, literally or figuratively.
Midway through the Suns series, a text message from one of my best friends put it best: "As good as Kobe Bryant's been, Pau Gasol is still just as soft."
A lot of basketball writers take this as a sign of ignorance. "Doubting Pau? What does 'soft' mean, anyway? You obviously don't know the game. He does so many things well."
But you can be a great player and still be soft. Sort of like how Dirk Nowitzki got owned by Stephen Jackson in that Mavericks-Warriors series from 2007. Does that mean Stephen Jackson's a better player than Dirk Nowitzki? Of course not. But fact is, great players get hit in the mouth all the time. Some respond better than others. Pau still has to prove he can respond.
The Celtics series is a perfect opportunity. Gasol's been pretty fantastic through most of these playoffs, but here are the big men he's faced: Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, Nenad Krstic, Kyrylo Fesenko, Carlos Boozer, Paul Milsap, Robin Lopez, Amare Stoudemire, Louis Admunson. Not exactly a murderer's row of defenders right there.
Against Boston's front line of Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis, things should get A LOT more physical for Pau. If he can respond, the series gets a lot easier for the Lakers, and the Pau Gasol skeptics mostly disappear.
If not? He's still the most skilled big man in the league. And he's still soft.
HOW INSANE IS KEVIN GARNETT?
(Image via Doc Funk)
TOSS-UP! NATE ROBINSON OR SHANNON BROWN?
One of these guys is going to explode at some point in this series and alter the outcome of a crucial game. Nate did it in Game 6 of the Orlando series and single-handedly turned the tide for the Celtics. Shannon Brown has the same potential on the Lakers second unit.
It's a minor subplot in all this, but it's outbursts from guys like Brown and Kryptonate that can help swing a close game, and with these two teams, doesn't it feel like every game's going to be close? We know what we're getting from Kobe, and we know that on any given night, one of the Celtics' three scorers (Rondo, Pierce, Allen) will step up. But these two are unknown quantities. If one of 'em steps up, it could change everything. Keep this in the back of your mind.
IS DEREK FISHER ALIVE?
Yes, and that joke's not that funny anymore.
After limping through the regular season and getting ABUSED by Russell Westbrook in Round 1, Fisher's had yet another renaissance. Every year, we think he's become the Lakers' weak link, and he keeps silently plugging away, hitting big shots, keeping Kobe sane, and doing just enough to help the Lakers get it done.
Whether you look at his 20 points in L.A.'s game 3 win in Utah, or 22 in Game 5 against Phoenix, the evidence is there. Fisher's not washed up just yet. He's still a huge defensive liability, but for the Lakers, he's good enough to keep defenses honest, and a guy that's proven reliable in crunch time. You win titles with guys like Fisher, especially if you can hide him on defense.
CAN KOBE GUARD RONDO?
Better than anyone else on the Lakers, yes. If Kobe's on Rondo, he's got enough length to lay off him but still challenge jumpshots, and he's quick enough—especially with the extra space created by playing off him—to keep Rondo from wreaking havoc with penetration. He won't lock Rondo down, but he can at least neutralize him to some extent. It'll force the Celtics to look to someone else as their catalyst.
Plus: what's the alternative? Kobe on Pierce will have him getting beaten up trying to guard Pierce in the post, and Kobe on Ray Allen will have him running back-and-forth through screens for 20 minutes-a-night. Putting Kobe on the ball—where his defense is best, anyway—is probably the lesser of all those evils. And if it neutralizes the Celtics most explosive weapon at the same time, then it's a win-win for L.A. Of course...
WILL KOBE GUARD RONDO?
Sometimes it seems like Phil Jackson's just screwing with us, you know? Like when he took two games to make any meaningful adjustment to the Suns' zone defense in the Western Finals. Putting Kobe on Rondo seems like the obvious move to us laymen, but if there's one person that's proven unwilling to make the obvious decision, ever, it's Phil Jackson. If only to prove a point to himself, or his team, the media, or whatever zen deity happens to be stirring his interest at the time... Whoever. Phil doesn't care about conventional wisdom.
Don't be surprised if Phil flips the script at some point. See that sly little smirk?
That's because he's screwing with us. Constantly.
WHY SHOULD YOU ROOT AGAINST BOSTON?
- It would validate their approach to this entire season. Sure, it's been wildly successful so far this playoffs, but the idea that a team of veterans can just "turn it on" is pretty disheartening. Why not just skip the regular season altogether?
- Kevin Garnett. He's already become basketball's Curt Schilling. Do we really want to watch what happens if he wins another one?
- Because if the Celtics win this year, the hubris from Boston fans will be nothing short of suffocating. Imagine locking yourself in a room with a drunk guy yelling "BEST FRANCHISE EVAH!" for 24 hours straight. If the Celtics win this year, that's what this offseason will feel like.
And they might be right, too, which would make it even tougher to swallow. It's nothing against Massachusetts sports fans, but "Winning Gracefully" is not a New England specialty. I'm just sayin' ... They're more endearing as self-pitying runners-up.
WHY SHOULD YOU ROOT AGAINST THE LAKERS?
Well, as I said earlier, even if you hate the Lakers, you have to appreciate what Kobe Bryant has done over the past few weeks. If that continues through the Finals, then it's pretty simple: He deserves to win the title. But good lord, if that happens, can we just send the Laker fans to some obscure island in the South Pacific?
At least over there, they can live together and talk about how Kobe's the best player of all time, better than Jordan, and the 2005-07 Lakers seasons never happened.
Because really, "detached from reality" doesn't quite cover it with Lakers fans and their Kobe affection. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how sportswriters in L.A. tend to give Kobe a free pass on some of his shortcomings—not that surprising, but funny—and you'd have thought I said Kobe Bryant was Satan incarnate.
It centered on a Game 7 from 2006 where Kobe pretty much disappeared during the second half, and most basketball fans agreed that he was blatantly trying to prove a point to Phil Jackson by refusing to attack the basket. Everyone, that is, except Lakers fans, and writers that talked to Kobe Bryant about the game, four years after the fact. Was I being unfair to Kobe and those sportswriters? Probably a little bit, but so what? It was a throwaway little post poking fun at Bill Plaschke.
... That, of course, spawned a 5,000 word rebuttal from SB Nation's Lakers blog.
Because ... ZOMG! DON'T CRITICIZE KOBE!
Can you imagine these people if Kobe caps his spectacular playoff run with a dominant performance in the Finals? It'll be like he cured polio, fixed the oil spill, solved the immigration crisis, and equaled Michael Jordan, all in one. Seriously. If the Lakers win and Kobe plays as well as he has the past few weeks, be prepared for VOLCANIC levels of hyperbole erupting from the West Coast.
We could talk about the underlying apathy of Lakers fans throughout Southern California, but for now, the screeching Kobe fans are reason enough to root against L.A. Kobe's great—historically great, even. But he'll never be as good as his fans say he is, and as much as we laud Kobe's performance, it'll never be enough for them. Ugh.
(Although they did spawn this parody, which still makes me laugh every time.)
WHY SHOULD WE ROOT FOR THE CELTICS?
Because, regardless of what they did in the regular season, this playoff run has been pretty amazing to watch. It's as much of a "team" as any Finals participant since the '04 Pistons, and save for Garnett's schtick, just about every player on the team is likable. Pierce is tough as nails, Allen's one of the classiest guys in the league, Kendrick Perkins is as COUNTRY as you can get, which is strangely endearing. That, and... Rondo. If watching him play point guard doesn't make you happy, then there's something wrong with you as a basketball fan.
All things considered, Boston's a pretty likable bunch.
If they win this year, we may have to endure months of Celtics hubris, but at least we'll have enjoyed six weeks of some of the best team basketball in NBA History. That'd be pretty cool.
WHY SHOULD WE ROOT FOR THE LAKERS?
Because historically speaking, it's about time we all came around and started appreciating Kobe Bryant. We'll get to that. For now, though, why the Lakers? Because ... Ron Artest.
If you're not rooting for Ron Artest to accept the trophy from Commissioner Stern and respond with, "Yo Dave! Say Queensbridge. Say it. Say Queensbridge!" ...Then, well, I don't know what to tell you.
WHO ARE THE FIVE BEST PLAYERS IN THIS SERIES?
- Rajon Rondo. You expected someone else? When he's at his best, he's more efficient a scorer than anybody on the court, he makes his teammates better, and he's a terror on defense.
- Kobe. He's great, yes, but his shot selection...
Just kidding, Kobe-lovers! Really, no need to e-mail or call... Just. A. Joke.
Kobe Bryant. Self-explanatory.
Rajon Rondo. If he's healthy, even against Kobe, he'll wreak havoc on the Lakers defense. In transition, in the halfcourt, whatever. We stopped underestimating Rondo like two rounds ago, and yet, he keeps exceeding our expectations.
Ray Allen. You could put Pierce here, but these days, it seems like Paul Pierce alternates his big games. One night he's unreal, the next, he looks old and sluggish. Allen, on the other hand, just keeps on drilling big shots, getting to the line, and driving a stake through opponents' hearts. If you're looking for "Most Unlikely Hero" in this series, Allen's probably the best bet. Only he's not that unlikely a hero for anyone that's been watching these playoffs.
- Pau Gasol. If he plays to his potential, he's probably number two. If he plays close to his potential, he's number three. If either of those things happen, the Lakers win this series going away. More likely? Pau gets beat up, defers to Kobe, and becomes a bit player in crunch time. If that happens, he's fifth on this list. For now, he's fourth based on talent alone.
- Paul Pierce. Pretty much the antithesis to Gasol in every way. He's physically declining, he's always been a cut below the Kobes of the league, and yet, he's just a tough motherf—ker that keeps on coming through for the Celtics. In a game that turns into a street fight, you want a Paul Pierce on your team.
Now, for the past three rounds, the best player on Boston's opponent has been better than Boston's best player (Rondo). The gulf between Kobe and Rondo is pretty huge, but is it really bigger than Wade vs. Rondo, or LeBron vs. Rondo? Boston still won those series because, after the "best player argument," the Celtics had the next three best players (Pierce, Allen, and Garnett).
If they completely shut down Gasol, that could be true in this series, too. But then, Artest has just as good a shot at shutting down Paul Pierce, so who knows? That's why this series will be so fascinating. There are a number of individual matchups that will play a critical role in shaping how this plays out, and a number of reputations that can be made or broken in the process (Artest as an all-time great stopper, Gasol and the "soft" label, Pierce as an ultimate clutch player, Ray Allen, etc.)
But nobody's got more on the line than Kobe...
WHO'S GOING TO WIN THE 2010 NBA TITLE?
If the Lakers win Game 1, L.A. in five. If not, L.A. in seven. Let me explain.
When I talked to Bill Bradley last week, he said something about NBA players that I didn't quite agree with. We were talking about the media landscape and its effects on today's NBA players, and he said, "You know, when you get to the professional level, you're basically an entertainer." And yeah, that's true of some. Most, even.
But not all. In the NBA, there are entertainers, and there are artists.
See, an entertainer is someone that performs to make a living. It's their job to court the trappings of success, because that means they're a particularly good entertainer. Entertainers court fame and fortune as much as they do any milestones in the entertainment field. Because... It's all part of their job. That's just what they do with their life. LeBron James, for instance, is an entertainer.
He can do things that others can't, and it's allowed him to catapult to the very pinnacle of his chosen field. He does things that consistently amaze us, and for him, you can sense that the fame and fortune is part of what he finds gratifying about the whole experience. That's true of a lot NBA players. They've worked their entire life at perfecting their craft, and when they get to the NBA, even if they may encounter professional setbacks, there's a sense of contentment there. They Made It.
After all, when a movie star's movie flops, he's still a movie star. And even though the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Celtics this year, LeBron James is still LeBron James.
But then there's the other kind of superstar. The artist. For them, fame and fortune are byproducts of an art that they're constantly trying to perfect, driven by a hunger that's inherent and ultimately insatiable. No matter what happens, the artist is never satisfied. The artist can only seek transitory validation... That hunger never really escapes him.
The artist, in effect, can never "Make It." This is why they're often miserable people, shrouded in mystery and discontent, misunderstood by even the people closest to them.
We don't see very many artists in the NBA, or sports, in general. But Kobe Bryant is an artist. For him, fame and fortune brings no joy, and even winning, when it was with Shaq, got old after a while. He's always driving himself to higher artistic heights, constantly perfecting his craft, testing his limits.
There's just no other way to explain his game over the past decade. He'll never, ever be satisfied, because that's not the way his brain works. As a persona off the court, he's hopelessly contrived, which is why he'll never be lionized the way fellow artists Larry Bird and Michael Jordan have been. But on the court, he's as real as it gets.
You may not like him—Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were both pretty miserable people, too—but while he's here, you might as well appreciate his craft. He's historically great. Not because he wants to be famous, not because he wants to be rich, and not because he wants to be loved by the people of Los Angeles. Because this is the only thing he knows how to do—win, and push himself to be the best basketball player on the planet.
Why do I think the Lakers will win the title? Because these things have been true of Kobe all along, but it's about time the masses caught on. Genius can go unappreciated and misunderstood for only so long. After a while, people begin to notice that we're witnessing something really, really special. That's starting to happen in the 2010 Playoffs. It's not just that the Lakers are winning, it's the way their winning—on the strength of sheer brilliance from one of basketball's true geniuses.
As far as narrative's concerned, it wouldn't be right for this story to end any other way. This is the year when we'll all finally see Kobe for what he is. Selfish. Obsessive. Ornery. Megalomaniacal. Bizarre. Petulant. Overbearing. Insecure. Just, generally, an asshole.
He's a true, 100% authentic, artist. One of the best we've ever seen.
And this year's NBA Playoffs might just be his greatest masterpiece yet. The Lakers and Celtics make for a lot of great storylines, but none of them as profound as what Kobe's doing right now. He's playing near-perfect basketball. And if he finishes the way he's started, it'll be something that even his greatest critics will have to applaud. Basketball as true art. The series should be great entertainment, but Kobe's doing something else. It's time for the rest of us to appreciate it.