Playoff Thoughts

1.    Lakers-Celtics…blah…blah…blah:    Did you hear?  The Lakers and playing the Celtics and they may have even met before.  We’ve all touched on the history of the Lakers and Celtics and such. and Classic Sports have been all over this story, giving us all a chance to re-live the old series.  Last time, we cursorily explored how the Lakers and Celtics have met 10 times in the Finals, with the Bill Russell Celtics beating the Lakers all seven times they played and Magic Johnson taking two of three from the Celts.  This time, however, the match up seems more like two teams passing in the night, rather than an ongoing battle.  The Celtics are propped up by older players and the Lakers are surprise team bolstered by the outright theft of Pau Gasol.  So forget history…Who wins this time?  Let’s take a look look at the factors to consider going into the Finals:Match ups:  It seems that the Lakers are well-suited to match up with the Celts.  Boston swept the series 2-0 but they haven’t played each other since late 2007, and the Lakers are a much different team now than they were then.  In terms of line ups, both teams seems set in stone:

PG: Rajon Rondo v. Derek Fisher:  Fisher is still Mr. Scappy and could give Rondo problems with his holding, grabbing, and hustle.  But Rondo is much faster and should be able to get to the basket.  I don’t see a major advantage to either team here on paper but the winner of this a match up will help determine the series.  If Fisher can hit his jumpers, the Celtics are in trouble.

SG:  Ray Allen v. Kobe Bryant:  This was an intriguing match up a few years ago.  Ray Allen was never as good as Kobe but he was smart, tough, and not shy about calling out Bryant for being a bit of an jerk.  Now, Allen seems too limited offensively to make Kobe pay.  In addition, Kobe has as looked as good as ever against the Spurs, single handedly killing the San Antonio runs in Game 2 and Game 5.  I don’t think Allen can hang with him any more.

SF:  Paul Pierce v. Vlad Radamanovic:  Phil Jackson has insisted on starting Vlad for all of the playoffs.  While suggests that Radmanovic is of limited utility, there are certainly times when a good pure shooters helps. Jackson always likes to have shooters available and he feels that Vlad confers some benefit (I assume in offensive spacing) that is worth significant time, something Jackson liked to do with John Paxson and Steve Kerr over better athletes on the Bulls in the 1990s.  It’s hard to argue this strategy when both Paxson and Kerr both hit big shots to clinch titles in 1991, 1993, and 1997.  The match ups allowed for Radmanovic against guys like Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, and Andrei Kirilenko, who were not multi-dimensional offensively.  Against Pierce, however, Radmanovic doesn’t fit.  He certainly can’t guard Pierce and there is really no one on the Celtics’ starting squad that makes sense.  You could put Radmanovic on Kendrick Perkins but then Pau Gasol has no one to guard either.  Because of this imbalance, tt might make sense to sit Ramdanovic for Luke Walton, who is a better defender (by default) or Sasha Vujacic or Jordan Farmar (move Kobe to Pierce and put Vujacic/Farmar on the Allen or Rondo). 

PF:   Kevin Garnett v. Lamar Odom:  This match up might be mentioned a few times going into the series.  The consensus, which I agree with, is that Odom should be good enough against KG to narrow the usual advantage that Garnett provides over most forwards and that this will give L.A. the series.  That’s the inkling. But how has KG done against Odom over the years?  Let’s check out their head-to-head numbers the last few years to see if we can discern a pattern.  Here’s how KG v. Odom has gone since 2004-05 (when Odom first played with the Lakers) to the present:

1/10/2005 Odom 23 2 6 1 2 0 0 3 2 0 0 3 4 5
1/10/2005 Garnett 40 5 12 0 1 13 16 13 7 2 0 3 4 23
1/19/2005 Odom 29 4 10 0 0 3 4 7 1 0 0 2 4 11
1/19/2005 Garnett 38 12 19 0 0 3 4 9 4 3 1 3 4 27
11/9/2005 Odom 36 6 16 1 2 2 4 6 3 2 0 4 6 15
11/9/2005 Garnett 41 8 16 0 0 1 3 15 4 1 1 3 3 17
12/2/2005 Odom 41 8 16 2 3 6 6 7 8 1 1 6 4 24
12/2/2005 Garnett 38 11 16 0 0 7 8 8 4 1 3 2 5 29
12/10/2005 Odom 40 7 13 0 1 2 5 4 4 0 4 1 3 16
12/10/2005 Garnett 40 12 22 1 1 5 7 8 3 0 2 1 3 30
3/15/2006 Odom 44 9 15 2 4 0 0 12 8 0 0 2 3 20
3/15/2006 Garnett 38 4 14 0 0 8 8 14 3 2 1 2 3 16
11/7/2006 Odom 43 5 13 2 7 3 4 9 4 0 2 4 3 15
11/7/2006 Garnett 39 10 18 0 1 6 6 9 5 4 0 1 6 26
3/18/2007 Odom 40 7 12 0 4 2 4 9 8 0 2 3 3 16
3/18/2007 Garnett 43 9 16 1 2 7 8 15 6 0 3 2 1 26
11/23/2007 Odom 32 2 7 0 2 0 0 5 2 2 1 4 4 4
11/23/2007 Garnett 36 7 16 0 0 7 8 11 3 1 2 0 1 21
12/30/2007 Odom 41 6 17 2 3 0 0 10 1 1 2 0 4 14
12/30/2007 Garnett 30 9 13 0 0 4 4 12 6 2 3 3 4 22

Taking it a little further, here are the averages of the two players in the ten games they played versus each other that are listed above:

Odom 36.9 5.6 12.5 1.0 2.8 1.8 2.7 7.2 4.1 0.6 1.2 2.9 3.8 14.0
Garnett 38.3 8.7 16.2 0.2 0.5 6.1 7.2 11.4 4.5 1.6 1.6 2.0 3.4 23.7

The ten-game average doesn’t reveal too much.  Odom is good and KG is better, kind of what we already knew.  Odom obviously won’t win this match up, though he certainly has the ability to prevent Garnett from helping other players on defense.

C:  Kendrick Perkins v. Pau Gasol:  Perkins works hard and is a nice defender and rebounder but this is a huge advantage for the Lakers.  Pau has changed the very character of the Lakers from a 50-win team to a 60-win team in one fell swoop (30-16 before Gasol and 27-9 afterwards).  As a second option on the Lakers, his shots are down but Gasol’s points per minute are way up and he’s shooting a ridiculous 59% from the field.  The Celts will need to get points from an unexpected source to match the productivity of the Lakers’ offense and that place is probably NOT Perkins. 

-The Big Mo?  Another question is whether momentum means anything coming into the Finals.  The Celts struggled in the first two rounds but played well against the Pistons.  Still, this doesn’t seem to be quite as strong a team as when it was racking up 66 games in the regular season.  The Lakers, on the other hand, have absolutely man handled some really good teams.  They swept a very good Denver team, beat Utah at home (a very impressive feat), and torched an excellent Spurs team.  Most stats people will tell you that momentum doesn’t exist.  I’m more agnostic.  I can tell you that circumstances change and sometimes the stats that reflect performance from November to April don’t reflect where the teams are in June.  In this case, it’s clear that the Lakers are much improved (see Gasol, Pau) and they are probably the better team as currently constituted.  It may not be momentum but it’s definitely something… 

Kupchak…Genius?  A few months ago, Mitch Kupchak was really battered by the press and Kobe Bryant for dealing Shaquille O’Neal for little and not surrounding Kobe with supporting players.  Now, the O’Neal trade doesn’t look too bad.  What would’ve happened if the Lakers kept Shaq?  We can’t know for sure but the Lakers certainly would’ve been title contenders in 2004-05 and 2005-06.  I still think the deal was silly because trading certain title contention beats the road the Lakers took.  Sure they are about to win a title but would you really want to bank your future title hopes on the oft chance that you might be able to trade Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol?  Kupchak has to get credit for sticking with the program when the team was in turmoil last off-season but getting Gasol for zilch is one of those moves that can never be predicted.  Kupchak held the team together through crisis to have the opportunity to get Gasol but sometimes you need a little luck too.

Turnover:  The only Lakers left from their last title team in 2001-02 are Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, and Fisher was re-acquired this year.  The only Celtics left from the 2001-02 Conference Finalist team is Paul Pierce.  Pierce and Tony Allen are the only Celtics left from the 2004-05 division title team. 

Prediction:  I’m on board with the Lakers’ tidal wave.  They’ve beaten very good teams pretty easily.  I don’t see the Lakers, who had problems with the athletic Josh Smith and LeBron James, will be able to handle Kobe and Pau Gasol.  The Celts primary chance to win stems from their home court advantage, which makes them quite formidable.  But the Lakers won twice in Denver against a team that was 33-8 at home in the regular season, clinched the series against the Jazz in Utah (37-4 at home), and essentially ended the Spur season by winning Game 4 of the Conference Finals in San Antonio (where the Spurs were 34-7).  Boston is really tough at home too but this is the Lakers’ year, they are playing great and have the better coach.  I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing Garnett and Allen get their rings but it probably isn’t happening.  Lakers win series 4-1. 

2.    History:    I thought we’d take a look at each of the ten prior Lakers/Celtics series.  Not to talk about the crazy moments specifically.  We know who won and who lost and stories associated with them.  Instead, our endeavor will be to review who we should’ve expected to win going in to the series.  Should we really have expected Russell to win every time?  What about the Magic/Bird years?  Let’s take a look: 

1958-59, Celtics win 4-0:  The first match up between the Celts and Lakers was not as we all remember.  This was not the sleek Lakers team of the 1960s.  Rather, this was one of the final Minneapolis Lakers teams, led by young Elgin Baylor (24.9 ppg, 15.0 rpg) and filler, notable Vern Mikkelsen (a holdover from the George Mikan teams), Larry Foust (another aging big man from the early years of the NBA), and Dick Garmaker.  The Lakers were only 33-39 but upset a superior Hawks team in the playoffs.  The Celts were the best team in the NBA (52-20) and had the usual stable of Hall of Famers (Russell, Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, and Frank Ramsey).  According to Roland Lazenby’s “The NBA Finals,” the Celts beat the Lakers 173-139 in the regular season, prompting NBA Commisioner Maurice Podoloff to check if the game was thrown.  It turned out it was just an embarrassing beating that presaged the first NBA Finals sweep.

1961-62, Celtics win 4-3:   The Lakers were now much better (54-26), adding Jerry West to pair with Baylor but the Celts were still the class of the NBA at 60-20.  The series went seven games but the Celts’ first three wins were quite convincing (by 40 points), while the Lakers squeaked out three wins by only 14 points total.  Game Seven was a tight overtime win but, ultimately, the best team won.

1962-63, Celtics win 4-2:  Again, the Lakers were good (53-27) but the Celts seemed clearly better (58-27).

1963-64, Celtics win 4-1:  Yes, a recurring theme here (Celts were 62-18, Lakers were 49-31).

1964-65, Celtics win 4-3:  The Celtics continued to fall off a little from their peak but still the best team at 54-26, while the Lakers were the only team above .500 in the West at 45-35.  The series played out very similar to 1961-62, with Celts winning their first three games handily (by a total of 39 points).  The Lakers won their three by only 16 points and had to win two games to comeback from 3-1 to force a Game 7.  Again, the Game 7 was very close (Boston won by two) but ended in another Boston title.

1967-68, Celtics win 4-2:  The Lakers didn’t have a better record (52-30 versus 54-28 for the Celts) but, for the first time, the Lakers had the better expected won-loss (albeit barely).  The teams were relatively close on paper but the Celts won a big overtime at home in Boston for Game 5 and then clinched the series in Los Angeles a few days later.  The teams were roughly even but the Celts advantage up front was the difference.

1968-69, Celtics win 4-3:  This is the only time that anybody should’ve expected the Lakers to win the series.  The Celts were only 48-34, while the Lakers were 55-27.  Surprisingly, the Celts still had a better point differential (55-27 versus 52-30 for the Lakers).  Even so, the older Celtics had to be considered underdogs in the series.  In the series itself, the Lakers won their three games by 21 points and the Celtics won their firs three games by only 16 points.  Coming into Game 7, all indicators really pointed towards the Lakers.  The Celts had some luck in Game 7 (the Don Nelson crazy jump shot) and they ended up having a negative point differential for series (the Lakers had three more points for the series).  Here, the major problem was the decision to sit Wilt Chamberlain down the stretch.  We won’t review it again, but you can check out this story here and here.  Even with all this craziness in the series, the Celts’ win was not a huge shocker based upon the numbers coming into the season.

1983-84, Celtics win 4-3:  The first Bird/Magic meeting should’ve been favored towards the Celtics.  They were 62-20 and and the Lakers were only 54-28 (and had the point differential of a 50-32 team).  The Lakers actually almost won the first two games in Boston but blew Game 2 on a Gerald Henderson steal, as well as some questionable execution down the stretch (it’s forgotten now but the Lakers had the ball to end regulation and the only shot they got off with Magic Johnson at the point was a fall away three at the buzzer).  At the time, Larry Bird said that the Lakers should’ve won the series but this is modesty.  The Celts were the better team.

1984-85, Lakers win 4-2:  This time, the Lakers (62-20) and Celtics (63-19) were virtually a dead heat.  After getting destroyed in Game 1 in Boston, however, the Lakers dominated the series.  L.A. won four of the next five and their only loss was a two-point differential.

1986-87, Lakers win 4-2:  Here, the Lakers were at their absolute peak (65-17) and the Celts were 59-23 and had gone through a particularly grueling post season against the Pistons and Bucks.  The Lakers had absolutely no problems dealing with the Boston at home and (all three home wins were by double figures) and they stole Game 4 on the famous Magic Johnson baby sky hook.

In all, we see that the team with the better record won nearly every single Lakers/Celtics series.  On top of that, with the exception of 1968-69, the Laker losses of the 1960s to Boston were wholly predictable and not a function of any sort of bad luck or character trait that Boston maintained.  Even the Celtic win in1968-69 is a bit overblown in retrospect.  Assuming history holds, Boston fans should be encouraged by the fact that the team with the better record won eight of ten series.  Of course, we know that the Lakers look better than their record.  Still, this should be a fun one to watch.

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