After dispatching the Phoenix Suns 111-103 on Saturday to win the Western Conference Finals for the third straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the NBA Finals for the 31st time. And for the 12th time, they’ll be facing the mighty Boston Celtics in the greatest rivalry in sports. The series will be a rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals, which the Celtics won in six games. The Celtics return the same starting five from their championship squad, including a much improved Rajon Rondo. The Lakers’ main difference is Ron Artest at small forward instead of Trevor Ariza, but remain largely unchanged outside of that, even on the bench. So what reason is there to believe the Lakers’ fate will be different this time around?
1. Home Court Advantage
In 2008, the Boston Celtics had the best record in the NBA with 66 wins, and therefore held home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Although the Lakers had only the third best record in the NBA this year, the two teams with better records (Cleveland and Orlando) both lost to the Celtics, so the Lakers will hold home court advantage in the Finals. This is a huge bonus for the Lakers, who are notorious for playing much better at home than on the road. In the regular season, they went 34-7 at Staples compared to 23-18 on the road. The home court has had even more of an advantage in the playoffs for the Lakers, as they’ve gone 8-0 at home, and only 4-4 on the road.
2. Celtics have aged
Although they are still a great team (as evidenced by their extremely tough road through the Eastern Conference), the Celtics’ Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had visibly aged in the last two years. Garnett’s range has diminished, and he has shot under 50% for the postseason with only one 20 point game. Ray Allen was pivotal in several of the East Finals games, and almost invisible in others. Pierce was the key to beating the Orlando Magic, but had been struggling mighty in the two series before that, including a 34% shooting performance in the Cavaliers’ series. This has been offset somewhat by Rondo’s emergence, but for the Celtics to have a chance, they’ll need their future Hall of Famers to return to form.
3. Lakers have matured
In 2008, many of the Lakers outside of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were playing in their first meaningful playoff run. Pau Gasol, Kobe’s main sidekick, had only come to the Lakers from the Memphis Grizzlies (aka basketball’s purgatory) four months before. Lamar Odom was a nine year veteran, but half of that time had been spent with the Clippers. Andrew Bynum was sitting on the sidelines. This year, the team is now veterans of three long postseason runs, including a successful championship season last year. Even bench players like Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic know what it takes to win it all.
4. Kobe Bryant
And then, of course, there’s the best player in the NBA right now, Kobe Bryant. Bryant has the chance this year to win his fifth NBA championship, which would push him ahead of counterparts Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan to solely and undeniably claim the title of best player of this generation. Kobe’s never looked hungrier, scoring 30 in all but one of the Western Conference Finals games, and averaging 29.4 PPG in the playoffs, to push him to fourth on the all-time postseason scoring list. With the Game 6, and the West Finals, still in question, Bryant came up the most in the clutch. Scoring 37 points, and hitting several key fourth quarter jumpers while double teamed, Kobe pushed the Lakers into the NBA Finals for a record 31st time, and the seventh time in his illustrious 14 year career.
Expect a highly contested series between two outstanding squads, but because of these reasons, look for the Lakers to ultimately prevail.