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. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers- that’s right, the #1 overall pick in the 2009 draft is the top rookie in the 2010 season. After missing the 2009-10 season with a knee injury, the 21 year old will make his professional debut this year, and will be considered a rookie. At 6’10” and 250 lbs, the power forward will provide an immediate improvement to Los Angeles’ other team’s frontcourt. Griffin is an elite rebounder who averaged 15.8 per game during his sophomore season at Oklahoma. Griffin also displayed above average passing skills, with the ability to kick the ball out to open shooters on the perimeter. But the most exciting part about Griffin is his ability to run the floor at his size. On a team that features Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, Griffin will certainly fit right in, and give the Clippers one of the most exciting offensive attacks in the league this year. And although he didn’t play at all last year, Griffin got the unique opportunity to adjust and adapt to the grueling NBA schedule. Expect Griffin to get plenty of touches, and look for him to help the Clippers make a turn around and potentially contend for the last playoff spot in the West.
2. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards- generally the top pick in the NBA draft is the top pick for rookie of the year, but due to the situation with Griffin, Wall might not be the favorite. That said, this young man is an electrifying basketball player. Wall is faster with the ball than most players are without. Usually when a young player goes at such high speeds, you worry about turnovers and poor decisions, but Wall has demonstrated an ability to maintain control. Wall will immediately be one of the elite finishers above the rim in the NBA, but the reason why he is below Griffin in these rankings is his shaky jump shot. That said, the only real issue with his shot is how flat it is, which can be easily fixed with repetition and practice, something the coaching staff will certainly give him. With the talent void on this roster, expect the Wizards to put him in position to make plenty of plays, and he should be a player to keep an eye on.
3. Greg Monroe, F/C, Detroit Pistons- last year, the Pistons departed from their defensive mindset that earned them six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the result was a forgettable season that netted them the seventh overall pick. With that pick, they took this extremely talented center from Georgetown. Watching Monroe, at times you might think his unorthodox jump shot and somewhat clumsy style would result in frustrating turnovers and generally poor play, but Monroe has made it work. The 6’11” Monroe has a versatile offensive arsenal, with the ability to play back to the basket, or face up and shoot over less athletic big men. The most impressive thing about Monroe is his advanced passing and ballhandling skills, which at his size draws comparisons to Lamar Odom. The Pistons are deep in the middle of a rebuilding project, and with very little other talent in the frontcourt, Monroe should be a top option on offense.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, F/C, Sacramento Kings- Cousins goes from a young and promising Kentucky Wildcats team to a young and promising team in Sacramento. He will be paired with another one of John Calipari’s one and doners in 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans. At 7 feet, Cousins’ athletic ability is nothing short of amazing. Cousins’ outstanding footwork in the post will mean that his game will translate well to the professional ranks. Cousins will get a chance to learn from veteran defensive standout Samuel Dalembert, although there will be little for him to learn about crashing the boards. Cousins and Evans should form an extremely potent inside-outside combination, and watch out for a dangerous fast break in California’s capitol this year.
5. Xavier Henry, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies- Henry is one of the more intriguing selections of the NBA draft. Memphis already has a young rising star at shooting guard in OJ Mayo, and a franchise player they recently gave a max contract to at small forward in Rudy Gay. So why they would select Henry left many puzzled. Henry’s playing time might not be as consistent as the players listed before him, but his game may be more suited to the NBA than any other rookie guard besides Wall. Henry is a lights out shooter, and when he plays with focus, can be a shutdown defender. In addition, Henry’s likely spot on the bench could be exactly what he needs to develop as an NBA player. Despite his natural talent, Henry struggled for long stretches at Kansas, and with the attention focused elsewhere in Memphis, he has the perfect opportunity to focus on improving his game.
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.