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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Finals preview: Tougher Lakers ready for this go-around with Celtics

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When the Lakers left the new Garden after getting drilled by 39 points in the NBA Finals closeout loss to the Celtics two years ago, Boston fans got a lot more physical with L.A.'s team bus than the Lakers ever got with the Celtics.

Despite Phil Jackson's insistence this week that the Lakers "don't have a smackdown mentality," the Zen Master knows that this series will be won in much the same fashion as the 2008 showdown. It will be won more with brawn than with guile. It will be won more with hard playoff fouls than with breathtaking displays of athleticism.

And so in that way, much has changed since two years ago when the NBA's two signature franchises squared off in a much anticipated renewal of their decades-old rivalry. Despite some of the same old names, both teams are better and different in areas that will decide the outcome of their 12th meeting in the Finals.

The Celtics still have the Big Three, only now it's the Big Three Plus One. Rajon Rondo, merely a curiosity during the '08 Finals, is now the force that drives Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Lakers had no physical presence around the basket last time, with no Andrew Bynum and a finesse center, Pau Gasol, doing battle with hatchet man Kendrick Perkins. Though Bynum isn't 100 percent, having gotten his injured knee drained over the weekend, his physical presence will be felt. Gasol, who is tougher, stronger and more assertive than he was two years ago, will be able to spend much of his time operating from the power forward spot against Garnett as opposed to slugging it out with Perkins. When Gasol has to be around the basket, he'll be more forceful this time.

Another key difference: The Lakers had no answer for Finals MVP Pierce in '08. Enter Ron Artest, as good and physical a wing defender as there is in the NBA. Pierce will get his, but Artest will make him work. And with his offensive play improving as the postseason has progressed, Artest might even be worthy of Pierce's attention on the other end of the floor.

So many subplots, so little time. Lakers vs. Celtics has a little bit of everything: History and recent context, the Lakers' triangle offense vs. the best team defensive scheme in the NBA, and the hatred that comes with a storied rivalry. It is hatred, right?

"Hate's a strong word," said the Lakers' Lamar Odom, a Yankees fan and native New Yorker who might be selling this rivalry short by comparing it to Yankees-Red Sox. "You hate people that do something wrong to you and try to hurt you. If you compete on a high level, you respect someone for that."

There's respect on both sides in healthy doses, and plenty of strategic factors to consider in predicting who will win.

1. Lakers (57-25) vs. 4. Celtics (50-32)

Postseason: Lakers beat the Thunder (4-2), Jazz (4-0) and Suns (4-2). Celtics beat the Heat (4-1), Cavaliers (4-2) and Magic (4-2).

Regular season: Split, 1-1. Lakers beat Celtics 90-89 on Jan. 31 at TD Garden. Celtics beat Lakers 87-86 on Feb. 18 at Staples Center.

Finals history: It's the 12th matchup of the flagship franchises that have accounted for 32 of the NBA's 63 championships. The Celtics hold a 9-2 edge, including a six-game Finals victory over L.A. in 2008.

Key stats:

Lakers: Jackson is 44-0 in playoff series after winning the first game and 30-1 when leading after three games. The only loss came in 2006, when the Lakers blew a 3-1 lead against the Suns.

Celtics: After shooting .396 (61 for 154) from the field in the first two rounds, Pierce shot .512 (43 for 84) against Orlando in the conference finals, averaging a series-high 24.3 ppg.

Key role players:

Lakers: Lamar Odom. As Odom goes, so go the Lakers. Amar'e Stoudemire's unfortunate use of the term "lucky" to describe Odom's monstrous 19-point, 19-rebound performance in Game 1 of the conference finals only reminded everyone of how important the Lakers' sixth man is to their success –- especially against a team with as much as size and physical presence as the Celtics.

Celtics: Rasheed Wallace. 'Sheed is sort of the Artest of the Celtics, only more erratic. After an abysmal regular season, Wallace's play has picked up noticeably during the playoffs, and his post defense will be critical against the Lakers' front court. If Wallace can stay out of foul trouble (a big if), shake off a nagging back injury (also questionable) and make good decisions within the offense (LOL), he could be a series-changing positive factor for Boston.

Key matchups:

Rajon Rondo vs. Kobe Bryant: How to handle Rondo is a crucial tactical decision for Jackson, and one that he can't hesitate to change early in the series if Rondo starts having his way. The Celtics are a classic front-running team. When they get momentum, which often is provided by their cunning, relentless point guard, they are almost impossible to slow down. So it makes sense that Jackson would want to hold Rondo in check from the opening tip, and Bryant is just the guy to do it.

In 2008, Rajon Rondo was an afterthought. This time, he's the key to the series for the Celtics. (US Presswire)  
In 2008, Rajon Rondo was an afterthought. This time, he's the key to the series for the Celtics. (US Presswire)  
Even at 31, with all that mileage and those aching joints, Bryant remains an excellent on-ball defender. In some ways, playing Rondo is more up Bryant's alley -- and could be less taxing in terms of what's left in his tank for offense -- than chasing Allen around bone-crushing screens all series. With spot help from Bryant, Derek Fisher has held up OK against a variety of lethal point guards thus far in the postseason -- Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Steve Nash. But Rondo will be more difficult to defend than any of them.

Here are the issues for Jackson: 1) If Bryant holds Rondo in check, how much will he have left to perform his day job, which is scoring? 2) If not Bryant, then who chases Allen around the whole series? Chances are, the Lakers will have to show different looks, and will rely on team concepts more than single coverage. Whatever they do, they have to keep Rondo from controlling the pace, and they have to stay with him for the entire 24-second clock. No other point guard in the postseason has been as adept as Rondo at waiting out the defense and making a demoralizing play as the shot clock winds down.

Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest: Pierce was too much for the Lakers to handle in the '08 Finals, averaging 21.8 points and getting all the looks he wanted. Artest, on a redemptive mission during this postseason, is the prototypical defender for a player of Pierce's size and shot-making ability.

It will be a slugfest of heavyweight proportions, and the harder Artest makes Pierce work, the better off the Lakers will be. With Artest seeming to find his niche on the offensive end, it's worth noting that Pierce is a better defender than most people realize, as evidenced by how hard he made LeBron James work -- and how much he made him settle -- during the conference semifinals.

Coaching: Jackson has 10 championship rings, and as good as Doc Rivers is with a microphone, Phil will not be outdebated in the pre- and postgame news conferences. But nobody has done a better coaching job this postseason than Rivers and his staff, who dismantled the 61-win Cavs and made LeBron look ordinary before turning the Magic's few weaknesses into series-altering defects. Most people scoff at Jackson's résumé, pointing to all the Hall of Famers he has coached (a valid point) and alleging that he isn't much of a tactician. I would argue with the second point after watching the Lakers quickly adjust to the Suns' confounding 2-3 zone in the conference finals. It's certainly appropriate that Rivers, sitting in Red Auerbach's old seat, would be Jackson's most formidable postseason adversary for the second time in three years.

Subplots: Speaking of coaches, there's a chance that neither Jackson nor Rivers will be on the sideline next year. Jackson is mulling retirement in the face of a possible pay cut, and will be courted heavily by the Bulls, Clippers, Cavaliers, Nets and any other team that believes his Zen Mastery could lure LeBron to their town. Rivers, perhaps recognizing that this is the last rodeo for the Celtics' Big Three, is thinking about taking a year off to watch his kids play college sports. And that's only the beginning of the subplots. You have the Lakers-Celtics history, the revenge factor from '08, Kobe's relentless pursuit of a fifth title (not to mention Michael Jordan's legacy), Artest's pursuit of redemption, and the NBA's revival after a mostly uneventful postseason.

Berger's take: Such a big deal was made out of the Celtics-Lakers matchup in the '08 Finals that you would think I would be all hyped out this time around. But I'm actually looking forward to this series more than the last one. Bryant has upped the ante in his pursuit of all-time greatness, having added a fourth championship to his résumé against Orlando a year ago. Now he has a chance to climb Mount Celtic and complete a journey that was born amid the wreckage of that 131-92 loss at TD Garden in Game 6 of the '08 Finals.

He has a lot better chance of coming out on top this time. First, as I've already mentioned, the Lakers answered the call to become a more physical, defensive-minded team after their '08 loss. With even a modest contribution from Bynum and smothering defense from Artest, it will be clear from the outset that this is not the same Lakers team that got pushed around last time.

But the Celtics present two significant challenges that I believe will extend the Lakers all the way to the final buzzer in Game 7. First, the Rondo factor; in the immortal words of Seinfeld, it's real and it's spectacular. Rondo will control the action if the Lakers don't slow him down. There's a reason Boston became the first team to reach the Finals by defeating the teams with the two best records in the league, and he wears a headband and No. 9.

Second, the Lakers won't be able to wait for Bryant to rescue them against the Celtics' defense, which held Kobe to 40 percent shooting (off his career postseason average of 45 percent) and forced him to commit one turnover per game more than his career postseason average in the '08 Finals.

But the Celtics, the first NBA finalist with a better road record (26-15) than home record (24-17), have issues in the 2-3-2 format. Boston is 6-3 on the road this postseason, so it isn't difficult to envision them escaping Staples Center with a split. But even if they do, it is difficult to imagine the Celtics winning three straight games at home against anybody -- much less the defending champs.

In the end, it will come down to home court, the Celtics' probable inability to protect theirs, the Lakers' vastly improved defensive toughness, and of course, Bryant's laser-like pursuit of his rightful place among the greatest and most decorated champions ever to play.

Prediction: Lakers in 7.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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