Lonnie White's Xs and O's

June 04, 2008

Matchup decisions made by coaches in the NBA Finals have a long history of determining the league championship.

In 1975, Washington's K.C. Jones made the wrong move when he assigned Mike Riordan to defend Golden State's Rick Barry, who averaged 40.8 points a game and was named Finals MVP after leading the Warriors to a 4-0 sweep.

In 1991, then-Chicago coach Phil Jackson made the right choice when he had Scottie Pippen defend Lakers point guard Magic Johnson, and that helped the Bulls win the series in five games.

In 2004, Detroit's Larry Brown decided correctly to have undersized Ben Wallace defend the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, and even though O'Neal put up big numbers the Pistons wrapped the series up in five games.

This year, the Lakers' Jackson and Boston's Doc Rivers are the coaches under the spotlight. Their decisions on matchups will go a long way in determining this year's NBA championship. Here are a couple to follow:

Kobe Bryant vs. Ray Allen

Even if Allen has a flashback to 2001, when he averaged 25 points and shot 47% in 18 playoff games for Milwaukee, it's highly doubtful that he'll be able to keep up with Bryant, who has taken his game to a higher and more consistent level this postseason.

But Allen can have a huge impact on the series if he can avoid picking up ill-advised fouls and can make Bryant work for his points. Allen, who has a long history of defending Bryant, has to be able to keep his feet moving without grabbing -- something easier said than done.

Don't be surprise to see the Celtics also throw a heavy dose of James Posey, along with Paul Pierce and even Kevin Garnett, against the league's most valuable player.

The key for the Celtics will be their defensive rotations underneath the basket against Bryant. They have to make sure that all five defenders are ready to make a play whenever Bryant has the ball in attack position.

If Boston is able to get this done and make Bryant attempt to carry the Lakers' offense as a jump shooter from outside the lane, they'll have a chance to pull off an upset in the series.

Paul Pierce vs. Vladimir Radmanovic

At first glance, this appears to be a major mismatch. But it really isn't. Radmanovic has been playing his best basketball of the season in the playoffs and has size that can give Pierce problems.

Radmanovic may not have lateral movement, but he does a good job of staying between the basket and the person he's defending. At 6 feet 10, Radmanovic is able to give distance and still get a hand up to defend Pierce's trademark fadeaway jumpers.

But Pierce can hurt Radmanovic and the Lakers if he decides not to settle for perimeter shots. By doing this, Pierce would not only get to the free-throw line more, he'll also get the Lakers into foul trouble.

For the Lakers, it will help to keep Radmanovic involved in the offense. He's shooting 46.4% during the playoffs, 63.3% against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals. The more Radmanovic makes Pierce work on defense, the better things become for the Lakers.

Also, don't look for the Lakers to stick only with Radmanovic against Pierce. Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and even Bryant will likely get their opportunities to defend the Celtics' leading scorer of the playoffs.

Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett

If this was one-on-one or a Venice Beach pickup game, the advantage would go to Garnett in a landslide. But this is a duel within the NBA Finals, and Gasol has been a major force for the Lakers in the playoffs.

Garnett will discover -- just as the Spurs' Tim Duncan did in the conference finals -- that Gasol can create problems with his length. The long-armed, 7-foot Lakers center has a knack of getting his hand on balls near the basket and that could frustrate Garnett.

If Boston is to make this matchup work, Garnett can't fall in love with his perimeter game.

The Celtics need Garnett to be aggressive and force Gasol to step up as a defender.

When the Lakers have the ball, look for Gasol to be a major force. Whether Gasol is taking advantage of his height in the post or rotating to an open area underneath the basket, the Celtics will have their hands full trying to keep him from scoring.

Gasol did not play for the Lakers when they lost two games to Boston during the regular season. He's the matchup X-factor in the series and it will be up to Garnett to determine which team has an advantage.

Other matchups

Although the Lakers' Odom is known more for his perimeter game on offense, he's often had to match up against stockier big men such as Boston's Kendrick Perkins in the post. Perkins will have his moments, but Odom is crafty and should give the Lakers an edge at both ends of the court.

Lakers veteran Derek Fisher will have a tough battle against Rajon Rondo if the Celtics' second-year point guard is aggressive on offense. Rondo has a sneaky style that can be effective, especially if Fisher drifts to play help defense.

The Lakers will need Fisher to drive to the basket when he sees an opening. Rondo has trouble stopping penetration and does not have enough strength to stop Fisher.

Led by Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf and Walton, the Lakers' bench has been a positive in the playoffs. Jackson has been able to push the right buttons at the proper times and his reserves have responded.

But it's been the same for Rivers and the Celtics. Whether it's been veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, or young pros Glen Davis and Leon Powe, Boston has received consistent effort off the bench.


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