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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Breaking down, and matching up, the Lakers and Celtics

The NBA Finals many people were hoping for are here. The Times' NBA columnist analyzes the key matchups.

May 30, 2010|Mark Heisler

Be careful what you wish for, it's here.

What do you know, the Lakers wanted the Celtics all along, as Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged, describing the chance off-season meeting in which he told Paul Pierce, "Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals."

Jackson didn't even tell Pierce to make sure he brings his wheelchair.

We have time to recount all the disrespect shown by each of these teams for the other, so let's start with the all-important matchups.

Here's how it will go:

I don't know.

If everyone thinks they do, no one does until they start playing.

In 2008, the favored Lakers, who had just gone 12-3 in the Western draw, walked into a matchup nightmare no one saw coming.

The Celtics single-covered Pau Gasol with Kendrick Perkins, who pounded on Pau all series and held him to 14.6 points a game.

Kevin Garnett took Lamar Odom, or, actually, left him on the perimeter while KG played free safety.

Flummoxed for three games, Odom scored 14-10-4

That left everyone else to help Ray Allen guard Kobe Bryant, who had two choices:

1) Pass and watch teammates miss.

2) Go one-on-however-many-there-were, the only way to get shots with two or three Celtics tracking him.

The Lakers finally figured it out in Game 4, going up by 24 as the ball moved magically, looking as if they would tie the series, 2-2.

Instead, the Celtics rallied, Bryant couldn't take over with so few good looks, and the Lakers lost.

Down, 3-1, the Lakers won Game 5 to force Game 6 in Boston, their low point of the last 10 years unless something worse happens this series.

Here are the key matchups, I think.

BRYANT VS. RAJON RONDO

Bryant has guarded Rondo since the 2008 Finals, mostly to drop off him to play free safety, a la Garnett.

Now, however, Rondo makes the Celtics go, making this the key matchup.

Bryant gets bored chasing shooters through screens, but he's a great on-ball defender . . . and will have to be to have a chance at keeping the cat-quick 6-foot, 175-pound Rondo out of the lane.

That was the role Bryant chose on the U.S. team, taking it from the unit Greece shot up in the 2006 world championships to the ferocious defenders who won the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

It's also what Bryant, playing with a sore knee, did to Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook last month in Game 5, turning the first-round series around.

Rondo still passes up open 15-footers but finishes over big men, rebounds over big men, frees up teammates and gets every loose ball in or near his vicinity with his long arms and huge hands.

If Kobe plays him, Rondo had better start taking those 15-footers, because he'll get a lot of them.

PIERCE VS. RON ARTEST

The heavyweight championship, the one and only Ronnie vs. the MVP of the 2008 Finals.

Coming off the quietest season in his career, Artest is still a trip, shooting sporadically (seven for 42 on three-point attempts in the first eight playoff games, 16 for 43 since) but throwing a kink into Kevin Durant's game and holding Jason Richardson, previously averaging 22 in the playoffs, to 17.

Neither was a natural matchup for the 6-7, 260-pound Artest, but at 6-7, 235, Pierce is.

GASOL VS. GARNETT

At 32 in 2008, Garnett was the defensive player of the year, averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds in the Finals, but he's not that KG anymore.

If Gasol isn't likely to dominate him, Pau still prefers playing someone his size to being hit all night by a battering ram with the initials K.P.

Unless, of course, Andrew Bynum can't play and Gasol is back in against the battering ram.

BYNUM VS. PERKINS

Known for personal fouls, technical fouls and suspensions, the underrated Perkins is also a great post defender at 6-10 (they wish), 280, with feet quick enough to guard Dwight Howard and shoulders strong enough to come out the other side of Gasol's rib cage.

At 7 feet, 285, Bynum, who didn't play in the 2008 playoffs, is a whole new challenge, who's just hoping his knee holds up long enough to squeeze this series in.

"I'll be OK," he said Saturday. "I didn't come this far to stop now."

ALLEN VS. DEREK FISHER

If the Warriors had given up Monta Ellis, the 34-year-old Allen would have missed this run, and the Celtics might have too.

Meanwhile, people have been trying to retire the 35-year-old Fisher for years.

If Allen is a star, and Fisher a role player, both have shown all spring they're big-game, big-series players with a knack for winding up with the ball in their hands in crunch time and coming through.

BENCHES

The Lakers have Odom, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and, fresh off starting the Slovenian Civil War, Sasha Vujacic.

The Celtics have Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen, who are all useful, and Nate Robinson, who's like Sasha, only smaller, more explosive and not as mature.

COACHES

Doc Rivers is more gracious.

Jackson is funnier.

If one of them is going to have the other's fans coming after the team bus with torches and pitchforks, guess which it will be.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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