As I type this, I am watching a replay of Game Four of the 2008 NBA Finals on ESPN Classic, and Eddie House has just made an important three-pointer in the midst of the Boston Celtics' historic comeback win. This is a reminder of something important to keep in mind as we prepare for tonight's Game One of this year's NBA Finals series between the same Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers squads that met two years ago. While the teams may be the same, and both have their cores intact, there have been important changes on both sides over the last two years.
Of the 10 players who finished Game Four, three of them (Boston's House and James Posey; Vladimir Radmanovic for the Lakers) now play elsewhere. A fourth, Sasha Vujacic, has become something of a forgotten man and has totaled just 24 minutes this postseason. Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo watched the conclusion to Game Four from the Boston bench. Such a possibility is now unthinkable for the All-Star, who might just be the Celtics' best player.
Let's take a closer look at the three most important differences between now and the 2008 Finals.
The development of Rajon Rondo
It was between Games Two and Three of the 2008 series, with the Lakers trailing 2-0, that Phil Jackson and his coaching staff made the decision to switch Kobe Bryant to Rondo. The move made sense because of Bryant's talent for roaming defensively and Rondo's poor shooting. Unnerved by the change, Rondo was a non-factor over the next three games, totaling 15 points and nine assists after he had 19 points and 23 assists in Games One and Two. Rondo rebounded with a phenomenal effort in the clincher, putting up 21 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six steals, but overall Boston won despite its young point guard, not because of him.
There's been some debate in the last few days about whether the Lakers will deploy Bryant or point guard Derek Fisher to defend Rondo, but to me it's not even a question. I suspect Jackson was being coy when he told reporters that Bryant would spend some time defending Rondo. Other than the second head-to-head meeting during this year's regular season, when Bryant was injured, the Lakers have used the same strategy against Rondo the last two years. The belief in backing off Rondo is so strong that Minnesota's Kurt Rambis, a former Lakers assistant, even employed a similar philosophy when the Timberwolves faced the Celtics this season.
Here's the funny thing about Rondo's rapid development over the last two seasons: It has little to do with his shooting. According to Hoopdata.com, Rondo shot 43.0 percent on long two attempts in 2007-08, which is actually pretty good. This year, that percentage plummeted to 33.0 percent. Yes, Rondo is now a tiny bit of a threat from downtown, but really what has happened is that Rondo has learned how to work around his weakness and get into the paint anyway, creating shots for teammates and boosting his assist rate.
We certainly saw that in the game between these two teams at the TD Garden this season. Rondo was 1-of-5 on long twos, but he still shot 9-of-16 from the field and dished 12 assists thanks to his ability to get into the paint. Transition will be big for Rondo in this series, since he can create easy shots in the early offense when the Lakers haven't yet had a chance to wall off the basket. He can also take advantage of switches that put slower defenders on him on the perimeter.
I'm not sure that Jackson and company will make a switch defensively, because the way they've defended Rondo brings other benefits--as Gary Collard pointed out on Twitter, Bryant doesn't have to chase Ray Allen through screens this way, and his ability to give help can be disruptive to the rest of the Boston offense. Still, don't expect the strategy of backing off Rondo to be nearly as effective as it was in 2008.
The remade Celtics bench
Rondo wasn't the only Boston starter who had ups and downs in the 2008 Finals. Center Kendrick Perkins averaged 11.0 fouls per 48 minutes and struggled with the quickness of the Lakers' frontcourt, averaging just 18.4 minutes per game. Veteran backup P.J. Brown saw more action than Perkins, while the Celtics finished games with Posey playing as a stretch four and Kevin Garnett at center. House's shooting was key, and Leon Powe offered a memorable Game Two, scoring 21 points in 15 minutes.
What do those reserves have in common? None of them still plays for Boston. Tony Allen and Glen Davis, who combined for 34 minutes of action in the 2008 series, have graduated to larger roles, while the Celtics have added Rasheed Wallace to become Posey's de facto replacement as a floor-stretching big man.
It could be said without much hyperbole that Boston's bench won the 2008 NBA Finals. BasketballValue.com's matchup data shows the Celtics essentially playing even with their starters on the floor. The combination of House and Posey with The Big Three was lethal, outscoring the Lakers by 19 points in just 21 minutes of action.
While this group of Boston reserves offers less depth, with Rivers largely sticking with an eight-man rotation in the playoffs, it has been effective. Allen has filled in at all three perimeter positions and has made good decisions to go along with his defense, always a strength. Wallace has played with more consistent energy in the postseason and is making 41.2 percent of his three-pointers. Davis has been the Celtics' fifth-leading scorer and rebounder.
Still, I'm not certain this group matches up with the Lakers quite in well. In particular, I wonder about how Boston will finish games against the Lakers' frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom if Perkins again has difficulty defending Gasol. Neither Davis nor Wallace is as ideal a matchup against Odom and his ability to create off the dribble as Posey was, and Davis does not stretch the floor as well as Posey did. That could be a difference-maker in a game during this series.
The addition of Ron Artest
The Lakers' small forward position has been filled by very different players each of their three trips to the Finals. In 2008, Trevor Ariza was just coming back from a broken bone in his foot and played limited minutes. Radmanovic started at the position, but it was Vujacic--enjoying the best season of his career--who finished several games at small forward alongside Bryant. In Game Four, both Vujacic and Radmanovic were on the floor down the stretch as Jackson sought to space the floor and benched Odom.
Now, Artest fills the position, and that's important because of his ability to defend Paul Pierce. Pierce averaged 21.8 points with a 58.8 percent True Shooting Percentage in the 2008 NBA Finals, should find the going more difficult in this series. Artest has the size and strength to cause problems for Pierce without sacrificing much in the way of quickness.
In the regular season, Pierce averaged just 13.0 points against the Lakers, one of his lowest averages against any team, shooting 8-of-20 from the field. One thing to watch for in this matchup is whether Pierce can draw fouls from Artest when the latter is overly aggressive, getting to the foul line for easy buckets. That's how Pierce has had much of his success against Artest in the past.
On the other end, I'm not quite as sanguine about the Artest addition as ESPN Insider's John Hollinger. Artest's shot-happy ways haven't been the problem I feared they might be, as he's amicably slid into the smaller role in the offense vacated by Ariza. Still, Artest has been a drag on the Lakers' offense with his inconsistent shooting. In the 2008 Finals, Radmanovic shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc, and Vujacic was at 34.8 percent in a disappointing series (aside from his big Game Three). There's no guarantee that Artest, making 27.1 percent of his threes in the playoffs, will even reach the latter mark. The Celtics will surely try to make Artest beat them, and I'm not sure I would be comfortable with that if I was Phil Jackson.
Still, Artest represents an upgrade, and two of the three biggest changes in this series favor the Lakers. That's part of the reason why I favor them to reverse the outcome of the 2008 NBA Finals and beat Boston this time around.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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