When it came time to pick a winner just before the '08 Finals, I went with the Lakers. In how many games, I don't remember, but obviously I was on the wrong side of the result. The predominant reason my prediction was incorrect- besides not truly understanding how good Boston's defense was- came from not properly considering the matchups and some of the more intangible things like drive and the mental space each team occupied at the time.
Looking at this series in context, it's easy to see what's changed for the Lakers.
L.A. has the experience of losing to Boston two seasons ago, bolstered by a title run last season. This is their third straight visit to the rodeo. There won't be any surprises, from either the Finals circus or Boston's physicality and intensity.
These Lakers are a more mature group, better equipped to beat the Celtics than they were two years ago.
There are other trends favoring L.A.: Boston's defense isn't quite as good as it was in '08, and the Lakers, even though they were underrated as a defensive team that season, are better now. And of course, there's the return of Andrew Bynum to the lineup. We learned this afternoon the procedure he underwent Monday to drain his injured right knee didn't exactly take- the knee filled up again, Bynum said after practice- but his mere presence changes the way the Celtics defend the post. He may not have a major impact game-to-game, but having Bynum available constitutes something of a pressure-release valve for Pau Gasol during those moments they're on the floor together, since Pau isn't as much on an island in the post.
I'm definitely curious about how the Bynum thing plays out, as well as the now more concrete matchup between Kevin Garnett and Gasol. (I'm not the only one interested in KG vs. The Spanaird, by the way.)
But the highest impact change in personnel relative to '08, even more than Bynum's availability, is the presence of Ron Artest. His primary function in the Finals will be guarding Paul Pierce, and I expect Artest will have a major impact. During the regular season, Artest helped hold Boston's star small forward to only 13 points and 40 percent shooting over two games. Obviously a small sample size, but Ron Ron has a solid enough track record to believe the results aren't a fluke. To have a guy able to stick Pierce is huge in any context, but when compared to what the Lakers had to do against him in '08, it's even bigger.
Pierce spent much of his time guarded by Vladdy Radmanovic, about as good a defender as he is a snowboarder. He saw Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, and Trevor Ariza (who had barely recovered from injury at the time). None were ideal matchups from L.A.'s perspective. Now Pierce gets Artest, who we can all agree will be consumed by the assignment and is especially effective when he has one guy on whom he can focus.
Someone he can sing to, should his defensive tactics get a little unorthodox (seriously, click the link).
Just as important is how Artest's presence frees up the rest of the team. Kobe and Derek Fisher become the primary backcourt defenders. There's no need to go to the bench for important minutes because the Lakers need Bryant to guard Pierce. Instead, Kobe will likely spend a great deal of time on Rajon Rondo, and while obviously not a cupcake assignment it plays to his better tendencies as an on-ball defender. Another benefit: When Rondo and Pierce run the pick and roll, the Lakers will be able to switch if need be and still have a quality, capable defender on PP.
He straightens a lot of things out.
After practice this afternoon at Staples, Artest spoke about defending Pierce, and compared him to guarding someone like Kevin Durant in the first round. Plus, he takes a shot at John Crotty. (John Crotty! Have you no shame, sir?)
Artest on Pierce: "He always said he enjoyed playing against me. Not too many people enjoy playing against me, because I'm real physical. Pierce is one of the guys who enjoyed it... Pierce is a vet. If I was 30- which I am now- there would be things I can do probably, you know, to use my experience. He's 35, 34, and he knows how to play. He's still moving well, he [hasn't'] lost a step. I respect that. I respect that he's still quick and still able to attack. He got a couple dunks in [Boston's last] series so his legs are still there. So I totally, 100 percent respect his game."
Pierce on being guarded by Artest, and how it might impact how he approaches the series: "Well, it's not going to change what I do mentality-wise. I'm going to approach the game like I approach a lot of these games, just with the scorer's mentality, being real aggressive. Obviously I'm playing against one of the top defenders in the game. So he's going to make things a little bit more harder, a little bit more physical. You've got to expect that. I mean, that's what Ron Artest is, a guy who tries to get in your head throughout the game. Grab you, pull you, scratch you, you've just got to expect those things. When I go into a game playing against him, I expect all those things. My thing is just not getting caught up where I'm getting technical fouls or getting into shoving matches. But I know Ron pretty well on the court to know what to expect. But my mentality doesn't change."
VIDEO: Go to about the two minute mark to hear Artest get into his defensive assignment this series, as well as a recap of his work to this point. Or just start at the beginning, if you'd prefer. It's not like an extra two minutes of Video Ron will fail to entertain: