Finals: Three questions on C's-Lakers

Here we go again. For the 12th time, it's the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers for the gold ring.

In 2008, the Celtics trounced the Lakers in six games, winning their ninth title in 11 tries against the Lakers, and their 17th championship banner in all.

But things might be different now, as the Lakers have the home-court advantage this time, and a stopper in Ron Artest. Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo has emerged as the leader of the Celtics, who once again hope to stymie Kobe Bryant.

We asked our expert panel to compare 2008 to 2010, and to forecast the outcome:

1. How will this year's Finals be similar to the 2008 series between the Celtics and Lakers?

Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: The main storylines remain: Boston's defense, Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum's trick knee, Phil Jackson's mastery, the age of Boston's Big Three, questions about Pau Gasol's toughness.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com The Celtics will once again keep Kobe Bryant from dominating as he did against the Western Conference. With Ray Allen bolstered by support from the entire front line, Bryant will face obstacles with every dribble and spin. Expect Kevin Garnett to average the same 18 points per game against the Lakers as he did in 2008.

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN TrueHoop: The overarching goals of each team will be the same. The Celtics will try to keep the rock out of Kobe Bryant's possession. When he does get the ball, the Celtics will wall off the paint to induce jump shots or kickouts.

On offense, the C's will use rotating pick-and-rolls and lots of off-ball stuff to get their scorers their favorite shots. The Lakers will be aggressive on both ends of the floor. When Boston is in the half court, the Lakers' help defenders will send hard double-teams to the ball.

When the Lakers want to score, they'll run the offense through the high post, where Bryant and Pau Gasol can use the entire floor to score and/or make plays.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: This series will resemble '08 in that the Celtics' physical play will still be a factor (though not as much of one), and Paul Pierce will be huge offensively.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: The Lakers are going to be caught off-guard, to a degree, by the Celtics' intensity on the defensive end, and the Celtics are again going to design their game strategy around not letting Kobe beat them while still trying to keep the Lakers' longs in check.

Like it was in 2008, the desire factor is going to be in play. In other words, who wants it more? Going into '08, both teams were hungry. Since then, both have won titles. This time around, it's about which team is going to go harder for the next one.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com Boston's physicality and doubts about L.A.'s toughness will look and sound very familiar. Ditto for the genuine venom this rivalry generates, which flows not only between the two teams but between the two fan bases.

The Celtics' team D, for all the talk about Kevin Garnett's supposed limitations, also has to be in the '08 ballpark after it snuffed out Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. But I have to confess that I see more differences than similarities.

2. How will this series be different from the 2008 Finals?

Abbott: In 2008, if you could rank teams by defensive ferocity, Boston would have been about a 60 on a scale of 1 to 10, which was really shocking to behold. This year, the Celtics still lead the league, but thanks to age, and the rest of the league having time to adjust, they're more of an 11. The Lakers are simply not going to be psyched out this time around.

Boston now has Rajon Rondo playing at a whole new level. The Lakers famously struggle with fast point guards, making Rondo a potential nightmare.

The Lakers start Ron Artest at a position where they were weak in 2008. Life will be harder for Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett cannot be counted on to dominate for long stretches like he did two years ago. Leon Powe and Eddie House were both huge for the Celtics in that series, but they're both gone.

Adande: Kobe Bryant will have to devote his full defensive attention to Rajon Rondo, instead of leaving him to help elsewhere. Can't give Rondo open 18-footers anymore. But at least Bryant won't have to worry about guarding Paul Pierce now that Ron Artest is around to handle that duty.

Arnovitz: In Ron Artest, the Lakers have a far more dependable defender for Paul Pierce. The addition of Andrew Bynum, so long as he's healthy and mobile, gives the Lakers a true defensive center who can protect the rim and a lot more depth up front.

It's also clear that Bryant trusts his teammates more than he did two season ago. For Boston, Rajon Rondo is all grown up and no longer someone the Lakers can comfortably leave to work defensively on Pierce, Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett. In addition, Rondo's decision-making and confidence make the Celtics a more dangerous transition team.

Can Tony Allen, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace replicate what James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe gave the Celtics in 2008?

Broussard: It'll differ from '08 in that Rajon Rondo will be the Celtics' catalyst. Also, Kobe Bryant will get more help, both offensively and defensively, than he got two years ago.

Sheridan: The Celtics are getting more out of Rajon Rondo than they were two years ago, but let's also not forget that Ray Allen was in such a miserable slump throughout the '08 postseason that it impacted the way the Lakers defended them.

This time, Ray has been as sharp as anyone, and Paul Pierce has not lost a step in the past two years. He is my pick for MVP of the series. Let us also remember that the Tim Donaghy scandal was a major competing storyline two years ago, pulling a lot of focus away from the games themselves. This time, we should be able to stay focused on the teams instead of the refs.

Stein: We don't know yet if Rondo's body will cooperate fully, but he was the Celtic of the postseason until Game 4 of the Orlando series, which certainly wasn't the case two years ago.

Artest banging on Pierce and Bynum actually playing on a bad knee this time as opposed to sitting out are two more huge differences. And while I generally agree with the claim that no defense troubles Kobe like Boston's, I'm not sure these Celts can work him over in the same fashion.

Not with Kobe in the zone he's in right now ... and with the help he'll get from the most tuned-in Artest we've ever seen in dealing with Pierce ... and with Boston no longer employing one of its better Kobe-chasers in James Posey. (One more strange-but-true difference: It's possible that both Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers will be walking away from their jobs when the series is over.)

3. How will this series play out?

Abbott: Nobody really knows, which is what makes it so fun. Assuming the post-knee draining Kobe Bryant is the one who will show up, his transcendent play -- and L.A.'s home-court advantage -- ought to tip the scales in the Lakers' favor. Which is why I pick them in seven. But I've been picking against the Celtics since the first round, and they keep making me look foolish.

Adande: The pace and score will be closer to Boston's preference. I think the Celtics, as rested as they'll be for the remainder of the season, steal Game 1 in L.A. The Lakers even it before they head back to Boston, where the Celtics take two of three before grabbing Game 6 in L.A.

Arnovitz: Lakers in seven. This is the hardest NBA Finals in recent memory to project. June is normally a culmination of everything we've seen from two teams over a nine-month period, but this summer it seems more like a departure.

The Celtics' defense is humming at 2008 efficiency and the C's are getting solid offensive performances all around. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant shook off injuries and a mortal regular season (by his standards) to play the best basketball of his career over the past month.

With Game 7 at Staples Center, Bryant's transcendence will prevail by a whisker.

Broussard: The clubs split Games 1 and 2 in L.A., with Boston taking the opener. Boston returns to L.A. up 3-2, but the Lakers win Game 6 fairly handily. Boston takes Game 7 on the Lakers' floor.

Sheridan: I expect Boston to win at least one of the first two games in L.A., putting the onus on the Lakers to respond strongly in Game 3 and/or 4 to regain home court and make sure the series heads back to L.A. The future of Phil Jackson will be a storyline, too, and that can't help but be a distraction.

The Lakers seem to have a thing this postseason for getting the final bounce to go their way at the end of close games, but that well has to run dry at some point, even if the Lakers tap it once or twice more.

In the end, defense wins championships. And Boston is the better defensive team. So Celtics in 7.

Stein: No wheelchairs for Pierce, no David Stern news conferences to address Donaghy allegations ... and Lakers in six. Home-court advantage will be decisive, as will Bryant's determination to avoid falling to 0-2 against the hated Celtics in the Finals, which would be an undeniable legacy hit for the modern-day face of Hollywood's team.

The Lakers are also a touch healthier and that much hungrier after the way their big men got punked in '08. Boston, meanwhile, obviously needed this extended break for health reasons -- because Rondo and Sheed have to be reasonably spry for the Celtics to win again -- but getting revved up again after nearly a week off is bound to be harder for the older team than L.A.

You also have to figure that Kendrick Perkins, just one more technical foul away from suspension, is going to miss a game, which the Celts can't afford.