The Celtics and the Lakers both view themselves through the same prism: that of the 2008 Finals. Boston clings to memories of its 17th championship as proof that an 18th is possible, while Los Angeles is motivated by revenge. Yet much has changed in the past two years. Here are the crucial matchup differences.
• Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol
Two years ago Gasol appeared overwhelmed by the intensity of the Finals, but the Spanish power forward can no longer be written off as soft after his impressive defense against Orlando center Dwight Howard in last year's Finals. In 2008 Boston overplayed Kobe Bryant early in the frontcourt and forced him to give up the ball with confidence that none of the other Lakers would punish them. But Gasol's current postseason averages of 20.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 blocks indicate that he'll be more aggressive—in all areas—this time. Don't dismiss Garnett either: While he remains diminished athletically by last year's knee surgery, he has looked more aggressive in the post than he was two years ago, and the Celtics are at their best playing through him as a scorer and passer.
• Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest
Two years ago Pierce became Finals MVP by destroying Vladimir Radmanovic (now a Warriors sub). The Lakers brought in Artest for physical matchups like this one, and if his defense turns Pierce into a passive jump shooter, the Celtics are sunk. But Pierce is healthier than he was throughout the '08 Finals, and NBA people who were with Artest at Indiana, Sacramento and Houston have been predicting all year that Artest will flame out under the pressure of the Finals. Expect Pierce to apply that pressure by taking it to Artest when he has the ball.
• Rajon Rondo vs. Kobe Bryant
Rondo was such an unthreatening scorer in '08 that Bryant matched up with him occasionally in order to play free safety and roam the passing lanes. Now Rondo's deadly drives and improved jumper may demand Bryant's full defensive attention in the fourth quarter. Bryant's length and strength could cause problems, so look for Rondo to play off the ball and run-run-run in hope of wearing down Bryant.
• Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum
The Lakers were without Bynum in '08 because of a left-knee injury, and once again he is limited, this time by a torn meniscus in his right knee, which will require surgery after the Finals. He should be able to stay with Perkins but will be a liability against the versatile new addition Rasheed Wallace, who can exploit Bynum's immobility out to the three-point line. Perkins will prove he is a much better defender and occasional scorer than two years ago, provided he avoids picking up a technical foul that will give him seven for the playoffs and force a one-game suspension.
• SI's prediction
I'll stick with my preseason pick of Boston over L.A.: Boston's floor balance and abundance of big-time playmakers will overcome Bryant's ambition to make amends for 2008. Celtics in seven.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
OLDER BUT BETTER Pierce (below) is healthier than two years ago, while Gasol has developed the toughness to grapple with KG.
BILL FRAKES (PIERCE)
[See caption above]