I scoffed and replied, “What about Rajon Rondo? How are you going to cover him?”
To which his girlfriend (also a Lakers fan, though even she admits that Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar are both plagues on the NBA) responded, “How can the Celtics win without Paul Pierce? Ron Artest will shut him down.”
And it occurred to me that’s precisely what this series will boil down to — the X-factors: the quick-draw Kentucky kid with eyes in the back of his head and the second coming of Dennis Rodman, only with a jump shot.
To be sure, there are plenty of certainties when these two teams meet Thursday night for the 12th time in the NBA Finals.
- Kobe Bryant will score 30 points a game or more. Say what you will of him, but the Mamba is determined to get revenge for 2008, and he is scary when determined. While it was against arguably the worst defense in the NBA, Bryant averaged 34 points, eight assists and 7.2 boards against Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. Expect him to come to play every game of this series. (Side bet with any L.A. fan who wants to take it: The Lakers will lose any game in which Kobe scores more than 40 points. He is simply a liability when shooting that often.)
- Ray Allen will spread the defense. He dropped 20.3 points a game against L.A. in the 2008 finals, hitting 22 of 42 treys through six games. Nothing has changed. Two extra years of age haven’t made Jesus Shuttlesworth any less of a 3-point threat, and there’s no doubt the Lakers’ defense will take that into account in its rotations.
- Sasha’s hair will be greasy.
- There will be plenty of banging down low: Kendrick Perkins on Andrew Bynum (who just had fluid drained from his knee) and Kevin Garnett on Pau “Ostrich Man” Gasol. There is history between these men. Expect plenty of foul trouble for all four.
- Derek Fisher will invariably get away with at least one dirty play, followed by a sickening wave of praise from the analysts for his leadership and mental toughness.
But where the questions begin to arise is when we consider the roles of Rondo and Artest.
Artest, no doubt, will be a tough matchup for Pierce. He is long (6-foot-7), strong (260 pounds) and physical. In two regular-season games against Artest and the Lakers, Paul was shaky, averaging 13 points on 40 percent shooting.
But there’s also no doubt that the playoffs are a completely different beast. Nor that Pierce looks as good as he has all season, dropping more than 24 per game on the Magic at a 51.2 percent clip from the field.
And tough as Artest is, is he a better defender than Trevor Ariza, who guarded Paul in the 2008 meeting?
Perhaps, then, where Artest’s X-factor will be most judged is in his ability to score and keep Boston’s defense honest. At the moment, that seems unlikely. The 30-year-old is shooting 27 percent from 3-point range thus far in the postseason, averaging just 11.5 points overall.
There are no questions about Rondo’s talent. A recent NESN poll has him as team MVP by 60 percentage points over Pierce. The kid is averaging 16.7 points, 10 assists, 5.3 rebounds and two steals this postseason. He can get to the paint at will; he can score; he can thread a needle with a basketball; he’s always the quickest player on the floor and he has perhaps the best vision of any point guard in the league (only Steve Nash rivals him).
We can guarantee it: Rondo will be a star in the finals, and perhaps the most important player on the floor for either team.
Where the precocious 24-year-old becomes an X factor, then, isn’t in his ability, but in how Phil Jackson and L.A. decide to handle him.
They have, it would seem, two choices: Put the slower, older Fisher on him; or let Kobe try his hand.
It is the same dilemma Cleveland faced in the semis. Fisher (Mo Williams) simply isn’t quick enough, allowing Rondo to penetrate and slice open the defense. But use Kobe (LeBron James) on the point guard, and you leave Allen with a severe height advantage over Fisher (Williams).
And that, of course, ignores the possibilities both that Kobe simply isn’t good enough to stay with Rondo, and that even if he is, those balky knees might quake under the pressure.
It’ll be up to Phil to pick his poison.
Those, in short, are the central questions of the series: Can Artest find his jump shot and contain Pierce at the same time? And how will the Lakers defend against Rondo?
Thursday night should give us a first look at the answers to both.