LOS ANGELES -- As he usually is when it comes to hitting long range goals, Ray Allen was on target the first time the Celtics played the Lakers this year, a 90-89 Los Angeles triumph a little more than four months ago.
"There is a lot of significance placed on this game because of the team that we played, but we have to do our part," Allen said. "We're going to see them again in their building [in February], but we have to do our part if we want to make it to that final stage, where possibly they might be. These games are great to play in and be a part of, but the bigger picture is getting out of this conference."
The Lakers are on that final stage and so are the Celtics, and after five days of posturing through the press (I'm looking at you Phil Jackson), repeated recounting of their storied past and more angles than the pro fishing tour, it's finally "Game Time!" as Cliff Levingston used to say in those Chicago Bulls huddles.
As the Finals commence, here is my starting five story lines heading into Celtics-Lakers, NBA Finals, version 12.0.
Forward thinking -- If Jackson says the most intriguing matchup of this series is the power forward showdown between Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol then who am I to disagree? KG basically punked Pau two years ago in the Finals and the cerebral Spaniard's toughness has been debated ever since. Game 6 at the Garden was a complete demolition job by Garnett, who averaged 18.2 points and 13 rebounds in the '08 Finals.
These two guys have headed in opposite directions since then. Gasol, who is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds in the playoffs, has become a better defender and rebounder and won a ring, while injuries have robbed Garnett of his explosiveness on both the offensive and defensive end. KG was good against Miami, great against Cleveland and average against Orlando. You wonder if the grueling grind of the playoffs is starting to take its toll on his creaky knee. The Lakers are sure to test him early and try to establish that Pau won't be a punching bag or a punch line this time.
Healthy rivalry -- Doc Rivers isn't the only Doc who could have an impact on this series. Health, or lack there of, is going to play a big role. The Lakers are hoping that center Andrew Bynum, who has a partial tear of the meniscus in his right knee and recently had the knee drained, can provide them with the paint presence he did in the teams' two regular-season meetings. Anything LA gets from Bynum will be better than '08, when he missed the entire series with a dislocated left kneecap.
For the Celtics, the back woes of Rasheed Wallace and Rajon Rondo are concerning. Rondo relies on his speed and athleticism, and if he is diminished, so is his one-of-a kind game. Hopefully, 'Sheed is healthy enough to continue his stellar playoff play (minus-Miami). He has made the "big boy shots" and a difference against Cleveland and Orlando and could be the Celtics version of Robert Horry in this series if his back responds as well as his beloved Philadelphia Flyers.
Rondo reigning or reined in? -- Rondo may be the single most important Celtic in this series. The Promethean point guard's ability to penetrate and create can put LA's front line in foul trouble and most importantly force Kobe Bryant to expend considerable energy on the defensive end.
The Lakers have seen some pretty good point guards in the playoffs, Russell Westbrook of the Thunder, Deron Williams of the Jazz and Steve Nash of the Suns, so they're not going to panic about playing Rondo. Jackson said yesterday that it's no secret that Bryant will see some time on Rondo. That was the matchup Jackson went to in the fourth quarter of the team's first meeting this year, when the Celtics blew an 11-point lead. Rondo finished that game with 21 points and 11 assists and was a buzzsaw in the first three quarters. However, Bryant was a buzzkill in the fourth, as Rondo had no points on 0-2 shooting and no assists with Kobe guarding him and the Lakers daring him to shoot jumpers.
"He is an improved shooter," said Gasol, after LA's victory in January. "But we still want him to take those shots instead of getting into the lane."
Something in reserve -- One seemingly forgotten, yet vital aspect, of the Celtics' Finals victory over the Lakers two years ago was the play of their bench, specifically James Posey and Eddie House. The two reliable reserves keyed the comeback in Game 4 and the Game 6 rout. They stretched LA's defense thinner than an LA actress on a liquid diet, and Posey's defense was a big part of the reason that Kobe was contained, shooting just 40.2 percent from the floor.
The Celtics nouveau bench doesn't pose as many problems for the Lakers. We touched on 'Sheed. Tony Allen is going to spend a lot of time trying to bottle up Bryant. Don't fall for the headfakes, T.A. Please. "Big Baby" Davis needs to go back and watch tape of Leon Powe's performance in the '08 Finals because that's the type of energy and effort that can annoy a Lakers' team that likes to coast for periods. It would be nice if Nate Robinson could show he wasn't a one-game pony.
You make the call -- There are myriad other factors that could influence the outcome of this series -- how Paul Pierce handles being guarded by Ron Artest, Ray Allen's shooting touch, rebounding. But I'm going to go with the officiating because it will set the tone for the series. It's as obvious as a Kendrick Perkins pout that the Celtics are the more physical/rugged team in this series. But with Jackson already throwing down the verbal gauntlet about physical play it will be interesting to see if the referees let the boys play or play it close to the vest. The former favors the Celtics, the latter the Lakers.
Plus, there is the whole technical foul issue. Perkins, who has six, is one tech away from an automatic one-game suspension. He already got a reprieve when the league rescinded one of his dubious Orlando technicals. But there are bound to be technical fouls in this series. Three of the league's top four regular season technical foul scofflaws are in action. Perkins tied Dwight Howard for the NBA lead with 15. Behind them tied for third were Wallace and Bryant with 14.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.