- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- After five solid days of spinning out of control, obliterating everything in its path, the hype machine can finally be powered down. The NBA Finals tip off Thursday night at the Staples Center and hoopla will give way to plain ol' hoops.
Point guard: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
Clearly this is Boston's area of greatest strength. While Fisher is a crafty veteran who's done nothing but win titles in L.A., Rondo has turned the 2010 playoffs into his own personal showcase, even as he nurses the bumps and bruises that come along with his frenetic style of play.
As has been discussed thoroughly over the past five days, the Lakers were able to back off Rondo in the 2008 Finals, challenging him to beat them with his perimeter game (which he couldn't do consistently). This year won't be so easy for L.A.
"I think I'm just finding other ways to dissect the team, the defense," said Rondo. "It's not necessarily like when teams give me a shot, I always have to take it. I can pick and choose when I want to shoot the ball. Knowing that, we still have to run our sets and get them the ball -- Kevin [Garnett] and Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] -- get us in our sets and get us easy looks. But if my shot is open and it's the best shot within the shot clock, I'm going to take it."
For his part, Fisher says he isn't bothered by the hype surrounding his four talented counterparts.
"No, I don't really care," said Fisher. "Those guys are All-Stars -- Rondo was an All-Star -- that's the NBA. All-Stars are going to get the press, the pub, the love, whatever you want to call it. That's just how it is. I don't really worry too much about it. It's one of those things that comes with our profession. You have to respect it for what it is."
Edge: Rondo. He is Boston's key to winning this series, but he must continue to control the pace of play as he has through the first three rounds of the postseason.
Shooting guard: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant
What you see is what you get here: Allen and Bryant are two of the elite perimeter shooters in the league and both are going to put points on the scoreboard.
Allen proved supremely valuable in the 2008 Finals, averaging 20.3 points, while shooting 52 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. His numbers are down this postseason -- 16.8 points per game, while connecting on 42.3 percent of his 3-point field goals -- but he's still capable of shooting Boston to victory when he's feeling it.
Bryant has topped 30 points in each of his last four contests and 10 of his last 11 postseason games.
One key difference: Allen is expected to guard Bryant, while Bryant might enjoy more defensive flexibility, including guarding Rondo, where his height advantage could aid him.
"We'll see," said Bryant. "[Rondo is] quick as lightning, so we'll see."
Edge: Bryant. No one else -- save maybe for Pierce -- is truly capable of single-handedly taking over this series except Bryant. Boston will need another dose of the superstar defense it utilized against Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Small forward: Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest
It's seemingly not a matter of whether Artest can get under Pierce's skin, but when. Remember, the two got in a little dust-up before the opening tip when the teams met in Boston in January.
Boil this down to the basics and what remains is an elite defender versus a world-class scorer. Who wins?
The wizards at ESPN Stats & Information crunched the numbers and they show that Artest has limited Pierce to 0.58 points per play over the past three regular seasons.
Pierce ran 38 plays with Artest as the primary on-ball defender and scored 22 points on 6-of-26 shooting (23.1 percent) with eight turnovers and four trips to the foul line. Clearly, Artest has dominated the matchup in recent years.
Pierce swears the presence of Artest won't force him to change his game.
"Well, it's not going to change what I do, mentality-wise," said Pierce. "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 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."
Edge: Artest. We've always been told that defense wins championships, right?
Power forward: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol
When Lakers coach Phil Jackson examines this series, he points to the Garnett-Gasol matchup as the most intriguing. And with good reason.
After suffering through a subpar 2008 Finals, Gasol seems determined to atone and dispel the notion that he and the Lakers are soft in the process.
Gasol made some comments about KG's post-surgery abilities that could add a little spice to the matchup.
"Yeah, I see a little bit of a difference," Gasol said Wednesday. "He's still very effective and he's still one of their team leaders -- still a very hard competitor, and he's going to give all he's got for his team.
"So knowing that, you've just got to respect everything that he does and what he brings to the table, the leadership, the aggressiveness, and he's going to compete no matter what. He's proven that through the injury, and so you've got to play him."
One interpretation: Gasol sees a player whose skills have diminished, but gets by on the intangibles. For his part, Jackson still sees a dominant player.
"Kevin is like the force of the defense, he's really the glue that kind of holds the defense together, his activity level, his ability to help, and recover on guys," said Jackson. "Pau is like the guy that we have to have to be part of the scoring combo that we've had with Kobe and Pau. So he has to provide some of that for us in this series against probably one of the top defenders in the game."
Edge: Gasol. He's averaging 20 points and 10.9 rebounds for the postseason, shooting 56 percent from the floor in the process. Those numbers significantly trump Garnett's at 14.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 48.8 percent shooting.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum
What holds up longer: Bynum's ailing knee or Perkins' temper? If the series gets physical quickly, neither might survive the first half of Game 1.
Perkins has six technical fouls for the postseason and will be suspended one game for his next infraction, which almost assuredly will come before someone raises a trophy.
While Perkins could be disappearing temporarily, Bynum is reappearing after sitting out the 2008 Finals.
He is supposed to add some much-needed grit to the frontcourt, but it will be interesting to see how physical he's able to play with a knee that didn't respond well to being drained this week.
Perkins is leaning on the fact that a soft team doesn't often harden because of one addition or another.
"Doc always told me something that's true: You can't be something that you're not," said Perkins. "So if you're the same person in 2008, you will be the same person in 2010. If you're a physical person, you're a physical person. If you're a physical team, you're a physical team. I don't think that can change."
Edge: Perkins. Even if forced to miss a game, Perkins continues to make life uncomfortable for opposing centers around the basket. With Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard in his wake, Perkins should be ready to take on Los Angeles' revamped front line.
Bench: Tony Allen, Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace vs. Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar
Injuries seemed like an area of major concern for Boston with its three core bench players -- Allen (ankle), Davis (concussion) and Wallace (back) -- all nicked up last week. The five-day break before the Finals helped this trio considerably and the Celtics have to hope they remain upright.
The Lakers not only revamped their starting lineup with the addition of Artest and the return of Bynum, but deepened their bench with former starters Odom and Vujacic coming off the pine.
Boston simply can't match that depth, but it certainly has grit.
Edge: Lakers. This has to be the area of chief concern for Boston given the bodies Los Angeles can throw at them and still maintain a starter-like level of play.
Coach: Doc Rivers vs. Phil Jackson
Rivers despises the idea of comparing himself with any other coach. He refused to do it last round when asked about chess matches between himself and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
Rivers reiterated that in regard to Jackson.
"I don't look at that matchup," he said. "If you're comparing me to Phil, we're in trouble. He's got 10 rings, I've got one. I think, honestly, if you go by record, he's the best coach ever to coach the game. I'm not going to challenge that. I told my players they've got to be better than me with Phil for sure."
Edge: Even. Ten rings aside, Rivers' troops handed Jackson one of his two Finals losses when last these teams met in the Finals. The job Rivers has done this year has flown way below the radar.
Celtics in 6. In this scenario, Boston has to steal Game 1, then come home and take two of three, before going back to L.A. to finish the series. A healthy Boston squad ran roughshod over the Cavaliers and Magic as part of a six-game postseason winning streak. There's no reason to think they can't find a way to beat a Lakers squad that, on paper, is the better team.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
1hMichael C. Wright