Big men key in Lakers-Celtics
Sunday's NBA Finals rematch at Staples Center figures to be won or lost in the middle
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Just more than seven months ago, the Boston Celtics lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles.
What's the biggest adjustment they've made since then? Adding three centers who each stand darn near 7 feet tall.
The Celtics return to L.A. on Sunday to play the Lakers for the first time since being outrebounded by 13 and spending the postgame locker room drenched in salty tears rather than spraying champagne.
They'll also have 6-10 Kendrick Perkins available. Perkins played the first six games of the Finals before tearing ligaments in his right knee, forcing him to watch Game 7 from the bench as Pau Gasol grabbed 18 rebounds and Kobe Bryant collected 15 of his own.
And don't forget Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who is having a career year.
For as inconsistent as the Lakers have been this season, their true strength continues to lie in their length and size. They are third in the league in rebounds per game at 44.15. The Celtics, even with their additional big men, are dead last at 38.39.
Despite Bryant's crediting Rajon Rondo being the biggest challenge the Celtics present for his ability to set up guys to give Boston the league lead in field goal percentage (49.9 percent), Sunday is all about the bigs.
"They force you to play physical, otherwise they're going to step on you," said Gasol, who battled hard against Boston since arriving in L.A., shedding his soft reputation. "The importance of having size and understanding that size helps you a lot, especially during playoffs. You need to have big bodies there to make sure to play hard, to rebound, to intimidate, to contest shots. I think that that's why they went that direction."
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O'Neal, 38, is averaging 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds this season. He has had his turn-back-the-clock moments with 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Nets and 23, five and five blocks against the Bobcats.
"I told him he can play till he's 40," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had O'Neal under his watch from 1996 to 2004. "He's a good enough athlete that he should be able to do that."
There was some chatter after Saturday's practice by reporters about O'Neal crossing enemy lines to play for the Celtics, but Lakers players downplayed the angle, pointing out he also has played for the Magic, Heat, Suns and Cavaliers.
"He's become kind of a -- I was going to say comic figure, but not -- but more a familiar person with the commercials and a lot of things that he does," Jackson said. "He's become America's symbol of salesmanship. He's done a good job of doing that. He sells a lot of things."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers sold O'Neal on coming to Boston at a reduced rate for his best chance to win a fifth championship.
"I think they know Orlando has [Dwight] Howard and how big he is, so I think that's part of it," Jackson said. "Obviously, you have to play -- when you're as good a team as Boston -- you have to play to win it and they know what the difference was last year in the series."
What the difference was in the Finals was the combination of Gasol and Bynum down low. Even though Paul Pierce was the 2008 Finals MVP and Bryant won the Finals MVP last June, it was the better use of size that swayed both of those series.
"I think offensive boards is something that gives us a huge advantage, because you get more cracks at it," Bryant said Thursday, reflecting on the Lakers' twin towers inside. "For a team that's as potent offensively as us, to get second and third opportunities offensively is a big difference and I think the length that they have does that for us."
The Lakers are 12-4 since Bynum returned to the starting lineup, though they ironically lost to Sacramento on Friday largely because they allowed the Kings to collect 15 offensive rebounds.
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Jackson pointed out that by collecting two rings together already, Gasol and Bynum have pulled off becoming a successful tandem together a la San Antonio's Tim Duncan and David Robinson or Boston's Robert Parish and Kevin McHale instead of failing like Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, the San Francisco Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond or New York's Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing did in the past.
"What I really like about it is they share the ball, they're very supportive of each other," Jackson said. "There's been a lot of 7-footers that have tried to play together and it hasn't worked that well, but this crew identifies their positions pretty well. ... They complement each other well."
And they'll face the Celtics' new collection of big men Sunday when the rivalry is renewed, this time on a larger scale.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.