Expert roundtable: NBA Finals Game 6
The Celtics are just one win away from raising banner No. 18 back in Boston while the Lakers are fighting for their postseason lives and repeat dreams on their home court.
What can we expect in Tuesday's Game 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN Radio?
Our expert panel weighs in:
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1. Who is the MVP so far?
Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: Rajon Rondo. No player has really been consistently outstanding, but at this juncture the Celtics have won the majority of games, and when they have played well, Rondo has very often been a part of it. The Lakers have frustrated each of Boston's Big Three for stretches, but Rondo causes persistent trouble.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Ray Allen. Yes, it appears he packed his jumper in a suitcase and it got misplaced on the trip from L.A. to Boston. But he did have a record eight 3-pointers to carry the Celtics in Game 2. And he has been the man primarily responsible for defending Kobe Bryant, a challenge the Celtics have handled so successfully that Bryant is shooting 43 percent even after that incendiary third quarter in Game 5. Bryant also has 21 turnovers, by far the most of anyone in the series. The Celtics are winning with their defense, so the MVP should go to an important defender.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN TrueHoop: This is a series devoid of a flawless hero. Kobe Bryant's 23 consecutive points for the Lakers in Game 5 is exactly the kind of résumé bullet point that earns an MVP award -- but he hasn't shot the ball terribly well over the course of the series.
For Boston, Paul Pierce has finally started to find the full range of his game, but has also put up a couple of stink bombs. Bryant and Pierce appear to be on track, depending on which team wins, but the absence of a clear-cut favorite means that performances in Game 6 and 7 will probably determine who takes home the award.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Can we go with Doc Rivers, who's outcoached the G.O.A.T.? Probably not. So through five games, I'm going with Paul Pierce. No, he hasn't dominated, but no Celtic has. It's been a total team effort. However, when the Celtics took control of the series in Games 4 and 5, Pierce averaged 23 points on 58 percent shooting.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Kobe Bryant, as I wrote earlier. Regardless of whether the Lakers win or lose the Finals, he's been by far the best player on the court this series. Boston has had five of the seven best players in the Finals to date and that's why they're ahead, but as far as a single player, Kobe is the clear choice.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: This is a tough one, but I am going with Kevin Garnett at this point, not only because of his offense (15.6 points per game on 51 percent shooting in the Finals), but because once he started being more effective against Pau Gasol on the defensive end, the dynamic of the series changed.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Tried to come up with a compelling counter argument to Professor Hollinger's claim that Kobe -- just like Jerry West in 1969 when the Lakers lost Game 7 at home to Boston -- is the Finals MVP whether or not L.A. wins it all. Tried and failed. There really isn't a Celtic you can single out as the catalyst most responsible for Boston's 3-2 series lead unless we turn Finals MVP into a Playoffs MVP discussion. Then you could make the Rondo argument. The "so far" part of the question, however, reminds that there's still time for a Bostonian to break out of the pack.
2. Who is the LVP so far?
Abbott: Pau Gasol. It's not his fault that Kobe Bryant takes so many tough shots, but it is his fault that he has spent much of the series making very little out of his limited touches. He has the potential to be the best player on the floor in any given game, and his team could use him now.
Adande: Lamar Odom. The Lakers won Game 1 almost in spite of his meager contributions (five points, four rebounds), and in L.A.'s three losses he has produced a total of 21 points and 20 rebounds. Back in the good old days -- like, the opener of the Western Conference finals -- that was a single night's work. He got outplayed by Glen Davis in Game 4 and took too long to get going in Game 5. Odom is making the majority of his shots he just isn't being aggressive enough in taking more of them.
Arnovitz: No player on either roster has produced results less commensurate to his talents than Lamar Odom. We often refer to Odom as the Lakers' X factor, but that designation only speaks to how maddeningly inconsistent he is as a player.
With Andrew Bynum hobbled, the Lakers desperately need Odom's versatility, but thus far he's been a sad disappointment.
Broussard: I'm going to say Lamar Odom. Some will undoubtedly say Ron Artest, but at least Artest has played very good D on Pierce for most of the series.
Hollinger: I'm tempted to say Pau Gasol, but he at least impacted the first three games of the series. Lamar Odom, on the other hand, hasn't impacted anything of note in the first five games and is getting outplayed by Boston counterpart Glen Davis. With Andrew Bynum hobbled, it's time for the Lakers' sixth man to deliver.
Sheridan: Has to be Ron Artest. Let's face it, the referees have had more of an impact against Paul Pierce than Ron-Ron, and on top of that, he is shooting only 30 percent from the field and has missed more than half his free throws.
Stein: How many times did we hear leading up to the Finals that Pau Gasol has supplanted Tim Duncan's as the NBA's most unstoppable post player? Lamar Odom is right there with Gasol in the LVP race -- while Kobe's detractors would say he hasn't done enough to lift his teammates -- but we haven't seen much of the Duncan-esque Pau lately. As much as it needed a good series from Odom with Andrew Bynum's play compromised by that knee injury, L.A. has real problems if Gasol doesn't make an immediate comeback.
3. If Boston wins: Greater achievement for Celtics or failure for Lakers?
Abbott: Winning a title really is about getting to the top. Every year there are good, or even great teams, that don't win. So it's no particular shame for the Lakers if they lose -- with a role player or two they're the favorites again next season.
But they'll take a lot of heat, both because they had home-court advantage and because they started the season as the defending champions and almost everybody's pick. To a lot of NBA fans, their title was inevitable, and to that crowd, there'll be some explaining to do.
Adande: Greater achievement for the Celtics. Climbing out of the fourth-seed hole, starting on the road from the second round on, taking out the teams with the three best records in the league, beating the winners of the past three Most Valuable Player awards and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year would stand among the best postseason accomplishments in the past 10 years. I'd rank it second to the Lakers' 15-1 stomp through the playoffs in 2001.
Arnovitz: A championship is the culmination of success, so you'd have to give the nod to the Celtics' incredible achievement. This was a team left for dead 10 weeks ago, and now it's like 2008 all over again.
When the Celtics have it going, there's a level of precision to their defense that's incredible. They're seemingly two seconds ahead of every screen, every penetration, every ball reversal. They react so quickly on every recovery. It's like good choreography in action.
A loss would undoubtedly be a failure for the Lakers, but a Celtics' win would be, above all, a testimonial to one of the best defenses we've seen in recent years.
Broussard: Greater achievement for the Celtics. They went 27-27 after Christmas. The Big Three of Pierce, Allen and Garnett are 32, 34 and 34 years old. They've gone through D-Wade, LeBron, Superman and Kobe -- all as a true team. Great work by the C's.
The Lakers have certainly disappointed at times, but their biggest problem has been Andrew Bynum's knee.
Hollinger: Has to be the achievement for the Celtics. We dumped on the Cavs and Magic already for losing to Boston, but maybe the Celtics were just a whole lot better than anyone thought. If they beat the three best regular-season teams in succession, it seems hard to single out L.A. for criticism.
Sheridan: This one would go in the achievement file for Boston. Not only would they end Phil Jackson's perfect record when winning Game 1 of a seven-game series, they'd have come back from a 2-1 deficit that seemed to swing the momentum hard the Lakers' way after Game 3.
Stein: It would be an undeniable failure for the Lakers to lose to Boston when they began the series with home-court advantage -- as well as the 1-0 series lead that everyone knows has resulted in a 47-0 record for Phil Jackson's teams in the playoffs -- but it would be a serious injustice not to focus more on what the Celtics will have achieved this season if they can pull this off and win it all as the East's No. 4 seed after going 24-23 over the final 47 games of the regular season. To get past Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kobe, in order, would surely trump what Houston did as a No. 6 seed in the West when the Rockets won their second straight championship in 1995.
4. Is the end near for the Big Three, Doc Rivers and/or Phil Jackson?
Abbott: I'm a doctor, not a fortune teller!
I'll tell you this, even as the Celtics are in the Finals, any sober analysis of the future would dictate if long-term success is your goal, the rebuilding starts now. You simply can't expect the Big Three to be able to justify what it will cost to keep them together. Nor can you expect to get much for them in trade in two or three years.
But fans are ruthless on owners and GMs who break up Finals teams, so I bet the Celtics keep it together unless they can bring in some major new talent. I also suspect both Doc and Phil will be back.
Adande: This is it, but only the Celtics seem to recognize that and are playing with the requisite desperation. Can they bet on another three years of Ray Allen the way his shot has deserted him in the past two postseasons? Doesn't it make sense for Rivers to leave now, when he's squeezed all he could out of this group, instead of sticking around to ride the plunge? Would a team really allow a champion to disassemble itself? Well, it happens. Ask Phil Jackson. Even if the Lakers win, Jerry Buss might not meet Jackson's asking price. And if they lose, it'll only make it harder to extract money from him.
Arnovitz: Even with their postseason rebirth, the chronological window is slowly closing on the Big Three. Ray Allen has aged gracefully and should have some productive years left. The question for the Celtics (and any other team interested in Allen's services): Are they willing to pay him for the less-productive years that will come at the end of his next contract?
Phil Jackson is inscrutable, but an 11th championship might grant him the personal allowance to walk away on top, especially if the Lakers demand a pay cut. For Doc Rivers, an older team that has overachieved coupled with the draw of family life might give him the impetus to leave.
Broussard: My guess is Phil doesn't return if the Lakers lose, in large part because Jerry Buss will insist on a large pay cut. I'm guessing Doc walks away in glory after the C's win. KG, Pierce and Rondo will definitely be back, and with Ray such a well-conditioned athlete, they should bring him back for another run. But I wouldn't be surprised if Ray left. He'll have lots of suitors this offseason.
Hollinger: I think the offseason outcomes depend partly on the Finals outcome. It would be a lot easier for Rivers or Jackson to walk away if they aren't defending champions, and the same goes for Ray Allen.
It's one thing to leave after a disappointing regular season; it's another when your starting five is still undefeated in the playoffs. So I'll say winners stay, losers bolt.
Sheridan: This is really, really tough to answer. On the Big Three, I'd guess no. I think Ray Allen would prefer to re-sign for two more years, even if he has to do so at a discount (compared to what someone else might offer money-wise). On Phil Jackson, I could see him walking away only if the pay cut Jerry Buss asks him to take is deemed insulting by the Zen Master. On Doc, you never know. It's appealing to walk out on top, but there are only so many chances to enjoy your children's accomplishments while they are still in high school. He has lived away from his family for quite some time now.
Stein: There's no question that a Boston championship would throw Phil's future into greater doubt. The consistent word around the Lakers is Jerry Buss and Phil will almost certainly find a way to settle their differences if the Lakers are two-time champs with a shot at Phil's fourth career three-peat next season. Yet it's even more likely that Boston is headed for big changes. The overwhelming consensus in coaching circles is that Doc will walk away at season's end to spend more time watching his three children play. I'd also say that the Celts are playing like they know it's a last hurrah for this group and that's a big part of what's driving them. The roster will need a refresh even if Boston can close this out.
5. How will the series play out?
Abbott: We're owed crunch time of a Finals Game 7, aren't we? We're so darned close. And if we get that, I don't see how anybody can complain. If we get that, here's my prediction: Kobe Bryant will be doubled, he'll fade away with an impossibly long and difficult shot as the clock expires, and as it hangs there in the air, make or miss, 2010 will become legendary.
Adande: For the Celtics to win in six, that would entail beating the Lakers two consecutive times in Los Angeles and three straight times overall. That's too much to ask. So it goes seven. Kobe Bryant is 3-1 in Game 7s but lately this group has been more reminiscent of the team that faltered against Phoenix in 2006 than the resolute group of veterans who won maxed-out conference finals in 2000 and 2002. The Celtics win in seven.
Arnovitz: The Lakers will win Game 6 on their home floor, setting up the first NBA Finals Game 7 since 2005. The decisive game will be an intense struggle by two teams with very similar defensive schemes and philosophies. On the final possession, Bryant kicks the ball out to Artest against a collapsing Celtics' defense for the game-winning 3-pointer. Icebergs melt. Tectonic plates shift.
Broussard: My initial prediction was Celtics in seven. Now I'm thinking six. They're rolling, and Bynum's ailing.
John Hollinger: I said Lakers in seven at the start so there's no reason to change now. I definitely expect a seventh game because the cross-country trip is likely to rattle the Celtics' old bones more than L.A.'s (Andrew Bynum's knee being the exception) heading into Game 6. But at that point, I think it's fairly up for grabs between two teams that seem very evenly matched -- in fact, the composite score has them just two points apart.
Sheridan: Since Boston had trouble finishing off Game 5, I'd have to think that will carry over into Game 6, and the Lakers will win in the final minute (Kobe alert). On Thursday, it'll be a long, sad limo ride home for Jack Nicholson. Boston will win it with defense.
Stein: The Lakers have the capability to win these next two games, but they need a good start in Game 6 -- from more than just Kobe -- because the vibe this team is giving us right now is less than positive. The Celts are the more together group. They've always been volatile, but Boston is the better t-e-a-m right now.
Can the Lakers get that back? A good first half at home in Game 6 could certainly do it. I also have a weird feeling that the potential for technical difficulties, with Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace both one technical foul away from a one-game suspension, could still come into play although Perkins has managed to do what even Doc Rivers doubted he could pull by avoiding a T all series.
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