— LAKERS: Pau Gasol
When the teams met in the 2008 finals, the Lakers were considered too soft, the injury absence of Andrew Bynum blamed for many of the struggles against the more-physical Celtics front line. Now, Bynum is back, but not really, with a knee as shaky as his confidence. By contrast, the Celtics arrive with an even more potent power rotation, with Kendrick Perkins evolving, Rasheed Wallace taking the P.J. Brown role, and Glen Davis more of a factor than when he made just one token appearance in that 2008 championship series. Because of that, Gasol will have to play big, offer more than finesse in the paint. The Lakers were pummeled off the glass in 2008. That can't happen again.
CELTICS: Paul Pierce
The Paul Pierce we saw in the Eastern Conference finals against the Magic offered a striking resemblance to the Paul Pierce who was named Most Valuable Player of the 2008 NBA finals. Actually, Pierce, two years later, put up better numbers against the Magic than he did against the Lakers in those finals. The difference is Boston had little to offer in the way of defensive deterrence at small forward in those finals, with Vladimir Radmanovic starting, the Lakers having yet to even get into sustained use of Trevor Ariza. Now Ron Artest is in place, and this is a moment the Lakers have been waiting for. Will Pierce be up to the challenge?
LAKERS: Homecourt comes as a bonus to the Lakers, who would have had to start on the road against either the Cavaliers or Magic. The Lakers have been dominant at home this postseason. But Boston has won on the road in each of its first three series and actually finished the regular season with a better road record than home record. When it comes to intangibles, nothing will matter more for the Lakers than the health of center Andrew Bynum, whose size will be essential against the Celtics. In the backcourt, while Ray Allen has had his defensive moments this postseason, Dwyane Wade was able to light up Boston in the first round. This round, Kobe Bryant arrives with a stronger supporting cast, so it's not an either-or proposition for Los Angeles.
CELTICS: Because of the league's limit on postseason technical fouls, it seems almost inevitable that Boston will have to play at least one game in this series without center Kendrick Perkins, who will be suspended for a game the next time he receives a technical. In fact, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers attempt to goad Perkins into a double technical. Health also will be a significant factor for the Celtics, with Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels and Rajon Rondo nicked up at the end of the Magic series. The last time the teams met in the finals, the Celtics entered with James Posey as a defensive stopper. This roster doesn't quite have that element, so it will be interesting to see who gets the second call on Kobe if there is foul trouble, a role that might go to Tony Allen.
Through the first three games against the Magic, no team seemed to have as much postseason momentum as the Celtics. And while there were a couple of stumbles, the Game 6 victory over Orlando not only got Boston back on track, but also furnished five days of rest.
The Lakers, by contrast, have never truly found a rhythm, even with the second-round sweep of the Jazz. The early struggles against the Thunder and the tight finish against the Suns have robbed Phil Jackson's team of some of its swagger.
But with the 2-3-2 format of the finals, the homecourt looms huge. Even with a split of the first two games, Boston would need a home sweep to close it out in five games.
Getting back to Staples continues to get the Lakers right. This is not a team that could thrive without the homecourt edge.
While it is unlikely Doc Rivers moves to a zone, with Boston's swarming man-to-man as good as anything seen on that side of the floor this postseason, figure on plenty of packing the lane, again daring the Lakers to try to win over the top.
But the difference between 2008 and these finals is the Lakers' addition of Ron Artest as a defensive stopper and the Celtics' loss of James Posey.
We know Artest can try to stop Pierce. But who stops Kobe?
Bryant averaged 25.7 points in the 2008 finals. He well might average more this time around. And he might have to, because Kevin Garnett certainly isn't going to allow any easy points for Pau Gasol. Still, Garnett's lateral agility has waned, so perhaps Gasol makes more of his face-up game.
Until Game 4 against Orlando, Boston appeared a team of destiny. But now, there is a sense that it is a team that soon could be running on fumes during a playoff run lengthier than almost anyone could have anticipated. The Lakers, by contrast, have payback on their minds from 2008. Lakers in six.