FOX Sports Exclusive
As if Celtics-Lakers wasn't crazy enough
While crawling toward the strategically delayed tip-off of the 2010 NBA Finals, it's difficult to avoid a commitment to categorical comparisons.
Breakdowns abound. For example, will the Los Angeles Lakers' frontcourt be able to handle the bump-in-the-night tactics of the Boston Celtics? Which team will have the most productive reserve players? Is Doc Rivers the deep-thinking equal of Phil Jackson?
And while those are splendid factors to consider, I'm at least temporarily interested in which team suits up the superior kook. That's right. Don't be surprised if at least one game (and perhaps the series) will be twisted into an alternate reality by the contributions of a legitimately nutty player.
The co-stars in this tale-of-the-tape showdown are Lakers forward Ron Artest and Celtics post player Rasheed Wallace. Now, if you truly believe these guys aren't (at least) slightly off the rails, you're delusional and can't be trusted to play along. The rest of us have, for years, embraced Ron-Ron and 'Sheed as two of the most unusual characters the sport has to offer.
Before figuring out how they add an element of crazy to a classic collision between NBA rivals, please note that Artest and Wallace also began this season as, well, wild cards in the next chase for the ring. Let's rewind back to last summer, a glorious time when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were not planning free-agency summits and top teams were loading up to fight each other.
LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers had acquired Shaquille O'Neal to take on Orlando's Dwight Howard (should that need arise), Boston's beefy Kendrick Perkins and (optimistically) the towering two-some in L.A. Unfortunately, Shaq -- who remains as big as a glacier -- was unable to provide enough gusto to prevent a meltdown in Cleveland.
The Magic, you recall, attempted to overcome what they considered an excessive market for Hedo Turkoglu by trading for flashy Vince Carter. But Vince failed to provide the go-to-guy sizzle needed to knock off the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
The San Antonio Spurs attempted to insinuate themselves back into the playoff limelight by hiring Richard Jefferson to turn their version of the Big Three into the Big Four. RJ spent most of the season attempting to fit in; the Spurs never really developed more than a Big Three-Point-Five and were swept by the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semis.
Artest was wooed by the Lakers when Trevor Ariza -- who made a name and market for himself during L.A.'s 2009 championship run -- became what the franchise decided was unaffordable. In Artest, the Lakers were hoping to line up with more of an edge on defense ... and it sort of worked. But Artest's offensive efforts could have been defined by two words ... train wreck. More on that later.
Anyway, Wallace -- despite his potential for begging to differ with referees' opinions -- seemed like an ideal candidate to create championship-caliber depth in Boston. With Kevin Garnett returning from knee problems and Rajon Rondo sprinting toward stardom, I ushered in the season by announcing that -- from a title-seeking standpoint -- 'Sheed was the most important addition of those just listed.
And through the season's first six months, I felt as nutty as he often acts. OK, Wallace didn't completely invalidate the opinions of those who gave Boston the thumbs-up for bringing him in. He just stunk on the court. Get a load of these regular-season numbers: 9 points and a measly 4.1 rebounds per game on 41-percent shooting, including 28 percent from the 3-point line. Of his 650 field-goal attempts, the 6-foot-11 Wallace squeezed off 290 from behind the arc.
Then the thunder rolled, 'Sheed was struck by lightning and he began playing like Karl Malone or somebody, right? Well, he went for 3.8 points and 2.0 rebounds while shooting zero percent from three in the first round against Miami. Wallace was better against Cleveland (6.2, 2.3 and 46 percent from 3), but his historically tough inside defense began paying dividends in hand-to-hand combat with the Cavs. Wallace had two double-digit scoring games in that series and Boston won both.
Wallace went relatively bonkers against Orlando, giving the C's 9 points per game and reasonable shooting (well, 43 percent seems acceptable, given his level of defense).
Will Wallace spend more time complaining to refs than guarding Pau Gasol?Jim Rogash
So, as we chug toward the Finals and Los Angeles, Wallace's preparation has been slowed by back spasms (as opposed to back-to-the-basket spasms). If he's fit enough to be the 'Sheed of last week, Wallace will provide decent defensive length against rangy Laker Pau Gasol and enough grit to deal with Andrew Bynum. Wallace seems a tad less nimble than in the past, so he could have a problem going out to the perimeter against Lamar Odom.
Let's also not forget that he represents six additional fouls against the Laker bigs and the basket assaults of Kobe Bryant.
On offense, Wallace's keen interest in shooting 3s could make it challenging for the Lakers -- from a close-out perspective -- when Gasol and Bynum are on the floor.
By the way, since this is a rematch of the 2008 Finals romp by Boston, Wallace checks in as the replacement for key contributor P.J. Brown. 'Sheed and P.J. offered similar skill and experience as post defenders. Although Brown seemed like a more committed rebounder, he managed a total of 19 in six games against the Lakers. Wallace, who often is content to bang the guy he's guarding when a shot goes up and let a teammate snag the rebound (hey, at least he does that), should be able to duplicate Brown's output and exceed P.J.'s offensive contribution of 24 total points.
With Rondo creating greater havoc against defenses when treated to more frequent ball screens, what Wallace gives Boston is a greater threat to shoot a 3 on pick-and-pop maneuvers. We'll just have to see if 'Sheed presents a greater threat to the Celtics' offense or the Lakers' defense.
Let's begin our examination of how Artest may impact the Lakers and this series by reminding you that Ariza returned from injury shortly before the 2008 Finals and averaged seven minutes per game against Boston.
What Artest provides the Lakers is a perimeter defender with enough strength to deal with Celtics ace Paul Pierce, who averaged 22 points vs. L.A. in 2008 and was declared Finals MVP. In two games against Artest and the Lakers this season, Pierce averaged 13 on 40-percent shooting. His signature move of backing smaller players to the elbow, creating contact and shooting that mid-range fade could require more lateral shake to create space against Ron-Ron.
For the record, Artest also provides the Lakers with a potentially terrifying question mark on offense.
During the regular season, his first clumsy dance inside Phil Jackson's triangle yielded 11 points per game on 41-percent shooting (35 percent from deep). With so much defensive attention focused on, well, everyone else, most teams encourage him to burp up as many 3s as he can manage.
In the opening-round skirmish with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Artest was a frosty 19 percent from behind the arc. He bagged 3s at a 30-percent clip in the sweep of Utah and made 33 percent of his treys against Phoenix. But the Suns series also included a 25-point effort in Game 6, with Artest making 10 of 16 shots (4 of 7 from 3). He also had 18 points in the Game 2 victory.
It should be noted that the Suns relied on what they consider a 2-3 match-up zone that invited Artest to fire at will. But the C's will rely on their pack-line-style, man-to-man until hell freezes over. So, while an Artest freeze-over is far more likely, it will have to occur when lane-crowding schemes against Bryant lead to open drive-and-dish looks for the Lakers' three man.
Beyond the X-and-O interests, Artest and Wallace are fully capable of going a bit cuckoo under the pressure of the championship round. 'Sheed did manage to remain relatively composed at this level while working for the Detroit Pistons; this is Artest's first Finals appearance.
Although both players are surrounded by veterans with strong personalities, the potential for something peculiar remains. Artest, we must point out, spiced up his first L.A. regular season by wearing boxer shorts on a television talk show and falling victim to a tricky stairway (at home) on Christmas night.
Wallace, on the other hand, only tied for the league lead in technical fouls, although we need to note that Dwight Howard (the co-leader) played in three more games.
Now stomping on the biggest stage they've shared in their careers, Artest and Wallace seem like potentially hostile participants in a series that really doesn't need any help. But here they are ... just five seasons after they were on the scene for the Malice in the Palace, co-starring Artest's Indiana Pacers and Wallace's Detroit Pistons.
'Sheed wasn't even the most involved guy named Wallace (that would be Ben) and left without being suspended for a single minute.
Artest was the leading man in an event that triggered his NBA odyssey, and eventually placed him on the doorstep of The Finals.
As employees of franchises that judge season success on banners accrued, the final grades for Artest and Wallace depend on which player can help push his team back to glory.
It's too bad they won't be guarding each other.
More Stories From Randy Hill