Against Orlando, the Celtics were willing to let Dwight Howard score. They single-covered Howard so perimeter defenders could stay home on the Magic’s shooters. They thought (correctly, it turns out) that Dwight Howard could not beat them alone, even if he went off for a big night.
Try that with Kobe Bryant and he will beat you.
Boston knows that, and they don’t mess around with Kobe. History has shown that the way the Celtics defend Bryant is almost the opposite of what they did to Howard — they try to force the ball out of Bryant’s hands and make some other Laker beat them.
Against L.A., Boston goes to an overload defense — they bring the help man over to the strong side early to give Ray Allen help (also look for Tony Allen to get a lot of Kobe time, he may be their best defender on him). What Boston does is not unlike the Kurt Rambis-designed defense the Lakers rode to a tile last year. Boston’s version is more complex and more active, but the principles are the same.
With that setup, there is always help nearby with Bryant, forcing him to go through a couple of men to get off his shot and keeping him out of the paint. The Celtics defense is based around keeping the other team out of the paint.
The Celtics are also very quick to double Bryant, and they bring the double from a variety of places so he is not getting a consistent look. The double also will come if a Lakers big comes out and sets a high screen for Bryant — the Celtics will trap Kobe coming off the screen.
Whatever Boston does, Kobe is still going to get his points — he is playing the best basketball of his career right now. The Lakers offense was very fluid against an admittedly overmatched Phoenix defense, and Bryant came through shooting 52.2 percent for the series. He buried the Suns with the impossible at the end of Game 6. Whatever Boston does he is still going to get and hit some crazy shots.
If the Celtics goal is to take the ball out of Bryant’s hands, other Lakers are going to have to step up and win games. The Lakers will need quick ball reversals; they will need to make the Celtics pay for their double teams and overloading the strong side. The Lakers do that better now than they did two years ago, but they are inconsistent.
In the end, Bryant (and Pau Gasol’s) creativity will be key. There are not a lot of secrets with what the Lakers do on offense or who the Celtics plan to do on defense. These teams know each other from two years ago and their strategies have not changed. By the third game, it will be execution and the ability to freelance that will get points, because the opposing team will anticipate the next pass or offensive option.
And when it comes to creativity in getting points, nobody is playing better than Kobe Bryant right now. Stopping him will not be easy, because even when you think you do he still hits the shot. Just ask the Suns.
But for the Celtics, beating the Lakers starts with slowing Bryant.