The Lakers and Celtics hit the floor at Staples Center this Thursday to open the 2010 NBA Championship.  Los Angeles is the minus 170 favorites to repeat as champs.

And now we wait.

Kendrick PerkinsWe’ve got until Thursday before the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers meet in the NBA Finals for the 12th time. The “Showtime” Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won in 1985 and 1987, but that’s it – Boston has won nine championships at the expense of Minneapolis/L.A., including their most recent battle in 2008.

The Celtics took that basketball series convincingly in six games at 6-0 ATS; this time around, Los Angeles has the home-court advantage and a series price of -170 to Boston’s +155.

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The best predictor we have of future results is recent results, so the natural thing to do is use the 2008 finals as a baseline and work from there. Boston is using the same starting lineup, although the “Big Three” are now playing second fiddle to their young point guard, as we can validate using the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) statistic. The indexed league average for each position is 15.0.

Rajon Rondo
2008 playoffs: 15.8 PER
2010 playoffs: 18.4 PER

Kevin Garnett
2008: 23.0
2010: 16.5

Paul Pierce
2008: 17.4
2010: 16.4

Ray Allen
2008: 14.9
2010: 14.8

Kendrick Perkins
2008: 13.1
2010: 8.9

Overall, these numbers have fallen off quite a bit since 2008, but you won’t find too many Celtics supporters who are concerned about this. The defensive effort (which PER doesn’t do justice) has been exemplary for the C’s – second overall among this year’s 16 teams at 97.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (L.A. is ninth overall at 108.2 points).

And Rondo’s improvement carries extra weight because of his added responsibilities as the point guard. He’s even earned praise from Magic Johnson himself, who called Rondo the best player on the Celtics and the best point guard in the NBA.

The Lakers have had considerable trouble dealing with Rondo this year. On January 31, Rondo put up 21 points and 12 assists at the Garden, although the Lakers (-1) won 90-89. And on February 18 at the Staples Center, Rondo had five steals to go with 14 points and 11 assists in an 87-86 victory for the Celtics (+2.5), taking advantage of Kobe Bryant’s absence due to a sprained left ankle. Both games went 'under' the posted total.

Bryant and the Lakers are definitely stronger at this point than they were two years ago. Here are their four key returnees:

Kobe Bryant
2008 playoffs: 25.0 PER
2010 playoffs: 25.2 PER

Pau Gasol
2008: 18.9
2010: 24.0

Lamar Odom
2008: 15.9
2010: 16.9

Derek Fisher
2008: 13.8
2010: 11.3

The Lakers didn’t have Andrew Bynum (19.2 playoff PER) in the 2008 finals; he partially dislocated his left kneecap and missed the entire playoffs. Boston’s stout frontcourt plowed through the Lakers and ate Pau Gasol’s lunch in the process. That’s much less likely to happen with Bynum around, even though he’s been dealing with a swollen right knee this spring. Gasol has enjoyed an outstanding 2010 postseason with the help of Bynum and Odom down low.

Los Angeles also swapped out Trevor Ariza (15.5 PER) for Ron Artest (11.4 PER) at the small forward position. While Artest has been inconsistent on offense, jacking up ill-advised threes and sometimes making them, his defense has been worth the headaches up to this point. The weak link in the rotation is Fisher, still a useful defender at age 36 and a safety valve on offense with a 38.5-percent success rate from downtown during these playoffs. Bryant is more likely to get the defensive assignment on Rondo as he did during the regular season.

The benches for both clubs leave something to be desired. Point guard Jordan Farmar (13.3 PER) is the only other reserve besides Odom who has been steady for the Lakers. The Celtics no longer have Leon Powe (14.6 PER) or James Posey (14.2 PER); Glen “Big Baby” Davis (14.4 PER) is still around, and he’s been joined in the frontcourt by Rasheed Wallace (11.6 PER), but both players were banged up considerably in their six-game Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic. They’ll be more than happy to wait until Thursday before getting back onto the court.

Boston’s advantage at point guard is magnified with the addition of backup Nate Robinson (17.6 PER) in February. He finally got his chance to make a difference for the Celtics when Rondo started experiencing back spasms against the Magic; Robinson scored 13 points in 13 minutes against Orlando in the decisive Game 6 victory, earning praise from his teammates and coaches. A superior bench carries even more value against the betting odds at the end of a long season. Health permitting, Boston’s hoarding quite a lot of value heading into Thursday’s opener.

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