While the Celtics have no international players on their team, the Lakers have Spaniard Pau Gasol, Slovene Sasha Vujacic, and Congolese Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, a sign of the sport's increasing international appeal.
Could it also make the difference in the Lakers besting the Celtics? The Celtics have already handled two elite teams with two foreigners each. But coaches and former players acknowledge that international players bring a different skill set and an ingrained sense of teamwork to their clubs.
"If you look around the league, it becomes pretty evident that the Europeans are quite a bit ahead of us in terms of skill development for players," Mr. Van Gundy recently told Sports Illustrated. "The way we develop our players from a young age is just inferior to what they do there. They spend a lot more time on skill development."
Gasol, for example, is an excellent passer and shooter even at seven feet tall.
International players are arguably more team-oriented. This was one explanation for the US’s embarrassing loss in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The men’s national basketball team lost three games – more than all other years combined – and barely managed to hold on to the Bronze medal. They lost by 19 points to Puerto Rico, and fell as well to Lithuania and Argentina.
It was a sign of an increasingly internationalized game. When the Celtics and Lakers went head-to-head in the 1960s and 1980s, there were few international players in the National Basketball Association (NBA), part of the reason why the original “Dream Team” dominated the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
"When I came to the league, there were maybe no more than 10 international players in the NBA," Mr. Mutombo said in a recent interview with NBA.com. "I was the third African player – Manute Bol was there, Hakeem Olajuwon, I was the third. There were no South American players or Canadians. There were no Asians – there was no Yao Ming playing. Now you can see our game just growing so very, very fast."
“It really began with that Dream Team,” San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told NBC Sports last year. “When we first took US pros into an Olympic environment over there in Barcelona, that was really the foundation for international exposure.
By time of the NBA's 2000-2001 season, there were 33 international players in the NBA. That number nearly tripled by the time of the 2005-2006 season, with 82 players representing 36 countries, according to the NBA.
International players key to past championships
International players have proven essential to recent championship teams. The most-dominant team of the decade, the San Antonio Spurs, had the most international NBA team ever when it won the NBA Finals in 2007, 2005, and 2003. Its five foreign players included French-Belgian Tony Parker and Argentines Manu Ginóbili and Fabricio Oberto.
That the Lakers have three international players, while the Celtics have none, may be no fluke. The Lakers' general manager, Mitch Kupchak, says that having a player from another country was a novelty two decades ago. Now, the Lakers have international scouts in Hong Kong and Italy.
“It’s no longer a novelty," he told NBC Sports. "It’s a way of doing business.”