Ball Don't Lie - NBA



Los Angeles Lakers 102, Boston 89
; Lakers lead series, 1-0

It's hard to call it a startling regression, because we've seen some pretty bad worst-case scenarios come to life in this postseason. Still, the Boston Celtics did briefly remind us of the step-slow and impatient team we saw from January to early April in Game 1. They didn't lose to the Wizards, at home, but they did fritter away a pretty good chance at turning the finals on its ear.

With that in place, the bigger story has to be the way the Lakers took it to the Celtics. Absolutely brought it, with intensity and trust and deliberate execution. The Lakers are so focused, so inspired, that it's only the "it's hard to beat a really good team four times in a row" ethos that is stopping me from dropping my "Lakers in six" prediction and expecting the sweep.

Because Kobe Bryant(notes) is acting like the Celtics stole a smooch from his prom date, on prom night, which can't possibly be the case because Brandy was his prom date, and I probably can pretty accurately vouch for the location of each and every Celtic on May 17, 1996. And as Adrian Wojnarowski brought up Thursday night, Pau Gasol(notes) isn't far behind. Toss in Ron Artest's(notes) steely gaze, Derek Fisher's(notes) unrelenting play, and a sound enough night from the supporting cast, and it's a wonder the defending champs didn't win by 20.

Well, maybe not "a wonder," because the Celtics can play. They wanted this, I have no doubt, but I also got the feeling they were a little unsure about how to go about getting it. A little unsure as to how the Lakers would come out, and how to get to that Laker defense. It was an ugly game marred by a lot of whistles, but it seemed as if the Celtics kept insisting on trying to get to the line and work the refs more than they wanted to make the extra pass. Or the smart pass.

Making the extra pass was a problem. Kevin Garnett(notes) took a series of ill-advised jumpers, Paul Pierce(notes) wasn't far off, and Rajon Rondo(notes) missed four reverse attempts when he could have dumped the rock off. Each player was forcing it. But there were also bum moves, instances that saw the team declining to make the smart pass, executed in the hope of getting to the line.

Like Rondo's reverses, Ray Allen(notes) throwing his body into Derek Fisher (you have a height advantage, and you hit 40 percent from 25 feet, Ray; just pull up over him from eight feet, instead of worming awkwardly to four feet from the hoop), and KG dumping the ball off to Rondo three times so his 6-foot point guard to try and finish in the paint that KG seemed incapable of finishing in.

Garnett had a terrible game. He hit a couple of turnaround jumpers, had a nice lob from Rondo that led to a dunk, but otherwise he was completely outplayed by Pau Gasol. Dominated, in fact. It was startling to see him miss two chippies around the rim in the middle of the fourth quarter, blowing two paint shots that could have dropped the Laker lead to a "this could happen"-ish 11 points.

Credit Gasol, though. Twenty-three points, 14 rebounds (eight offensive), and three blocks. Yes, he was definitely enthused to take it to KG, but the fact remains that Pau is just this good, now. On most nights, he's just as good as Kobe, and on quite a few nights, he's clearly better. This is the best power forward in the NBA, you must remember. Be glad his teammates, every so often, do.

After the game, Doc Rivers pointed out that his Celtics "didn't shrink the floor at all," which is a pretty big statement. He went on to discuss the ways that the Celtics failed to control dribble penetration which was big, but you have to appreciate the floor-shrinking aspect, and what it means to this series.

Because the Lakers, with that offense of theirs, thrive on good spacing. They're not some white hot 3-point shooting team like the Suns or Magic, but when the offense is working right, they spread the floor and leave themselves myriad options. Tex Winter points to penetration as the biggest key, beyond spacing, behind his triangle offense; and he always maintains that a shot can be considered part of penetrating the D just as much as a drive, or pass.

Because a missed shot, if the spacing is down, can lead to an offensive rebound. All those extra passes tossed around well-spaced Lakers can leave a defense reeling, and an offensive rebound there for the taking. And the Lakers just took, took, took in Game 1.

Midway through the third quarter, 42 percent of Los Angeles' missed shots resulted in an offensive rebound for the Lakers. That's an astonishing rate, against any team, and especially against the Celtics. To score as the Lakers did, but also get chance after extra chance following the misses? Nearly every other miss? It's almost unfair. And the Lakers, with their spacing and determination, made this game unfair.

Pau Gasol, mostly. Eight offensive rebounds. Kobe dropped 30, Kobe was awesome, but Pau made that stuff WORK.

Media kept trying to move the Lakers into trumpeting Ron Artest's contributions following the game, but his coaches and teammates kept giving him a "just OK" or "pretty good" declaration when discussing his overall play. Ron worked his tail off, but Paul Pierce still got to the line 13 times (24 points); and though Ron hit some "real shot-in-the-arm kind of shots" (as Phil Jackson put it) for the Lakers down the stretch, he still was a little excitable defensively. And if the C's flatten the floor and Pierce works that hard-dribble pull-up more in Game 2, we could see a Celtic win.

But the assumption, following the team's determined play in Game 1, would be that the Celtics would take that win in spite of Los Angeles' best effort.

Because the Lakers looked absolutely bound and determined not to let the typical "we're playing a team that can defend, now" shock and panic get to them. They set the terms of conflict, and made the Celtics bystanders. Made it so the Lakers were determining what role each and every Celtic would play, instead of letting the Celtics steer their own course.

It was an impressive showing, not quite surprising, but possibly overdue. Once again, the Lakers showed that they want to be great, and the Celtics allowed for the defending champs to write their own story.

Quite a lot has to change, if the Celtics want this story to end with the team's second championship in three years.

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