June 09, 2008
Last night's Laker comeback was fun to watch. It revealed just how much Los Angeles still wants to win, even as the mistakes piled up in Games 1 and 2. It proved that the Celtics could still put a team away late, even if they shouldn't have had to put anyone away past the mid-point of the fourth quarter, and it gave us something interesting to watch on a competitive level, rather than just a, "man, the C's are doing everything right"-level.
There's little to take from it, though. Boston took too damn long to get into its offense after making quick hits for the first three quarters, the Lakers nailed a series of tough three-pointers, and before long trading three for two creates a close game. Doesn't give Los Angeles any more of an edge than they would have had should Game 2 ended after the third quarter, and it doesn't take anything away from the Boston win.
For the bulk of the first half, the referees were calling a tight game, on both ends of the ball. The refs wanted to clear space for cutters to come meet the ball, and I'm always in favor of that, even if some of the fouls stunk on ice. Usually, it makes for a more aesthetically-pleasing game in the second half, once the players get used to it.
Then the Lakers stopped attacking, on both ends of the ball, and the Celtics started to pile up the foul calls. I'm not going to say that the Lakers didn't deserve a few more foul calls, but it was "a few" at the absolute most. The much-ballyhooed final possession of the first half resulted in, upon further review, zero deserved free throws for Los Angeles, as well. I don't want to hear anything beyond that, from anyone, because it would represent partisan whining.
It has long been a staple of Phil Jackson-coached teams -- if they employ the Triangle, then they sometimes decide to pass on hard cuts and getting to the hoop, when they know that the next guard-around screen or dive into the corner can result in an open jumper.
Problem is, open jumpers don't create foul opportunities, nor does it put the onus on a refereeing crew that was calling fouls every time the defense clutched and grabbed a cutter going through the lane. That's on the Lakers. They can win that way, but they're not going to get many trips to the line.
Throw in some pretty pathetic help defense from the Los Angeles bigs, refusing to step in and take charges for most of the game (my observation, but one that was endorsed by Phil Jackson post-game), and a steadfast refusal to make sure that Pau Gasol didn't really see the ball much (2-4 shooting after a 6-8 first half), and you have all the recipes for a major disparity in foul calls and free throws once you factor in how aggressive Boston was.
So, in so many words, quit your damned moaning, Laker fans. The game wasn't called right, but your team didn't have to let it get as out of hand as it was. Boston took advantage, the Lakers did not.
Free throws aside, it appeared as if Boston could just not miss last night. The free throw mark (27-38) was nice, but if Laker fans want to moan about something, they should moan about the 9-14 shooting from long range for Boston, or the 53 percent shooting mark overall. The Laker defense has to improve.
Or, moan abut the ball movement that allowed for an astounding 31 assists on 36 field goals, no doubt aided by Boston scorekeepers, but that only takes away two or three gimmie assists from the final total.
And second-year Boston guard Rajon Rondo was the key to that, finishing with 16 dimes, and getting past the first line of Laker defense whenever he wanted to. He nearly cost Boston a win in the final seconds, however, passing up a layup while somehow making that passed-up layup the third-worst thing he did in a 20-second span.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com asked Doc Rivers about Rondo's (1-4 from the field, 2-6 from the line) iffy jumper last night, and Doc (like he's going to sell out his player in public, I know, but it's still worth bringing up) said that he wasn't worried about Rajon's dodgy perimeter touch, just as long as he makes "quick plays, [and] quick decisions."
And he's completely spot-on, here. Problem was, in a possession during the final minute of the game, Rondo made a quick decision to go away from Kevin Garnett in the post with tons of time left on the shot clock, he made a quick decision to pass on shooting a layup, and made a quick decision to shoot a jumper (needlessly falling away, he clanged it) once the ball ended up back in his hands. Then again, he's 22. Then again, IT'S THE FINALS.
And it doesn't matter, really. The guy is getting into the lane wherever he wants. He's getting past that initial screen/roll defense, drawing the eyes of each of the five Lakers on the floor, and getting the job done in the seconds that follow. Rondo is killing Derek Fisher.
Backcourt mate Ray Allen is right there with him, putting up 36 points in the two games thus far without having to have many plays besides the "and if that doesn't work, look for Ray on the left here"-stuff.
Paul Pierce had a fantastic game, nailing all four of his three-point tries (five, really, one was taken away after a traveling violation) and scoring 28 points on 16 shots, with eight assists. And, yes, Leon Powe was all over the place offensively, but threw in a much-needed and highly entertaining 21 points on just seven shots, in under 15 minutes' play. The Lakers just could not counter his aggression. "Would not," either.
To me, though, the real story was how the Boston defense continually took the Lakers out of their offense, or disabused them of the notion of running that offense the way it is intended. Los Angeles gave up on so many plays, abandoned plays they weren't supposed to, and generally either did not want to compete, or make smart decisions with where the passes were going.
That's not on the Laker kids. One stretch to begin the second quarter wasn't pretty to watch, and the Laker bench was well-represented during that turn, but Derek Fisher is making some horrible decisions within this offense, one he's only been playing in since October of 1999.
Kobe Bryant thinks that Los Angeles' biggest problem is a porous transition defense, which makes sense (as Bryant pointed out, all of the sudden a nine point lead goes to 12 pretty quickly when one of those fast-break three-pointers goes up), but how does that start? Why are the Celtics getting those transition looks? The offense is breaking down, the ball is rebounding long, and Boston is running judiciously.
Too many times the Lakers refused to milk the clock, or go inside-out, while trying to go with a simplified screen-and-roll attack that made Jeff Van Gundy (that noted offensive guru) happy, but plays right into Boston's hands. After all, it's not as if Boston hasn't had any success shutting down the screen and roll during this postseason.
You can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes right now. I so burned them.
Either way, the Los Angeles offense is supposed to use spacing and an ability to use an opponent's defensive pressure against itself. And on Sunday night, the Lakers just relented against a Boston defense that will absolutely not relent. It was a slow-down game in the end (88 possessions), but too many times Los Angeles would use 20 of 24 seconds making passes and cuts that even they had to know weren't going to do much of anything.
Boston's defense is incredibly good, but it doesn't mean it can't be scored upon with sound offense. Los Angeles should know -- gimmick in the late stages or not, the Lakers put up about 116 points per 100 possessions in Game 2, which is well above their regular season average pre and post-Pau.
Gasol to me, still, is the key. The Lakers need to run things through him. Boston hasn't had to deal with a credible low-post threat yet this postseason (Big Z and Rasheed Wallace shot jumpers, so stop right there), and regardless of the opponent, the Laker offense goes into hyperdrive once the play starts on the inside. Always has.
In the meantime, the Celtics still have some work to do. Doc Rivers admitted after the game that he still wants to see the ball going inside more, and while you hear that all the time from coaches, that is absolutely necessary. Some quick foul trouble for Gasol or Lamar Odom (assuming he's on the playoff roster; they did clear him, right?) in Game 3 could make things pretty scary for the Lakers, and it certainly wouldn't hurt in Game 4 and beyond.
In the meantime, the Celtics have to be wary of the beyond-human play of P.J. Brown, who has had a fabulous series. He's doing everything right, but he's also playing over his head. If he falters in Los Angeles, Doc cannot hesitate to go right back to Kendrick Perkins, who has proven to be a center you can trust for 40 minutes at a time, assuming foul trouble isn't a problem.
Boston is grabbing a hold of this series. They are relishing the competition, making sound decisions in the midst of that hurricane, and looking like the championship-level team that they are.
They've also done their job, after two games at home. Los Angeles' turn, now.