Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Boston at Los Angeles Lakers
; Los Angeles Lakers lead series 1-0

In a contest between two teams as great as the Lakers and Celtics that featured an outcome with gulf between the two as great as the distance between the Lakers and the Raptors, the natural inclination is to wonder what, exactly, went wrong with the great team that suddenly reappeared as a mediocre team.

What went wrong with Boston? Was it Kevin Garnett's(notes) stilted play? Rajon Rondo's(notes) frustrating night? Ray Allen's(notes) foul trouble? A bench that doesn't quite compare to the one we saw in 2008?

Every mitigating factor works, because every bit of that had a big role in Boston losing Game 1 by a 102-89 mark. Toss in a terrible showing on the defensive glass and a seeming lack of urgency, and you have every reason why a sound team was topped by 13 over a 48-minute stretch.

But lost in all that, I have to wonder, is one idea. One, scary, idea. Was that the best Los Angeles could have played? I don't think it was.

Run with me. Follow me over my right shoulder and I'll hit you on the break.

Kobe Bryant(notes) was an all-around terror, working quite efficiently on both ends (getting putting both Ray and Tony Allen(notes) in foul trouble, defending Rondo brilliantly). Gasol clearly got the best of his pairing with KG, if not his pairing with Rasheed Wallace(notes). Derek Fisher(notes) helped more than he hurt, Ron Artest(notes) matched Paul Pierce's(notes) 24 with 15 of his own (on 10 shots), and Andrew Bynum(notes) sprung to life after a frustrating few weeks.

But was this the best Los Angeles could have played? Because, beyond Pau, they weren't really pressed all that much. Kobe may have had the focus, Gasol the inspiration, Bynum the shackles to toss off, but I never got the feeling the Lakers were working at peak efficiency, that they were playing desperate, exacting, precise basketball. I just felt like they were good enough to win by 13.

This isn't a criticism. They just handed one of the finer teams in this league a loss by 13 points, and I fully recognize how much of a role the Lakers played in that outcome, versus the Celtics settling. But what happens when the Celtics counter for the defending champions' pick and roll attack in Game 2, forcing the Lakers to perhaps make an extra pass or three? What happens when the Celtics give a little help on Gasol in the post (Vlade Divac, somewhere, just felt the need for a cigarette)? What happens when the Lakers are pushed?

Because, if you'll recall, Los Angeles' response to Boston's fourth quarter push (a +9 run with Kobe on the court) came with Bryant on the bench. The "settle down, we got this" moment came with Jordan Farmar(notes), Shannon Brown(notes), Ron Artest, Lamar Odom(notes), and Gasol out there. It felt more like a pound-wise Phil Jackson maneuver from mid-February - losing a stretch, or even a game, in preparation for building his guys up for June.

Except, it is June. And this is why we appreciate Jackson to no end. In the heat of the Finals, with those plucky Celtics working their way back, and Kobe playing the best ball he's ever played; Jordan freakin' Farmar and Shannon Brown (the guy that was clearly removed in the locker room from all that champagne, all that jumping up and down, last June) were working the backcourt. Phil had the answer, even with Bryant on the bench.

So what happens when they need an answer, and Kobe's around? What happens when it comes time to truly employ that sideline triangle, something created to use a defense's pressure against itself? I shudder to think. What happens when Bryant finally gets to use that angst, that frustration, that focus, that talent, and transcend the game?

This isn't to say that Boston is without hope in Game 2. Not only can the Celtics win if the Lakers go soft and relent, as they have many times this year; but they can also beat Los Angeles when the team is nearly working on all cylinders. And if the shots aren't falling, Boston can win in a walk even despite Los Angeles' best effort. Boston is so good, so smart, that you really can flip a coin if a few Laker shots go awry.

I'm just giddy at the prospect of these teams - one playing its 98th game of the season, the other playing its 101st - actually building, growing, improving, learning and then executing based on that new knowledge. Getting better all the time. Think of where you were at before you started to read this preview; you expected the Celtics to get better, didn't you? And why wouldn't you? In Game 1, they couldn't get much worse.

And the idea that this group can be an ever-evolving creature, even as it plays its ninth month of basketball?

It's exciting. I don't know what's going to happen in Game 2, but the fact that we can still be learning from these teams on June 6th is well worth paying attention to.

BDL will be producing a live blog during tonight's events, starting around 8 p.m. Eastern time, featuring Ball Don't Lie Editor Trey Kerby, Kelly Dwyer live from the Staples Center, Ball Don't Lie wordsmith-in-residence Dan Devine, and a host of others (hopefully; no promises at this point) joining us. Please stop on by to contribute your 12 bits.

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