BOSTON – The Celtics have harassed Dwyane Wade(notes), stolen LeBron James'(notes) spirit and shut down Vince Carter(notes) in these playoffs. For their final act, they look determined to make life almost as tough on Kobe Bryant(notes).
The Boston Celtics have taken on some of the game's greatest scorers in the postseason, none more challenging than the man they're currently tasked with defending. They haven't always stopped Bryant, but they've made him work and, more importantly, they've won twice, evening the NBA Finals heading into Sunday's Game 5. The Celtics' battles with Bryant have evolved like a game of chess, with each move growing more intriguing by the game.
"Listen, he's going to have big games, and like I said in the series with Cleveland, we're going to have to win one of these games where Kobe goes off for a big night," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And that may come in the next three. But we're still going to have to find a way to win that game."
Bryant has averaged 28.3 points on 40.9 percent shooting in the four games. His points haven't come easily, and in Thursday's Game 4 loss he also committed seven turnovers, matching his most of the postseason.
"That's just me playing like crap," Bryant said.
Bryant ranks the Celtics' defense "right up there with the best of them," and Boston's work in the earlier rounds of the playoffs supports that claim.
Wade averaged 33.2 points in the first round, but the Celtics succeeded by shutting down his limited supporting cast. James averaged 26.8 points – four points fewer than in the first round – and struggled from the 3-point line as the Celtics closed his driving lanes and forced him to rely on his inconsistent jump shot. Carter never got going in the East finals, averaging 13.7 points on 32.8 percent shooting. By the time the Finals arrived, the Celtics were allowing just 91.4 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting.
"We played against the best," Paul Pierce(notes) said. "Right there is the cream of the crop when you talk about the scorers. Obviously when you go to the scouting report, Kobe is much more difficult because of the things he does. I think between Wade and LeBron they're special in their own right, but Kobe overall is tough, and those series definitely helped us prepare teamwise to load up and be ready for him."
The Celtics have tried to adhere to four central principles when guarding Bryant: get the ball out of his hands as much as possible; prevent him from operating out of the post where he can shoot his turnaround jumper or make passes to cutting teammates; get physical with him to close any gaps to the basket; and force him into a crowd of defenders when he does try to attack.
"When he is driving, [Kendrick Perkins(notes)] and Kevin [Garnett] are going to step up, making him see defenders," Rajon Rondo(notes) said. "On the wing, guys like myself and Paul Pierce are going to shrink the floor and make him see four guys on the gaps and the elbows."
The Celtics begin games with Ray Allen(notes) on Bryant before moving to Tony Allen(notes). While Tony Allen did a solid job in Game 4, Bryant scoffed at the notion that he was being slowed down and blamed his turnovers on his own poor ball-handling.
"When push comes to shove," he said, "I can always get a bucket."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson thought Bryant looked a little fatigued. Bryant disagreed.
"Physically, I thought he had to work too hard in the course of the game, and he couldn't finish it out the way he wanted to finish it out," Jackson said. "That's part of what happened. I thought the matchups in the game kind of dictated those terms, and we'll have to do something different the next game to get him off the floor and keep him ready for that fourth quarter."
"You have to guard these guys at all times," Pierce said. "All of them can beat you for a game, like [Derek] Fisher showed. Gasol has done it, [Andrew] Bynum has done it, Ron [Artest] has done it in the playoffs. That's what makes Kobe so difficult to guard because you really can't help off too many people that they put on the court."
Bryant left the Garden Thursday saddled with a loss and frustrated by questions about how he was defended. With the Finals even and a critical Game 5 arriving on Sunday, the chess match continues.