June 14, 2010
Boston 92, Los Angeles Lakers 86; Boston leads series, 3-2
All season long, while the offense went up and down, the defense stayed about the same. Consistently great defense, mind you. The Los Angeles Lakers regressed significantly on the offensive end in 2009-10, falling to 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency after coming in third the year before, but the team's defense stayed at just about a top-3 clip all season until a mini-swoon to end the regular season dropped them from fourth, up from sixth last year.
And on Sunday night, as it was on Thursday night, that defense was nowhere to be found for Los Angeles. Boston scored over 109 points per 100 possessions in the Game 5 win, and while Boston has its moments, offensively, they're not that good.
Not good enough to enter the fourth quarter shooting 64.7 percent. Not good enough to pile on all those points while turning it over 16 times, and only shooting nine free throws. Good, great even, but not potent enough to excuse Los Angeles on that end.
Did Boston back its way into a win? Was it the Lakers letting it happen, losing more than Boston won? Of course not. The Celtics worked for those open looks, every bit of free space was earned with a sound screen, quick move, aggressive dribble or pass, and usually some combination of all those factors. But the Lakers could have done better, and in the team's most important game of the season, they fell short.
While Boston stepped up. Paul Pierce(notes) stepped all over Ron Artest(notes), piling up 27 points on 12 of 21 shooting. Rajon Rondo(notes) missed just three shots one game after missing 10 of 15 attempts from the floor. Kevin Garnett(notes) managed 18 and 10 with superior defense on Pau Gasol(notes), finishing the night with three assists, two steals and three blocks as well. That'll do.
And faced with the task of trying to keep up in the presence of some typically tough Celtics D, the Lakers gave up on their ball movement, got the rock to Kobe, and stood around.
After a Gasol fumble started the third quarter off on the wrong foot, Bryant more or less started going one-on-one, and the result was an astonishing 19-point display in the quarter. Nailing tough jumper after tough jumper, Bryant clearly had the touch going, but at what price?
Because the Lakers, before long, had absolutely no rhythm. The team's entire offense had dwindled down to watching one man toss in impossible 19-footers, and little else. No Celtic was bothering to trap the screen and roll too hard, because Bryant wasn't even looking for his screener for a pass. And when Bryant eventually tailed off (he shot 2-6 in the fourth quarter), the Lakers' offense was dead in the water, because he and his team had built no rhythm.
Bear in mind that the Laker offense, more than any offense in the NBA, relies on rhythm and quick decision and fluid ball movement to survive. And when one player goes away from that movement, it's usually in the fourth quarter, and not the third. And if Bryant is going to make this all about himself on the second possession of the third quarter? He better be ready to drop 55, because that's going to be what it takes to win, because he'll have to answer every Celtic bucket with one of his own.
Finishing with 38, Bryant clearly did not make it that far, growling his usual invective postgame about getting no help. Was Gasol rather ineffective? Sure, but Bryant had more made-for-him possessions in one 90-second stretch of the third quarter than Pau saw all night. Was Ron Artest missing from all over? Of course, but if the Laker offense moves the ball and shows good spacing, then Ron won't have to be taking long bail-out shots at the end of the shot clock.
But to his credit, Kobe was mostly fuming about defense after the game. The Celtics just had too many answers down the stretch, and though Boston did well to finish the sound looks they were afforded, the Lakers could have done better to deny them said looks. Andrew Bynum(notes), for one, didn't seem to have as clear a nose for the ball as he did in the first three games of this season, and Derek Fisher(notes) looked a step slow all night.
So, the quick turnaround, back to Los Angeles, and backs-against-the-wall time for the defending champs. Most observers are assuming a Game 7 on Thursday to be a sure thing, but Boston has done this before, in Game 6, and it certainly has what it takes to down the Lakers just a little over a day and a half from now. This team executes, on both ends, and trusts each other.
There's no way you can say the same thing about the Lakers right now.