June 15, 2010
This team's back is against the wall. The Lakers don't have another loss to spare if they want to win a championship and they have quite the task set out before them.
Two wins in two games against a team that has won three of five against them over the last two weeks, a team that beat them in the 2008 NBA Finals and a squad that more or less played them to a hilt during the regular season.
If any team could pull off a Finals win down 3-2, it's these Lakers. But paper don't play, and the defending champs still have to execute and follow through if they want to win their latest ring.
With that in mind, here are five ways the Lakers can both extend their season Tuesday night and pull off the clincher on Thursday.
1. Start defending
As is usually the case, if it weren't for all those unforced turnovers, the Celtics would be a fantastic offensive team. And even with those unforced turnovers in this series, the C's have been pretty darn good.
A whole lot of the credit for Boston's sound offensive play has to go toward the Lakers, who just aren't defending the way they did during the regular season. The Celtics have put up 112, 111 and 109.5 points per 100 possessions in their wins, numbers well above the 103.7 points per 100 possessions the Lakers gave up in the regular season and the 107.7 per 100 the C's averaged.
In those wins, the Celtics have compiled 43 turnovers, many of them unforced. Take away those miscues and the carnage for L.A. could be worse.
Los Angeles' paint defense has just become too susceptible, and though Andrew Bynum's(notes) injuries are the biggest reason (taken as a whole — with help defense, shot-blocking and rebounding tossed in — he is Los Angeles' best defender, not Ron Artest(notes)) behind the swoon, the Lakers can still do better. Artest, and this team's guards, are going to have to help more in the paint, taking charges and lopping off good sightlines.
The Laker D was a pleasant surprise during the regular season, but it is one loss away from doing this team in.
2. Determine their offensive scheme
Seems like a bit of a laugh, no? Haven't these guys run the triangle offense for years?
Well, not as much this season. And in the face of a Boston defense that limits ball movement and basically scares you out of trusting teammates or your own passing abilities, the Lakers have retreated and run more two-man game than triangle. And running a two-man game against a defense featuring Kevin Garnett(notes)? You're just asking for it.
The Lakers either need to commit to a free-wheeling five-man offense that develops rhythm early, sustains it when the going gets tough and cashes in on all that spacing and turned heads later in the game. Or they need to start executing more frequently with the two-man game. Because while a hybrid of both styles could work occasionally, Los Angeles just hasn't shown the patience thus far to pull off a combination of the two.
Of course, with their backs against the wall and two potential games at home to work through, this would seem as good a time as any to develop that patience.
Not literally. Though Kevin Garnett had five steals in Game 5, only one came as he wormed his way around Gasol and poked the ball free on an entry pass, and that was off a bad pass from Luke Walton(notes) as Gasol was rolling into post position, not once he'd established it. But beyond that, as distasteful though you might find it that Gasol is getting his tail handed to him by Garnett, the fact remains that the Lakers have been frustratingly impatient with the way they've used their 7-foot All-Star.
Bryant gave him one chance — one chance! — in the opening possession of the third quarter in the loss on Sunday before launching into his dominant stretch. Gasol missed a lay-in after blowing past Garnett, the shot was blocked by Kendrick Perkins(notes) and this gave Bryant all the reason he needed to not let his teammates see the ball again for the next quarter.
If Gasol is going to be out there, and you're going to be on a team featuring a crummy bench, Derek Fisher(notes), a talented guy like Lamar Odom(notes), a great finisher despite his injuries in Andrew Bynum and an offensive zero in Ron Artest, then you need to find a way to make offensive threats out of what little this lot provides. And the Lakers' offense, when run properly, has proven it can do that.
It has yet to prove that it can score and eventually win consistently by eschewing the ball movement and going to a Kobe-centric attack. But if it tries that way again, well...
4. Kobe has to drop at least 40 points.
If he's going to be the man, ignore the cutters and the offense and what got them there, then he can't top out at 38 points, as was the case in Game 5.
That 19-point third quarter? If he's going to pull that off and take the Lakers out of their offense as a result? Then he needs to duplicate it in the fourth quarter.
He can't be a martyr again, pointing to "the way he kept his team in it" in the third quarter as things fall apart in the fourth. Spare me. He, more than anyone else in this league, understands the risks inherent in dominating the ball that early in a game and taking the Lakers out of their structure. And if he's going to work that way, he's going to have to work it until the end.
And not shoot 2 for 6 in the fourth quarter, as we saw on Sunday. Supposedly this game's best closer, Bryant has shot 9 for 33 in the fourth quarter in this series, a dreadful 27 percent, needing 6.6 shots to score 7.4 points per quarter (aided by free throws and 3-pointers).
This cannot sustain. If it's going to be a one-man show, it has to be a one-man show until the end. And if anyone can pull that off, it's Bryant, especially with just two potential games to go. He has the talent, the smarts and the competitive fire to pull it off. It's not the smartest nor easiest turn to lean into, but if this season is any indication, it will be what the Lakers will do down the stretch.
And if that is the case, 9 for 33 can't continue.
Finally, if Los Angeles is to extend the season Tuesday night...
5. Somebody else has to show up.
Where would the Lakers be had Derek Fisher not gone off in the fourth quarter of Game 3? Or if Ron Artest hadn't appeared somewhat passable on offense in Game 1? Or if Lamar Odom hadn't hit 5 for 5 shots and killed a Celtics run by his lonesome with an offensive rebound and putback in Game 3?
Some other Laker has to come through. It doesn't have to be a white-hot performance, but somebody needs to kill a run with a big shot or stop. Someone needs to take two charges in a quarter. Someone needs to put Boston in the penalty. Somebody needs to find their way toward taking and making open 3-pointers in transition or make the extra pass in a momentum-swinging possession. I just realized that Lamar Odom can do all of these things, but that's beside the point.
It doesn't have to be a clear, Sixth Man of the Year-winning performance. It just has to be a couple of sound four-minute spurts from people who just haven't been contributing all that effectively in this series. Teams win games in this league by winning stretches, by owning a four-minute turn here or a seven-minute series there with some superstar on the bench with three fouls or the other team's starting point guard out there with four bench players.
And unless Los Angeles starts winning or at least matching these little battles, then the Lakers could see it all end Tuesday night.