LOS ANGELES – There weren't many seats in Staples Center better than the courtside one just down the row from famed actor Jack Nicholson. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was roaming nearby, too. The problem, however, was that Ray Allen(notes) wasn't getting paid to sit and watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
He wanted to play.
Saddled with five fouls, Allen spent 21 minutes of the Celtics' 102-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on the bench. The reason? He was tasked with helping defend Kobe Bryant(notes), who wouldn't mind keeping Allen on the sideline as much as possible.
"It was frustrating," Allen said. "I couldn't buy a whistle, man. What can you do?"
Against Bryant, not much.
Bryant entered the Finals averaging 29.4 points, 7.6 free throws attempts and 6.2 assists in the playoffs. The biggest challenge he's faced in this postseason hasn't been a defender, but his own health. Still, Bryant hadn't met a defense as formidable as the Celtics since, well, two years ago when the Lakers lost to Boston in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics wore down Bryant in that series, and they'd done the same to other stars in these playoffs. Dwyane Wade(notes) had some success in the first round, but his Miami Heat were still eliminated in five games. LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked surprisingly lost in a second-round defeat to the Celtics. And no one from the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard(notes) and Vince Carter(notes) included, had a remedy for Boston's tough, grinding defense.
While Allen was Bryant's primary defender, the Celtics' success – and, in this case, failure – is built from their team defense.
"It's been a team challenge the whole playoffs," Allen said. "I just got to follow the game plan. Keep him in front of me. Can't do too much gambling."
Allen's foul trouble kept him from exploiting his own mismatch in Game 1. Because the Lakers wanted to use Bryant to defend Rajon Rondo(notes), the Celtics' quick point guard, 6-foot-1 Derek Fisher(notes) was assigned to the 6-5 Allen. Fisher actually picked up two quick fouls, but Allen, who entered the Finals averaging 16.7 points and making 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts, couldn't get going sitting on the bench.
Allen picked up his first foul, which he said was warranted, just 27 seconds into the game. His second came with 7:22 remaining in the first quarter, forcing the Celtics to replace him with Tony Allen(notes). When he returned, he didn't have enough time to settle into a rhythm.
"There were a lot of fouls early," Ray Allen said. "When the referees blow the whistle like that early, they taking control of the game. I think for us, in the history of the team being together, it's always had a tendency of taking our aggressiveness away from us. It's important that we adjust to how they call the game and still stay ready."
It didn't take Ray Allen long to head back to the bench in the second half. He picked up his fourth foul with 9:04 left in the third quarter and was immediately taken out. With 2:10 left in the third and Boston desperately in need of offense down, Celtics coach Doc Rivers couldn't afford to be patient and put him back into the game. A mere 31 seconds later Ray Allen picked up his fifth foul on a shot attempt by Bryant. Allen threw up his arms in disgust and immediately went back to the bench.
"I was nowhere near [Bryant]," Ray Allen said. "I didn't touch him. When he drove, I [kept] my feet with him and once he went up for the shot I stayed right there. Glen [Davis] was right in the play. I don't know if I touched him. I didn't get an explanation. But, that was what I had to deal with.
"I had five fouls. Two in the first quarter and I'm sitting down. … It was like playing from behind the whole time being in foul trouble. You didn't want to put me in jeopardy. Once I got in foul trouble, the trend of the game just changed. Once that happened, I felt like I was on the outside looking in."
By the time Allen returned in the fourth quarter, Boston trailed by 20 points. Bryant finished with 30 points and 10 free-throw attempts, and made no secret of his plan to attack the Celtics' defense.
"Just being aggressive, getting the bodies and tonight I got the benefit of the whistle," Bryant said.
Allen's foul trouble further deflated what was once one of the NBA's most entertaining player rivalries. Six years ago, Allen and Bryant battled for the right to be called the league's best shooting guard. Bryant elbowed Allen in the jaw one game and each responded by taunting the other. According to the Seattle Times, Bryant told Allen he was going to "bust his ass" during an exhibition game the 2005-06 season.
"Don't even put me and that dude in the same breath," Bryant said at the time.
A lot has changed since then. Allen is a key player for the Celtics, but he's no longer a rival of Bryant. And Bryant is more concerned with slowing Rondo this series than he is guarding Allen.
"It's old news," Allen said. "It was one thing when he was the best player on the team and I was the best player on the team and we were going head to head. But we have so many players now that can do the job."
After just one game, the Celtics desperately need Allen to find a way to get the job done now. If Allen can get hot, he can put the Lakers in a position where they might have to switch Bryant onto him. The question, however, isn't whether Allen can get going offensively; it's whether he can figure out a way to avoid foul trouble and keep Bryant from going off.
Said Allen: "I don't think I played enough to have an impact on the game."