How Long Until Tip-off?

Kurt —  June 2, 2008

I am not, by nature, a patient man. It’s a virtue I do not possess. So the seeming interminable wait until these Finals start Thursday night seems mighty, mighty long. Phil probably doesn’t feel that way, it’s more time to plan. The players probably like the time to rest the bumps and bruises. And, we’ve got some fun things going on here in the next few days (and in collaboration with other sites) to help pass the time. But, I’d still rather be watching and talking games.

Here are a few things to chew on as we keep talking and waiting.

• The media is hyping this as “Kobe vs. The Big Three,” which anybody knowledgeable about basketball knows is crap. Both the Lakers and the Celtics got here as teams. That is especially true of a Lakers team that has a many-pronged attack. Coach Anthony Macri has his latest piece up at Basketball Prospectus and it looks at the five key moments in game five against the Spurs where Kobe’s teammates made plays that made the win possible — particularly on defense.

The Lakers and Spurs battled early to an 11-11 tie with 6:37 remaining in the first quarter. San Antonio subsequently went on a 22-5 run over the next nine minutes, putting Los Angeles in a 17-point hole. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, always calm, played right to the media timeout. Following that timeout, the Lakers came back on the floor with their three leading scorers (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom) all on the bench. However, Jordan Farmar brought energy and life to Los Angeles with his driving layup on a clear-out situation. A stop at the other end led to an alley-oop set play for Farmar from Luke Walton, as Farmar passed to Walton on the wing and dove to the rim on a backscreen. Momentum now in the Lakers’ favor, Ronny Turiaf stuffed Duncan’s baseline drive, and after a few missed opportunities on both ends, Farmar scored a transition layup, capping his personal 6-0 run.

While Farmar’s injection of offense is easy to point to in this sequence, it really was the vitality and vigor of the Lakers’ defense that made this series of plays a reality for Los Angeles. It came at a critical time, as the Lakers had looked moribund throughout the early going. It was notable, as well, that this spark came with the Lakers’ leading scorers on the bench. So revived, the Lakers would continue their better play through the rest of the quarter.

• The Lakers bench will be key in this series, if the depth can boost leads (close deficits) as it did in the final game against the Spurs, Boston will have to play their stars more and more minutes. Of course with the long breaks between some games in this series that may not be as bad a thing.

• Henry Abbott just broke down the first couple of Lakers/Celtics games from this season over at True Hoop. It’s a great piece, he noted that the Celtics essentially used the same defensive strategy on Kobe that the Spurs just did — keep him out of the paint, make him a jump shooter, go under picks, don’t foul, dare him to shoot the midrange. It’s as good a theory as is going on how to slow Kobe.

But, as Francis pointed out in the comments: “Kobe just shot 64-120 (.533), the best career field goal percentage in a playoff series in his life.” And that was against Bowen, a better defender than anyone the Celtics can throw at Kobe (especially Jesus Shuttleworth) and using the same philosophy.

It’s hard to take too much from those games, because this is a very different Lakers team. And a different Kobe.

• Along those same lines, good point about the Lakers offense from chearn in the comments:

Caution: the Lakers must utilize the triangle to its fullest move the ball for quick passes, make the older Celtic’s play east to west on defense using their legs and energy. By the middle of the 4th quarter we will be able to exploit them by opening up the running game. Do NOT play into the Celtic’s hands by missing one pass shots, thereby giving them the opportunity to get easy baskets without having to play defense for 15-20 seconds!

• And that leads to a point made by a commenter at Celtics blog that I was going to get to as well — The Celtics defense thrives on quick help. If the Lakers move off the ball, that help will be exploited. Particularly I am thinking of KG and Perkins, the Lakers they have to play (Odom and Gasol) can pull them away from the basket, if they run off to help when Kobe goes to the lane (or to double on Gasol in the post) it will mean open looks for other Lakers.

I really think this is the key to the entire series — just how good a passing team the Lakers are. It will expose what the Celtics do on defense, and after a couple of games to adjust the Lakers will be picking them apart.

• There also is rightly going to be a lot of focus on how the vaunted Celtics defense is/is not going to stop the Lakers offense. I think, like San Antonio, they are going to slow it, not stop it, although the Lakers numbers will go up as the series goes on and they learn which places to exploit,

But I think the key may be how much the Lakers defense can slow the Celtics on offense. Many people, from national pundits to Celtics fans, seem to underestimate the Lakers team defense. I think, particularly as the series wears on, that the Lakers will force the Celtics into less-favorable positions on the floor. The Lakers may just score in the 90s, but that is plenty to win if the other team is in the 80s.

• Kevin Ding touched on this in his blog, and I think it is crucial along those lines:

The Lakers almost surely will start out with Vladimir Radmanovic on Pierce, but if they want to give Sasha Vujacic extensively playing time once again — with the idea that Vujacic can hound Boston sharpshooter Ray Allen the way that he did Manu Ginobili last round — then Bryant will slide to small forward a lot again and match up with Pierce. If it’s Pierce, Winter said Bryant has to “stay attached, which is hard for Kobe to do.”

• If you look around Celtics sites, they are not worried about the “soft” Pau Gasol, particularly on defense. I remember reading a lot of that from Spurs bloggers and fans before that series, too. He will surprise them (although they will mistakenly still call him soft).

• Speaking of Celtics blogs, man there is a plethora of them. Here is a run down of the ones I am aware of (there may be more, and those bloggers can send me a link and I’ll add them): Celtics Blog, TommyPoint, Loy’s place, Red’s Army, Celtics Cast, Celtsheads, The Shamrock Headband, Celtics Club, Can Danny?, Green Bandwagon, Celtics 17, Celtics 24/7.

• Lakers fans keep talking about the 7-game series the Celtics played against teams they should have crushed in Atlanta and Cleveland (well, maybe not crushed Cleveland). But to my eyes, they played their best basketball against the Pistons and may well play better yet in the finals. I expect the Lakers will win, but don’t underestimate the C’s.