Just as we said yesterday, defense wins championships. A team may not need to be the best defense in the land, but they do need to get the crucial stops in the key moments of the game or be able to generate streaks within a game where they make life difficult on the opposition’s offense. So with all that in mind, it’s no wonder that the Celtics are in the Finals and in position to win their 2nd championship in the last 3 seasons.
This Celtics team defends. And they do so with an intensity and at a level that is greater than any team the Lakers have faced so far in these playoffs. Fueled by an incredible scheme and the smarts to execute it, the Celtics are the NBA equivalent of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers – they just stop you, plain and simple. So if the Lakers are going to beat this team and claim their second championship in as many seasons, they’ll need to find a way to break down the Celtics’ D to get the baskets they need to come out on top.
When I spoke with Phillip about how the Lakers could go about scoring against the C’s vaunted D, he spoke to me about getting back to fundamentals:
If the Lakers are going to be successful against that Boston defense, they’re going to have to go back to the two most fundamental offensive philosophies: 1) Moving the ball, and 2) Movement without the ball.
The Celtics starting unit will be the biggest, longest, most physical starting unit the Lakers have seen this post season. This Celtics team, much like the title winning team in ’08 defends extremely well as a team, and take pride in doing so. To counter their defensive tenacity, you have to make them work as individuals as much as possible. The Lakers have a tendency to stand around and watch others operate (most notably Kobe ) instead of moving without the ball, cutting or setting screens. If this happens against the Celtics, they will eat the Lakers alive. It all starts with Kevin Garnett, who communicates defensively in the same way someone like Ray Lewis does: he’s talking all the time, telling his guys where they need to be, when they need to be there, and what they need to do when they get there. It’s fascinating to watch how well they communicate defensively, but if you have guys constantly moving around, it gets harder for KG to pay attention to every thing going on if he has to focus more on not letting his man get free.
On this point, I could not agree with Phillip more. The Celtics’ defense is predicated off knowing what you want to do, anticipating your next pass, and then trying to take those options away or limit their effectiveness when they start to play out. They’re a fantastic one on one defensive team, but their team schemes are predicated off of their ability to help and recover so they give off the look of playing a “zone” scheme when, in fact, they’re actually just very good at cutting off angles and showing offensive players a second defender before they scurry back to recover to their own man.
This type of defensive scheme can be broken down in the exact way that Phillip describes – with ball and player movement – but in order to actually accomplish it, there needs to be a high level of execution and commitment to whatever task is being performed. That means the Lakers can’t lazily cut through the lane when they’re clearing the side for a post up and they can’t half-heartedly set screens when trying to free up a teammate. Playing anything but all out on the offensive end will allow the Celtics to deny passes to the wing and on ball reversals, which are the staples to the Lakers motions in the Triangle. Much like two seasons ago, if the Lakers decide that they’re going to stand and watch or in any way not move in unison and with purpose, the Celtics D will look much like the nearly impenetrable phalanx of 2008.
But the movement around the perimeter is only one key to the Celtics defense. The other (and equally impressive) facet of Boston’s defensive work is their ability to defend the post with single coverage. Both KG and Perkins (and, to a bit lesser extent, Wallace) are top notch post defenders using their bulk (Perkins) and incredible instincts and length (KG, ‘Sheed) to thwart most post players ability to get easy, uncontested buckets at the rim. Ask Dwight Howard what it’s like banging with Perkins (or ask Gasol about ’08) – it’s not any fun. Or as nomuskles emailed me and explained:
I have a strong dislike for (Perkins) but can’t deny how much he impacts the game with his strength on defense and on the boards. Will the Lakers front line stop his bullying by matching his physicality or will the Lakers try to finesse their way around him? Either option has merits but the general consensus seems to agree on the latter.
And that is the key for the Lakers. As I mentioned yesterday in my little radio conversation (around the 32 minute mark), Perkins and KG are such good defenders that they often fight you for position, but do allow the post entry. So, Pau (and Bynum) are going to get their chances in the post. The key is how the Lakers attack them and what tactics they determine to work the best. Again, Phillip gives us a potential preview of what we may see:
I think we will start to see more of the offense run through the pinch post like we did during the Utah series. The Lakers went away from that during the Suns series, mainly because of the zone, but also because Kobe put himself in a lot of isolation situations…Seeing Pau Gasol back at the elbow will do multiple things for the Lakers. One, it puts Pau in one of his most comfortable spots on the offensive end of the floor. He has a nice face up jumper, can get to the rim relatively easy against most defenders and it opens up those interior passing lanes. Either Garnett or Perkins will be forced to guard him there, opening up lanes for guys like Kobe, Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to cut to the basket. With Gasol at the elbow, the Lakers have the opportunity to make the Celtics play as individuals; spacing and crisp passing is going to be key.
I agree with Phillip that we’re likely to see Pau play more at the elbow/mid-post, especially when matched up against Perkins and Wallace (two guys that will pound Gasol and try to rough him up whenever he makes a catch in the low post). Pau’s ability to shoot the jumper and use his good first step will pay dividends when playing 15 feet and out. However, I also expect to see Pau in the low post when he’s matched up with KG (or, if it happens, Glen Davis). As great a defender as KG is, his athleticism is not the same as it was two seasons ago and his frame is quite similar to Pau’s. Gasol should be able to get moderately deep post position against KG and then use his array of post moves to get good looks at the basket. Whether Pau turns and faces, uses his quick spin move, or backs down KG for one of his jump hooks or turn around jumpers, I do think Pau will have more freedom to play one on one than he saw against Phoenix. And, I think the same will hold true for Bynum against Perkins. Yes, ‘Drew will have to battle with Perk for position and he’ll surely pay the price with a variety of shoves and shivers to his back, but if Bynum can make catches from 8 feet and in he’ll show that his offensive skill set (even with the limitations of his knee) is more polished than any Center the C’s have faced these playoffs.
But (getting back to the perimeter for a moment), what can we expect from Kobe? Two seasons ago, the Celtics were able to make Kobe work for every basket and had a litany of defenders to throw at him (Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Paul Pierce, and James Posey). This season, the presence of Posey is gone, but these other options remain. As Kwame A. states:
Tony Allen’s health may be very important. He is arguably their best defender on Kobe, he played Kobe well in ’08, and also played very well against LBJ this year.
And Phillip adds on that some of what’s worked in the WCF won’t be adequate against Boston:
(Agaisnt Phoenix) when Kobe went iso, he either went one-on-one, or was able to draw double teams and find the open man. Against the Celtics, those kind of offensive principles are not going to work. Kobe is going to see a lot more one-on-one defense from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, both of whom guard him fairly well. They’ll try and force him into tough jumpshots knowing that either Garnett or Kendrick Perkins will be there waiting for him if they get beat off the dribble.
So, how to get Kobe free? I think we’ll see a lot of what we spoke about already in this post – Kobe will need to work well off the ball and find the creases in the defense by getting free off screens and curls while also working off the post ups of Gasol. I also think the Lakers will play a fair amount of P&R (like they did in the ’08 Finals) to force Boston to either play him with the standard hedge/recover tactic or trap him completely – which will then allow Kobe to read the defense and make the correct play coming off the screen. And in the end, with Kobe being as dialed in as he is right now, I also expect him to take (and make) some of the tough shots that he’s been hitting since the end of the OKC series. After all, Kobe is still Kobe and those shots are part of his repertoire. As long as he’s not over-dependent on this part of his arsenal, I think that he (and subsequently the Lakers) will be able to score enough points.
The last two points that are very important to the Lakers’ offensive success in the Finals come down to limiting turnovers and continuing their strong play on the offensive glass. Boston is one of the better teams at forcing turnovers and securing defensive rebounds after getting the initial stop. If the Lakers cough up the ball too frequently it will fuel the Celtics transition game and, similar to the Suns series, allow the C’s to get easy baskets at the rim or from behind the arc (something they excel at). Meanwhile, the Lakers also need to extend possessions by getting extra shots from securing offensive rebounds. The C’s do have a very good defensive rebounding front line, but one player that I think can make a difference in this area is Odom. Based off the C’s rotations, he’s likely to spend a lot of time matched up with Davis and/or Wallace and these are players that LO has advantages over (Davis with his length and ‘Sheed with his quickness). If the Lakers can excel in both of these areas their offense will be good enough.
Obviously, this is a lot to sift through and, seemingly, a lot of aspects in this series that the Lakers will need to perform well if they hope to be successful. But, as we mentioned, the Celtics are the best defensive team in the playoffs and things will not be easy. All that said, the Lakers have the personnel, overall skill, and talent to score the ball effectively against this team. It will take discipline and execution, but what else is new? We’ll see if the Lakers are ready on both sides of the ball come Thursday.