When the team you follow every day gets to the Finals, you hope that they play to their capabilities. You hope that the focus, determination, and competitiveness are there. You look for the little things – holding a box out for that extra second, passing on a semi-open shot to reset the offense, fighting through a screen to recover to an offensive player. Tonight, the Lakers were a team filled with guys that were doing those little things and displaying the aforementioned qualities and it led to a 102-89 victory to take that all important 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals. What a night.
From the outset, this game had an intensity befitting an NBA Finals match up between heated rivals that had just faced off for the championship two seasons ago. After just 27 seconds of game action, Paul Pierce and Ron Artest got tangled up wrestling for position to grab a rebound and they tumbled to the ground with their bodies and arms locked together. This led to Ron getting up angry, Pierce reacting similarly and both teams moving into to separate them. Only seconds later the refs were issuing double technical fouls to bring order to the proceedings.
But, the refs didn’t stop there. Over the first quarter (and really, throughout the game) the refs seemed determined to not let this game get out of hand and for them to keep the players under control at all times. This led to frequent whistles and an uneven pace to the early stages of the game. In the first quarter, 18 fouls were called and each coach went deep into his bench to compensate for their suddenly foul plagued starters. If, before this game, I were to tell you that in the first 12 minutes of game 1 that Michael Finley, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton would all play you’d have thought I was crazy. But, sure enough, they did – spelling Ron Artest and Ray Allen and Kobe as all of these key players found themselves on the pine early with 2 fouls each.
But the refs and the foul trouble were just one story line. Surely, Ray Allen playing only 27 foul plagued minutes hurt the Celtics. Ray was one player for the C’s that looked confident with his offense and his shooting coming of his big men’s screens was spot on early. But the bigger story was the performance of the Lakers.
As it’s been over the course of these playoffs, the Lakers were led by their stars. Both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol set the tone for their team and led their mates to victory. Whether or not the loss of 2008 was fresh on these players minds, they played like they had something to prove; like they wanted to vanquish those memories and replace them with ones that they could later recall with joy instead of sorrow. But at the same time, they played like those memories gave them strength, like they were the fuel igniting their will to go the extra mile and make the needed plays to secure the victory.
Kobe would finish the night with 30 points on only 22 shots and rack up another 7 rebounds and 6 assists. And while his early defense on Rondo left something to be desired – Kobe got lost on several back cuts by Rondo when over helping on KG – his offense was just superb. There may have been a few forced shots here and there, but for the most part, Kobe was in control. Navigating the Celtics defense and attacking at every opportunity. It was pointed out several times during the telecast, but Kobe got to the rim much more frequently than at any point during the 2008 Finals and was able to either finish in the lane or draw fouls on the man that was guarding him.
And then there was Gasol. Soft? Uh…not so much. With the presence of Bynum forcing KG to now guard Pau, the big Spaniard went to work on both ends of the floor – taking it to KG at every turn – and doing everything the Lakers needed while stuffing the stat sheet along the way. The man ended the night with 23 points on 14 shots, 14 rebounds (including 8 huge offensive boards), 3 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal. Scoring in a variety of ways (hooks, running the floor, put backs) and contesting shots in the paint on the other end, Pau was the catalyst for the Lakers dominant inside play on the evening.
But, even though Kobe and Pau led the way they had lots of support in this game. Every Laker that saw the court did his job and did it well. Bynum had decent stats – 10 points, 6 rebounds – but most importantly he played 28 minutes (a number that Phil said he would like Bynum to play in a pre-game interview on ESPN radio) and really gave the Lakers a second presence inside. And the rest of the bench players played well too, even if their overall stats and +/- numbers don’t reflect it. They all played under control and consistently made the right decisions on offense to keep the Lakers’ momentum going throughout the game.
Especially impressive to these eyes was Ron Artest – especially on defense. Sure, Paul Pierce ended the night with 24 points on only 13 shots (making 12 of 13 from the FT line). But he never found a rhythm on offense and never really threatened to change the tenor of the game with his ability to score the ball. Ron just did an excellent job of deny Pierce his sweet spots and making him work to even catch the ball. But Ron was also solid on offense, going 5-10 from the field for 15 points and making 3 of his 5 three pointers.
Over the course of the evening the Lakers proved that they’re ready for this match up. Ready to exorcise their green demons. Ready to compete from the opening tip of the opening game and land the first punch. Simply put, the Lakers were the better team tonight. But, this is only one game. On the Lakers’ whiteboard in their locker room after the game, it simply said “3 mo’”. Game 2 is just as important as game one and the Lakers will need to duplicate this effort and level of execution of they expect to go to Boston with a series lead. But for now, enjoy this win. The Lakers lead the NBA Finals and being able to say that never gets old.
Some key numbers:
*41-32. This was the Lakers rebounding edge over the Celtics. As the old Pat Riley saying goes, “no rebounds, no rings”. Well tonight the Lakers controlled the backboards and it was a key component to the victory. I already mentioned Pau’s 8 offensive rebounds, but the Lakers had 13 as a team and their constant pressure on the C’s defensive glass didn’t allow Boston to get out in transition and get the easy buckets that their offense feeds off of. And even though the Celtics had 12 offensive rebounds of their own, they didn’t get any 2nd chance points while the Lakers had 16. Considering the Lakers won the game by 13, I would say that the Lakers ability to convert offensive rebounds into points was pretty important.
*48-30. This was the Lakers advantage in points in the paint. The Lakers really did an excellent job of attacking the Celtics interior tonight. Be it on standard post ups or off dribble penetration, the Lakers tried to get into the lane at every opportunity and punish the C’s with shots close to the hoop. I mentioned Kobe’s want to drive, but Fisher, Farmar, and Brown were all attacking the paint off hard drives and coming off curls. This really compromised the C’s defense and it went a long way in winning the game for the Lakers. The flip side of that coin was the Lakers limiting Rondo’s penetration and not really allowing Allen or Pierce to get anything going to the basket all night. And when you consider that KG and ‘Sheed are now both jump shooting bigs, Boston needs their guards/wings to get into the lane for their offense to really hum. Tonight they didn’t and we saw the results.
*0-4. That’s the Celtics record when giving up 100 points in these playoffs. The Lakers reached that threshold tonight and if they can continue to put up points, this series will be really difficult for Boston. The Lakers had 84 points after 3 quarters and there have been several games this post season where Celtics opponents didn’t get that in a full game. The Lakers offensive efficiency was 114.6 on the night. Against the vaunted Celtics defense, that number is just amazing.