If there’s a theme for this series it’s that the team that has executed down the stretch is the one that has earned the victory. Game 4 proved no different as the Celtics were able to turn in a 36 point final period and take contest 96-89. They were the sharper team that executed better. They were the team that made the little plays; the hustle plays that influence the outcome. Simply put, they earned this win. So now, the NBA Finals are tied 2-2 and the fight for the championship is a best of three series.
There were several subplots to this game, but I’ll start with what I consider to be the biggest (literally and figuratively). Andrew Bynum tried to gut it out tonight, but he wasn’t able to really play on his bad wheel. Bynum played only 12 minutes on the evening and only 2 in the second half after starting the third quarter in the Lakers’ locker room rather than on the court with his other 4 starting mates. Bynum dragged his leg around like a sleepy toddler does his favorite blanket and while I give him a ton of credit for trying to help his team, he just didn’t have enough mobility to move in the half court to cut off angles on penetration or run the floor in a manner that allowed him to change ends with any real pace. And without Bynum’s size, this is a different Lakers team – especially against these Celtics. Boston was able to score well in the lane by getting 54 points in the paint while also winning the battle of boards 41-34, 16 of which were recoveries of their own misses.
The other big story was the battle of the benches, one that the Celtics won handily. Boston’s reserves outscored their Laker counterparts 36-18, doubling their point production and providing the difference in this game. Fueled by the darting Nate Robinson and the bruising Big Baby Davis , the C’s bench made the impression on this game and played that hero role that was up for grabs when the game hung in the balance. And while Robinson’s energy and relentless attacking of the basket was infectious, the player that really deserves credit for tilting this contest in the C’s favor was Davis. Big Baby scored 18 points on 10 shots, grabbed 5 rebounds (4 offensive), and was just a monster on the interior against whoever stood in his way. When asked after the game what he felt like, Davis simply said “I felt like a beast. I felt like I couldn’t be denied.” and truer words could not have been spoken. He was a beast and he couldn’t be denied. He used his quick feet, active hands, and wide frame to move bodies out of the way and get to the positions that he wanted to in order to finish inside. Really, he was the player of the game in my eyes. (On a side note, Big Baby is the exact type of player that gives Odom problems. I know people want to crush LO right now, and I get it as he’s been below average this series. But Davis has quick feet, tremendous power, and a low center of gravity. He’s excellent at creating space, taking it to the chest of players, and is crafty at finishing around the cup. Davis is just like Craig Smith – and this season you saw what Smith did to Odom in every Lakers/Clippers game. I’m not defending Odom, but again, this is just a tricky match up for Odom as he’s facing a guy that can defend him decently on the perimeter and one that attacks his willowy frame on the other end. I think the answer to Davis is Bynum, but alas he didn’t get any run tonight due to the knee.)
And due to the Lakers’ bench lack of production and Odom turning into a de facto starter because of Bynum’s injury, the Lakers really looked tired out there. I mean, Odom played 39 minutes, Kobe played 43, Pau played 43, and Artest played 42. That’s a combined 167 minutes for those 4 players and at the end of the game they just didn’t look they had much in the tank to compete with the fresher Celtics that they shared the court with. At the end of the game where the Lakers needed crisp offensive execution and stops on the defensive end, the Lakers didn’t have the legs to do what was necessary. Too many times the Lakers stood and watched as Kobe or Pau or Odom went one on 3 against a rotating Celtics defense. And on the other end the Lakers interior rotations were non existent as flat footed perimeter players got beat off the dribble. The domino effect of having a man down and ineffective bench players came back to haunt the Lakers late.
The other thing that haunted the Lakers was their inability to take care of the ball. The Lakers had 14 turnovers in the game (which isn’t a killer number), but too many of those came late in the contest where possessions were precious. And too many of them were made by Kobe and Pau (11 combined – with 7 of those being on Kobe’s stat line) – the two players you actually want with the ball ultimately making the mistakes that cost this team. And both of them had turnovers that were especially costly in crunch time as Pau forced a pass to a streaking Kobe (after he had gotten a steal himself) with only 1:37 left on the clock and the Lakers down 6 (ultimately allowing Boston to reset their offense and burn more clock). And then with only 33 seconds left and the Lakers still trailing by 6, Kobe repayed the favor by jumping to pass to Odom with Rondo then stepping in for the steal and lay up to ice the game. Again, the Lakers just didn’t execute down the stretch and that was the difference.
Even though I’ve only been focusing on what went wrong, not all was not terrible for the Lakers tonight. Gasol worked hard on offense and scored 21 points on 13 shots. He earned 10 trips to the foul line (making 9) and played an excellent inside outside game where he attacked the basket while still stroking a nice mid range jumper. Pau could have rebounded better, but some of his ineffectiveness on the glass was due to his having to help a lot on dribble penetration as the C’s broke down the Lakers perimeter defense. Kobe also played well as he found his jumper and was able to hit some of the shots that he’d missed over the past couple of games. Kobe ended the night with 33 points on 22 shots and grabbed 6 rebounds of his own. If they could have been a bit better in taking care of the ball, this game could have been different. But it wasn’t in the cards for them tonight and their strong efforts in the other parts of their game(s) got wasted a bit.
But in the end there were just too many mistakes. The Lakers didn’t rebound well enough, didn’t take care of the ball, and didn’t execute down the stretch. They had the lead going into the 4th quarter, but (as I mentioned earlier) gave up 36 points in the 4th quarter and didn’t get enough from their bench to give the starters the rest they’d need to close the game down. They now get two days off to think about the loss, regroup, and hopefully get Bynum healthy enough to contribute. I’m surely disappointed that the Lakers didn’t take advantage of their chances and grab that 3-1 lead, but a 2-2 tie is faaar from the end of the world. And in a series where neither team has won two in a row, I think there are things to feel good about going into game 5. So, stew on this loss Lakers (and us fans), but don’t fret too much. Another chance is coming and if this series has taught us anything, the Lakers will be ready to compete and be in the game at the end with a chance to win.