Last night’s loss was tough to stomach. The Celtics didn’t just win, but they controlled the tempo, they dictated the Lakers offense and had their most impressive offensive performance of these Finals, shooting 56 percent from the field including 66 percent in the first half – but it never seemed as if the game was out of reach until the final buzzer rang. On the flip side, the Lakers never were in sync offensively, it was one of their worst defensive performances this post season and they weren’t able to make any of the big plays the Celtics were able to make down the stretch, but still, a comeback didn’t seem improbable until the game was actually over.
The Lakers came out early and were aggressive attacking the rim. The ball went to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum early and often, the theme for the Lakers this post season. Bynum was much more active than he was in Game 4 and combined with Derek Fisher to score the Lakers first 15 points of the game with ‘Drew scoring six of the 15. And that’s exactly what the Lakers wanted early – good contributions from guys not named Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to open up things for their stars later in the game.
The problem is, things really didn’t open up for anyone later in the game as the Celtics defense was stingy all night. We got to spend the first half watching the Boston defense put a clinic on how to stop a star with team defense and it started with Ray Allen. Allen did a great job of just being in a position to get a hand up on all of Kobe’s jumpers. The Celtics did what they could to funnel Kobe to where help would be and forcing other guys to make shots. Early in the game, I sent Darius a text saying that the Lakers success is going to depend on whether or not role players were going to be able to knock down the wide open looks they were going to be given – in Game 5, they didn’t knock down those shots.
Ron Artest was the recipient of a lot of those Kobe passes out of double teams and ended up shooting two for nine. Derek Fisher contributed zero points after scoring nine of the first 15 for the Lakers – he also shot two for nine. Jordan Farmar? 0 for four. The Celtics have decided that they’re just going to pack the paint and force Kobe to make contested jumpers or take their chances with the Lakers other parameter guys, and it’s working. Not only does this bring down the efficiency of the Lakers parameter players, but it reduces the overall efficiency of the offense. By packing the paint, they’ve made it much easier to defend Pau Gasol, who has seen his productivity decrease significantly since averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds in the first two games of this series. In Game 5, he had a line of 12 and 12, a far cry from his 23 and 14 performance in Game 1. The Celtics have a great defensive scheme, and the Lakers have made it easy on them by not moving the ball and not dribbling with purpose. They’ve taken way too many outside jumpers, which have led to better scoring opportunities for the Celtics.
However, it would be irresponsible to just blame this loss on the Lakers collective lack of offensive efficiency. They were just terrible defensively. Paul Pierce went to work on the Lakers early, and the Celtics found something that the Lakers had trouble defending. Instead of trying to free up Paul Pierce in screen and roll situations, they simply put him in iso situations and allowed him to go to work. I haven’t seen so many 1-4 low sets for one offensive player in a very long time. Pierce scored affectively against Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton. He was able to hit big-shot-after-big-shot, even some extremely tough ones with a defender draped all over him, and when he was double-teamed, he made the right plays – and when he didn’t make the play, other guys stepped up. Kendrick Perkins had a nice tip over Gasol. Rajon Rondo had a HUGE tip in over Kobe and LO.
It was those kind of plays that made all of the difference in this game. Tony Allen had that block on Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce made that great pass to an alert Rajon Rondo on that crucial inbounds play. Down the stretch for the Lakers, the watch rebounds go off of their hands out of bounds, they missed free throws and didn’t grab loose balls. The Celtics made all of the hustle plays down the stretch after Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo put them in a position to win it.
I will say that Kobe did have an ultra explosive third quarter. He scored 17 of his 19 points in the first six minutes of the quarter. There was a point where he had scored 23 straight for the Lakers and had 10 of the Lakers 20 field goals. Kobe literally kept the Lakers within reach hitting some of the toughest jump shots you’re going to see a man make, but it just wasn’t enough. Kobe dropping 38 would have gotten the Lakers a victory against the Suns, Jazz or Thunder, but not against a Boston team that is going to make the little plays that win championships.
The series shifts back to Los Angeles for Games 6 and 7, and if the Lakers are going to pull this thing out, they’re going to have to tighten up their defense and move the ball offensively. It’s not something that cannot be done, but those are the kind of things that make champions. Tuesday we’re going to find out if this Lakers team has the resolve to bounce back from being down in a playoff series. I know that they have all of the tools to get it done, it’s just a matter of focus and execution.