Paul Pierce was wrong.
Either late tonight or early tomorrow morning, both the Lakers and the Celtics will be returning to Los Angeles to continue competing in the NBA Finals. But it will be the results of tonight’s game that put one of these teams in prime position to win the championship. The winner of tonight’s game 5 will only need one more vicotory to claim the 2010 NBA title. I’ve thought for a little while now that the first team to 3 wins will take this series. And after seeing how these Finals have become a back and forth affair where no team can really get a foothold by winning more than one game in a row, I believe this even more. Believe me, I’d much rather be in the Lakers position with 2 games waiting in my home arena, but having to win 2 consecutive games to take this series is going to be difficult for either team regardless of location. So if game 4 was a must win for the Celtics, I see this as a must win for both teams. Neither group wants to be one loss away from elimination.
And to earn this win, the question (again) is who will step up and play at that high level and give the performance that their team can hang their hat on? Kelly Dwyer is looking for Kobe Bryant to be that player and to a large extent I agree. I’ve talked a great deal about how the Lakers can try to crack the code of Boston’s defense; how they can run actions within the Triangle to get Pau good shots. How if they screen hard and cut hard they’ll not only get good looks in the post but other players moving off the ball will find the creases in the defense to get the makeable shots that every offense craves. But, Dwyer is also correct that this Celtics’ defense is a tremendous outfit that is taking nearly every first – not to mention second and sometimes third – option away. And when that’s the case, you need that tremendous effort from the nearly unguardable player to get points.
And in this series, that player is Kobe. Kobe will need his jumper tonight. He’ll need that excellent first step. He’ll need to draw fouls, get to the foul line, and take the momentum of the game in his hands and control it the way a samurai wields his sword. I’m not looking for Kobe to be the hero and play one on five. I’m looking for Kobe to control the game – there is a difference. He was able to achieve this against Utah and Phoenix by going into the post and making an unbelievable number of contested jumpers. Tonight, he may need to do the same to keep it so the Lakers never do trail in this series. I want to see him attack early and not depend on reading the defense at every turn to get a shot. I want to see him get the Celtics on their heels by using all facets of his tremendous skill set. Kobe knows the stakes, I think he’s ready to give one of those performances that make him the Kobe that we’ve followed his entire career.
But Kobe will also need help. Help that a good-to-go Andrew Bynum can hopefully provide. We all saw how having Bynum not able to play his normal share of minutes affected game 4. The C’s scored inside at will and owned the rebounding battle by grabbing 16 offensive rebounds. So having ‘Drew back will be major boost. Phil’s looking for 24 minutes from Bynum and if that can be provided, I think the Lakers will be able to effectively stagnate the C’s defense in the manner they have for most of this series.
The other player I’m looking to is Lamar Odom. He’s been a whipping boy around these parts for some time and his performance in this series has only raised the decibel level from those that rail against his inconsistencies. However, we also all know that Odom can be a difference maker. Odom knows this fact as well. But if LO is going to have the impact on this game that we know is possible, he’s going to have to get back to doing “Lamar” types of things. That means rebounding on the defensive end and pushing the ball back at Boston (like he did on a play in game 4 where he grabbed a rebound, pushed the ball, kicked ahead to Pau, then got the ball back and finished with an and one). It also means getting back to being active on the defensive end by hustling around the court, trapping ball handlers, and then recovering back to the defensive glass to rebound. Odom can not be a spectator for any of the minutes he spends between the lines tonight; he must be the player that is assertive and grabbing at the action with his long left arm. LO is capable of changing the tenor of a game and there would be no better night than tonight to make that happen.
The Celtics are also going to have their say in how this game plays out. They’re going to try and build on their success of game 4 and take their first series lead tonight. They’ll surely look to get Ray Allen back on track while also looking to get a sustained performance from Paul Pierce (who had a very good 1st quarter of game 4 with a dwindling impact over the rest of the game). Another key for the C’s will be getting Rondo going again after not doing much of consequence after his triple-double in game 2. He is the conduit for their most successful brand of basketball and it’s no wonder that the C’s have performed no where near their peak with Rondo not performing up to the standard that he’d set for most of these playoffs. And we can’t forget that they’ll try to accomplish of this while continuing to play their stifling defense.
There are obviously more keys than the ones that I’ve mentioned – rebounding, playing with poise, making the little plays that generate momentum for your side or taking it away from your opponent – but in the end, these teams are so familiar with each other that one of the aforementioned factors will likely tilt this game in either the Lakers or Celtics’ favor.
And so here we are. The NBA Finals have been reduced to a best of three series and tonight’s game is a major opportunity to gain the advantage that was not possible before this point. As I mentioned, tonight’s winner will be on the precipice of claiming a championship by getting to 3 wins. The stakes have never been higher. Tonight we see which team has what it takes to go back to LA with the series lead that will likely be the difference in the ultimate outcome of the Finals. Phil Jackson has been mentally prepping his team to be the team that achieves just that. Let’s see if they can go get it. Game on.