Lakers Live To Fight Another Day

Darius Soriano —  June 15, 2010

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Before game 6 there was a nervousness amongst us fans; there was an anxiety.  I mean, you never quite know how a team is going to respond in an elimination game.  Were the Lakers going to be tight?  Maybe they’d be too excited?  In what was sure to be an emotion filled game, would the Lakers be able to channel their those emotions into positive play?  I don’t think anyone was sure.  Well, after the Lakers beat the Celtics 89-67, I think we found out.  The Lakers weren’t tight.  They were ready.  Ready to compete; ready to give their all to ensure that there would not be any regrets.  Just as we asked before the contest, the Lakers left it all on the floor and gave 100% effort in trying to secure that fateful game 7.

And that was the story of this game.  The Lakers just had an….energy.  In an email to me after the game, Phillip described many of the ways that the Lakers’ energy helped carry them to this victory:

One of the main differences between Game 5 and Game 6 was the energy from the Lakers. They came out playing hard, and it carried throughout the course of the game. 48 minutes of energetic play from this Lakers team almost always leads to a win. They scrambled for all of the 50/50 balls, Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher spent a considerable amount of time on the hardwood diving for loose balls, they actually boxed out – which led to a 52-39 rebound advantage. And as Games 1 through 5 went, the team that finished with more rebounds finished on top after the final buzzer sounded.

More importantly, the Lakers increased team effort made life much easier on Kobe Bryant. Getting some easy buckets early from offensive rebounds and steals got their collective confidence rising, which led to some shots going in for other guys. Lamar Odom was active, Jordan Farmar had some huge hustle plays, Shannon Brown put down a couple of building erupting dunks and the Kobe/Gasol contingent were able to have the games we’ve become accustomed to over the course of the past three years.

On top of their increased offensive efficiency because of increased activity, their defensive intensity was able to remain consistent for the full game. It was much easier for them to stay in tuned on the defensive end when they were feeling good about how they were operating offensively. This kind of effort would have been huge in both Games 4 and 5, but in this situation, it’s better late than never, and we have to be extremely happy with the overall team effort tonight.

And as Phillip mentioned, the energy really led to a much improved defense.  And what’s the motto?  That’s right, the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.  Tonight, the Lakers defense was dominant and it took them right to a blowout victory.  The Lakers showed much better discipline on that side of the ball – rotating well, contesting shots, and helping each other at every turn.  In the comments, Zephid made an excellent point about how the Lakers responded to a play that repeatedly killed them in game 5 – Paul Pierce’s elbow jumper:

The one play (the Lakers) completely took away was the Paul Pierce drive to the paint. When Pierce drove, Artest funneled him to Gasol who was waiting for him at the top of the key, forcing Pierce to go toward the corner instead of toward the rim. Then Gasol and Artest would form an aggressive double, cutting off the passing lanes to the paint and across the court. This left the only outlet pass to be back up the side, which was in turn cut off by Kobe, Fisher, and Farmar all on separate occasions, leading to easy baskets or free throws on the other end. Given that the Paul Pierce isolation is one of the Celtics key plays, taking it away really destroyed the effectiveness of their offense.

As Zephid mentioned, I think a lot of credit must go to Artest for his initial defense on Pierce.  Artest consistently forced Pierce to his left hand and used his reach and quick hands to disrupt his dribble and keep Pierce off balance.  Pierce never really looked comfortable and most of his looks at the hoop were either out of rhythm or forced when trying to find it.  But Ron’s defense was only was aspect of his good night.  Ron also found his groove on offense.  He made 6 of his 11 shots (including 3 of 6 from three point land), scoring 15 points and finding the rhythm that he denied Pierce for most of the evening.  After the game, Phil talked about how the Lakers tried to get Ron the ball in position where he didn’t have to make as many reads within the sets and could just concentrate on shooting the ball.

But it wasn’t only Ron that stepped up from a support role.  The Lakers bench – as a whole – really raised their respective games.  Phillip already mentioned the hustle plays from Farmar and the fantastic dunks from Shannon, but even though those were big plays their nights were more than just some highlights we’ll see tonight on Sports Center.  They played with a poise and confidence that had been missing for most of this series and they were a big difference.  And it wasn’t just those two.  Sasha also stepped up big in this game by making shots and defending with effort but without fouling.  I’m not saying these guys played perfect as there were still some forced passes, missed reads, and a couple of ill advised shots.  But when it was all said and done, the Lakers trio of back up guards gave them strong play in the biggest game of the season and they deserve some recognition for their strong play on both ends of the floor.

Also stepping up from his bench role was Odom.  He may have only finished with 8 points on 9 shots, but that familiar bounce to his step was back.  He was rebounding the ball (10 collected caroms total) and pushing the pace.  He was organizing the Lakers sets, directing traffic, and giving his bench mates an earful when they did something that wasn’t beneficial to the team.  Odom the leader of the second unit was back tonight and it was much needed considering the sputtering health of Andrew Bynum.  Because as big ‘Drew could only find enough strength in his balky knee to play 16 minutes, it was Odom that stepped up and filled in in the manner that we all expect from him.

But, those support players could only play the role that they did because of the leadership from Kobe and Pau.  The two Laker stars controlled this game fully and put their stamp on this contest from the opening tip.  Kobe especially was masterful, balancing his scoring and playmaking like he has for so many other games in these playoffs.  He ended the night with 26 points on 9-19 shooting while making all 7 of his free throws.  The Lakers made some beautiful tweaks to their offense by using Kobe more off the ball, running him off screens, and sending him to the low post more often.  By using him in this manner, the Lakers were able to maximize his energy used and make his life a lot easier on the offensive end by not forcing him to constantly work in isolation at the top of the key where he had to use his dribble to break down the entire Celtic defense on his own.  But, his game was so much more than his excellence on offense.  Again, I’ll let Zephid do the honors:

Kobe Bryant was a leader in all facets of this game. Whether it was ripping down rebounds, getting steals, pushing the ball in the open court, getting his teammates wide open shots, or hitting his patented impossible jumpers, Kobe was everywhere and doing everything.

And then there was Pau.  After an admittedly poor showing in game 5, the big Spaniard had a real bounce back game 6.  He was the best player in the paint on both ends of the floor and showed what he could do when put in better positions to succeed.  Working most of his night from the elbow, Gasol controlled the action as a true fulcrum to the Lakers sets.  He was equal parts scorer and passer racking up 19 points and 9 assists all while dealing with a variety of C’s defenders.  He also hit the boards hard securing 13 rebounds (5 offensive) to leave him only 1 assist shy of a triple double.  You combine that with his 3 blocks, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers (a fantastic number considering how often the Lakers ran their sets through him) and you could easily argue that he was the player of the game despite the tremendous game from Kobe.  Really, Gasol was that good.

In the end, this was just a great game from the Lakers.  Facing elimination, they had their best defensive performance of the playoffs and brought back a level of execution to their offense that’d been missing for the past 3 games.  But, there is no time to celebrate.  This game did not clinch a title, it only gave them the chance to fight another day.  So while we can celebrate this win, it – like 14 other wins these playoffs – are now in the past.  The goal is to get to 16 wins and all that should be on the mind of the Lakers is repeating this level of performance on Thursday.  Because this is the level of performance it will take to win the championship in game 7.  The Lakers will need the same energy, the same intensity, and the same level of execution.  They’ll need to navigate a sure to be better Boston team that will also be playing with their backs against the wall for their playoff lives and the chance to win the title that they too covet.  And while the injuries to Bynum and the freshly banged up Perkins (who, I did not mention “sprained” a knee – though it looked much worse than a sprain) will likely impact what both teams can do on Thursday, no excuses will be made and nothing will be held back.  On Thursday, the Lakers and the Celtics will play a gamee 7 for the NBA Championship and it’s surely to be epic.  I can’t wait.

Darius Soriano

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