Team brilliance will always trump individual brilliance. The Lakers learned that lesson (again) when they fell to the Celtics 109-96.
Really the key to this game was the fact that down the stretch the Celtics pounded away with their deliberate offensive sets and smothering D while the Lakers’ offense stagnated into a Kobe-centric attack while their defense completely abandoned them. And while Kobe was tremendous and did his best by knocking down increasingly more difficult shots in the 2nd half, his 41 points just weren’t enough to keep the team in the game.
And mostly that brings us back to the fact that the Lakers defense was not up to standard. In the 2nd half the Lakers were outscored 59-42 as the C’s were able to get too many good looks by simply executing their sets and riding the hot hand of Paul Pierce (who we’ll get to in a second). On countless possessions the C’s got the ball into the spots that they wanted by using their screen actions and by going into the post to KG. This led to the Lakers losing their defensive integrity as they consistently over-helped and ball watched to the point that other C’s were able to get open shots against scrambling defenders. One play that repeatedly hurt the team was the baseline screen action to free shooters that could either run strong side off a double screen or to the weak side off a single screen to receive the pass. Ray Allen and Nate Robinson consistently got free on this set as Kobe, Shannon, and Blake kept trying to go top side on the screen only to get beat on the fade to the corner where the shooter would get up his attempt without a good contest. At one point early in the 4th quarter the Celtics ran this set on back to back plays, with both three point shots falling and the lead subsequently being extended from 3 to 9 in the blink of an eye.
But the real key to the C’s offensive attack and the Lakers’ defensive breakdowns was the fact that Paul Pierce just refused to be guarded effectively all game. Ron Artest was completely outclassed by Pierce, who got quality shot after quality shot all night against him. It wasn’t so much that Ron wasn’t contesting Pierce’s shot, it was the fact that he surrendered position so easily and allowed Pierce to get to his favorite spots on the floor. Pierce brilliantly worked the shallow wing and the elbow area all game and found relatively easy 12-15 foot jumpers as his reward for beating defenders off the dribble. And when Pierce wasn’t working in isolation, he was floating around the perimeter, using screens and losing defenders to get up uncontested three pointers. On the day, Pierce scored 32 points on only 18 shots and did an excellent job of carrying the C’s offense when they needed a boost and then deferring to others when his mates finally found their groove.
But while I give full credit to the Celtics for taking this game (especially in the 2nd half), I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Lakers didn’t aid their cause with their lack of assertiveness. Outside of Kobe, you’d be hard pressed to find more than one or two Lakers that played well or brought the requisite aggressiveness for more than short stretches. Lamar Odom had a good first half and ended the game with good numbers (15 points, 5 rebounds) but receded from the action for a lot of the 2nd half when the C’s pulled away. Bynum seemed to be hampered by a sore knee (it looked like the left rather than the braced up right) and didn’t have the explosion or the want to contest shots around the rim that he’s shown in recent weeks. I mentioned that Ron didn’t do a very good job on Pierce, but he also struggled mightily on offense, shooting 1-10 from the floor for 3 points. And Pau Gasol simply had an awful all around game, only making 5 of his 13 FGA’s and grabbing more offensive rebounds (4) than defensive ones (3).
You’ll notice, that I listed every Laker big man as a player that had below average impact on the game and that led to the Lakers getting out-rebounded 43-30 and them doing a poor job of controlling both the offensive and defensive paint.
I know it will be easy to look at this game and think it was 2008 all over again, but actually this game reminded me more of game 5 of last year’s Finals (here is the boxscore – see the similarities?). If you recall, in that game, Kobe went off for 38 points but the Lakers ultimately lost as their offensive and defensive execution failed them down the stretch. This game mirrored that one to these eyes because as the Lakers as a team struggled to put together complete possessions, the game then became one in which the Lakers became overly dependent on Kobe doing too much on both sides of the ball to try and pull out the win.
In the end, frustration is sure to be at a high after a game like this. They led the game after 24 minutes and several times in the 2nd half the Lakers were well within striking distance and couldn’t get over the hump because their execution failed them. They allowed the C’s to push them off their spots while granting them the courtesy not doing the same in return. Considering those facts, this game should have been a loss. But when actually watching the game there were so many times that one rebound or one or one defensive stop could have made it so the outcome was different. And in a way, that’s encouraging for me rather than discouraging because, as we’ve mentioned a lot around these parts, building towards the playoffs is a process. This team is not there yet (obviously) but as Phil Jackson said after the game I think they’ll get there.