Some games just mean more. Regardless of circumstances, home or away, who’s active or not, certain opponents just bring out that strong desire to win. The Celtics are one such (the only?) team that does that for the Lakers and its fans. And tonight, the fans of the forum blue and gold got what they’ve been wanting all year, a quality win against that hated rival (who doubles as an elite team) downing the C’s 92-86 to earn their 3rd straight road win.
The way this game started, though, you had to question if the Lakers really would end the night on top. Riding the high of Ray Allen pursuing the all time 3 point makes record, the C’s were amped up and their crowd was too. And looking to capitalize on that early energy the C’s ran play after play for Allen by running him off screens on seemingly every possession to get him in a rhythm while also putting points up on the board. And while Ray didn’t hit any threes off these early sets, the C’s did establish an early offensive flow with Ray getting free for jumpers and knocking them down against a Lakers D that couldn’t quite sort out their defense. By the time that Ray Allen hit his record tying three on a play where Fisher got caught in no man’s land helping on a KG post up and then hit the record breaker off a Laker turnover, the C’s seemed to be in full control of the game with it looking like a good possibility that they could run away with this game.
However, breaking that record may have actually been the worst thing that could have happened to the C’s all night. Because even though the crowd cheered like crazy and the PA announcer kept the celebration going through the 1st quarter break, the C’s and the fans cheering them on seemed to lose their energy. And at the same time, the Lakers began to really focus in. After losing the first period by 7, the Lakers battled back in the 2nd period (at one point going down by as many as 15) and only trailed by 8 going into halftime due to a late run before the intermission. They forced a couple of turnovers, got the ball inside, earned some FT’s, and by the time the halftime horn sounded the Lakers had taken the momentum from the C’s and shown that they were ready to compete.
In the 2nd half, the Lakers simply finished the job. They opened the 3rd period with a D-Fish 3 pointer. That was followed by a Kobe “and one” where he drove to his left and finished a wrong legged runner off the glass after taking the hit by Ray Allen. And while the C’s then countered with two straight baskets of their own, the tone was set. The Lakers were back in this game and the C’s were going to have to ratchet up their intensity and precision to match the Lakers’.
But Boston just couldn’t do it; the Lakers level of execution was just too good on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, the Lakers simply started to clamp down. They forced more turnovers, drew offensive fouls, and contested shots expertly. They made the key adjustments on defending Allen’s screens by having the big men guarding the screener take an extra step out to help deny passes while also allowing the trailing guard time to recover. This made it so Allen couldn’t shake free to create enough space to get off his jumper and the misses followed. Meanwhile Ron Artest hounded Paul Pierce all over the court to the point that PP never got comfortable or found a rhythm. Even when Pierce did get to his favorite spots on the floor Ron simply bodied him up and used his length to bother the shot. When the C’s went to 1/3 P&R’s to force switches between Ron and Kobe, Kobe used the same technique of bumping Pierce above the foul line and then leaning on him to make his patented fade away come up short. The defense by the Lakers bigs was just as great, though. I already mentioned the job the bigs did in helping on the C’s baseline screens, but any time a Celtic got into the paint, Bynum, Gasol, and Odom were there to contest and alter the look.
But where the Lakers really did their damage was on offense. Typically, when facing the Celtics, a team will struggle to score and have to grind out the win with defense. Tonight though, the Lakers again showed that when they really want to lock in on offense they can get good looks and force even the best defenses into positions where they’ll struggle to get stops.
Starting in the 3rd quarter the Lakers simply started to space the floor better and it led to type of offense that I think we’ve all been waiting to see. Good passes, solid screens, excellent off ball work, and quick decisions conspired to make the Celtics’ D look beyond mortal. Best yet, it was the little wrinkles and the subtleties to their actions that really made the offense hum. A weak side post up at the elbow yielded a turn around jumper for Kobe. On the next possession the Lakers ran the same action and got the same results. Two possessions later Kobe worked on the strong side of the offense, drove baseline, drew three defenders and then dropped a perfect pass to a diving Gasol for a lay in. And then, with a minute left in the game, Kobe called his own number again with an isolation at the top of the circle breaking down Ray Allen with a beautiful between the legs crossover that led to another elbow jumper that ultimately sealed the game. For those that are counting at home Kobe poured in 8 of the Lakers last 10 points and the two he didn’t score he assisted on.
But the best part was that none of it was forced. The Lakers took the ball out of Kobe’s hands, planted him on the weak side and made the Celtics choose. They could play their strong side scheme straight up and focus mostly on containing the ball or they could shift towards Kobe on the opposite side and have to deal with the strong side actions of the Triangle. The best action that the Lakers incorporated in the above sequence of Kobe’s shots was when Pau and Kobe set up on the weak side of the floor and ran a simple down screen action while Odom handled the ball up high with Fisher and Ron flanking him on the strong side. With Odom making a three pointer earlier the quarter he was a serious threat and with Ron and Fish executing cuts to occupy their defenders, Kobe and Pau’s two man game got #24 the most open jumper he’d take the entire night. So simple, yet so deadly. Especially to a team that wants to swarm the ball handler and focus on limiting penetration, but how do you account for a team’s two best offensive threats playing off the ball?
In the end, this was a win we all wanted and are very happy to have gotten. And while the nuance and execution exhibited on both sides of the ball was great to see, I was most pleased with the Lakers ability to dial in and focus in the 2nd half. This game looked like it was going to get away from the Lakers early, but instead they stayed poised and aggressive playing smart basketball and got the victory. After the first quarter the Lakers had an offensive efficiency of 114.3 and held the Celtics to a rating of 93.7 on the other end. Being able to turn their games around to reach those marks is pretty impressive. Especially in a big game against a tough team on the road. Regardless of who suited up (and to be fair, the C’s were missing several reserves and Nate Robinson left the game with an injury as well), this game mattered to both sides and the Lakers took it. Here’s hoping they ride this emotion into New York tomorrow to pull out another.