Records: Lakers 36-16 (3rd in West), Celtics 38-13 (1st in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.4 (2nd in NBA), Celtics 107.7 (13th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (11th in NBA), Celtics 100.1 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Celtics: Marquise Daniels & Jermaine O’Neal (out), Shaquille O’Neal & Delonte West (doubtful), Semih Erden (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: The first two games of the Grammy road trip have been wins and the Lakersseem to be finding their stride a bit. Surely the team could be playing better but I think we’re all happy with the wins just the same. At least, I am. I think Kobe said it best in a sit down with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski when he stated that patience is needed and that the regular season is a process where making progress towards the end goal is one of the major parts of any season. I know it’s easy to get frustrated with the up and down nature of a long season, but along those same lines I’m still of the mindset that I’d like the Lakers to be playing their best ball come May and June. If that means taking some lumps in December – February, I’ll livewith that if it helps prepare the team for the second season.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m anxious to start winning games against the cream of the crop teams in this league. I do believe that habits are formed in the regular season and I don’t think losing all of these games to the very best teams is a good one to allow to take hold. So, of course I’m looking for a win tonight as I’d love to get on track with some payback for the C’s win in Staples just 11 days ago.
The Celtics Coming in: Rather than give you my specific thoughts on where the Celtics are coming into this game, I had the chance to exchange emails with Ryan DeGama of Celtics Hub about the C’s in general and tonight’s game. He was gracious enough to answer my questions with some strong insight. Below is our brief Q & A:
Q: I see the recent loss of Marquis Daniels for up to 2 months as a real loss to the Celtics. He seemed to be the only viable backup at SF and also a guy that could take over ball handling duties as a SG when paired withNate Robinson. How do you envision the Celtics dealing with his absence? How will it affect Doc’s rotations against the Lakers in that there seems to be a lack of a secondary wing defender to put on Kobe?
A: The Celtics need to acquire another wing defender. Simple as that. Daniels has played well this season but his injury history has always suggested he would miss a long stretch of games. The nature of his current injury means that even if he returns to the lineup, he can’t be counted on to stay there.
Moreover, the lack of a big, tough wing defender off the bench is one of the Celtics’ less-publicized vulnerabilities. Paul Pierce struggled mightily to generate offense in the playoffs last year while covering Lebron James. Andthat was with Tony Allen to help him.
Until Danny Ainge can make a move, Doc Rivers will (yet again) patch together lineups filled with mixed parts. Expect long minutes for Ray Allen tonight on Kobe, and Pierce should get some time on him as well. Kobe may even see a little bit of Von Wafer; C’s fans have been clamoring for him to get extended minutes and this might be his chance.
Q: In the past few games that I’ve seen, I’ve noticed a more aggressive Rajon Rondo. He seems to be looking for his own shot more, thus impacting the game as a scorer as well as with his ability distribute and set up his teammates. Have my eyes been deceiving me? Do you think this will last and should the Lakersbe concerned with him actively looking for his own shot more?
A: As you know, Rondo creates rotational havoc for defenses when he breaks them down off the dribble. He also has the passing skills to take advantage of open men as he barrels down the lane. Doc wants him to take full advantage of those skills, having recently challenged Rondo to get to the line ten times a game. He’s been more aggressive recently as a result, but with so many offensive weapons on this Celtics team, there will continue to be nights where Rondo doesn’t call his own number as much as you have observed lately. If the C’s are scoring, that’s not really a problem.
Q: Out of all the Celtics, who do you think is most important to the team’s success versus the Lakers?
A: It’s probably Rondo, in that the Lakers defensive schemes have frustrated him in the past, but we’vetalked enough about him so I’ll suggest Paul Pierce instead. He’s got major responsibilities on both sides of the ball against L.A.
On the offensive side, Pierce needs to generate scores like he did in the 2008 finals, both in the flow of the offense, and by breaking down his defender to get to his favorite spots on the floor for good looks. The Celtics don’t actively look for ISOs but Pierce is still their best option when the shot clock is winding down and somebody needs to make something out of nothing.
On the defensive side, Ray Allen does a credible job covering Kobe but it’s Pierce that has stepped up and bothered him the most for key stretches the last few years.The C’s are going to need that from their captain if these two teams line up against each other in June.
Celtics Blogs: Obviously, Celtics Hub is a great place to get strong insight and analysis on the C’s. Also be sure to check out the fine work at Celtics Blog, one of the long tenured hoops sites that continues to churn out high quality work. UPDATE: As part of my email exchange with Ryan at Celtics Hub, I also answered some questions of his on the state of the Lakers. You can read them here.
Keys to game: We all know the drill by now when it comes to match ups with the Celtics. They’ll play a smothering style of defense that wants to limit penetration by cutting off dribble penetration and passing lanes to the middle while also encouraging isolation play by ball handlers on the perimeter. Boston feasts on wing players that try to attack from outside the three point line and play a version of a strong side zone with some of the best help and recovery you’ll see in the league.
In order to beat that type of defensive approach the Lakers need to get back to basics on offense. That means three simple principles. First is entering the ball into the post. Whether on the strong or weak side of the Triangle, the Lakers must find a way to get their post players touches. As I mentioned, the C’s want offenses to base their attack from perimeter so even a simple post entry starts to force them into help positions where the defense shifts towards the ball. Second, the Lakers need to cut and screen with purpose. Boston is a ball conscious team. They consistently want to harass and swarm ball handlers (especially Kobe) and the way to beat that type of aggression is to move well off the ball by cutting into open space and screening for teamamtes to do the same. I’d like to see as little standing around as possible and have the Lakers offensive players moving in unison off the ball to free themselves up. Hopefully their extended film session yesterday encourages this. Third, the Lakers need to be decisive. Attack quickly and trust that everyone will be where they’re supposed to on offense. Shoot when open and crash the offensive glass hard. If the Lakers do these three things they’ll score enough points.
That brings us to the other side of the ball. Defensively, the Lakers must find a way to disrupt the screen game that the C’s base their offense around. Obviously Boston has great individual pieces, but their goal isn’t an isolation play for Pierce or Allen or KG, it’s to set a multitude of screens for Allen or Pierce and then move well off those actions to create multiple openings for Rondo to choose from. That means the Lakers are going to need to communicate on defense, fight hard through screens, while also showing big man help on these actions to delay Rondo’s passes to curling/fading teammates coming off those picks. And please, for goodness sakes, play the screens straight up and do not try to shoot the gap on Ray Allen coming off the baseline picks the C’s run on nearly every possession (I’m looking at you Shannon, and you too, Kobe). There’s a reason that Ray Allen is set to break the all-time 3 point makes record. He’s not only a tremendous shooter, but he knows how to move off the ball and read how a defense is playing him coming off picks. Too often the Lakers try to shoot the gap on a pick and Ray simply fades off the screen to get himself open. Make him come off the pick into a curl and into the big man help.
Two other keys to this game will be rebounding and turnovers. Boston, for all their size and “toughness” aren’t a great rebounding team. As our friends at HoopData tell us, Boston is ranked only 18th in total rebound rate this year. Meanwhile the Lakers are 3rd in total rebound rate and 5thin offensive rebound rate. As we saw in last year’s Finals, the team that wins the battle of boards in this match up wins the game. That trend held up in the game 11 days ago too. So, the Lakers need to control the glass. As for turnovers, Boston has the 4th highest turnover rate in the league. They will cough up the ball with careless passes and Rondo will try to make the spectacular pass in order to pad his assist totals. The Lakers must take advantage of the C’s mishaps while also limiting their own turnovers as allowing the C’s to get out in transition is a bad idea.
Speaking of transition, the Lakers must know who they’re playing tonight. When the opening is there, Rondo loves to push the ball in order to collapse the D and then kick the ball back out to trailing shooters that get to step into their three point attempts. Both Allen and Pierce thrive in these situations so the Lakers must get back on D but mark Boston’s shooters and run them off the line in transition. The last thing the Lakers want is a cheering Boston crowd celebrating a wide open three that just got knocked down.
In the end, I could write 500 more words on keys to this game but I’ll spare you more words about foul trouble, bench play, and coaching adjustments. We all know what this game means and what it takes to beat the Celtics. Beyond the X’s and O’s and the individual match ups, this game will come down to poise, execution, and toughness (both mental and physical). The team that shows more of these qualities for longer in the game will likely be ahead when the final buzzer sounds. Here’s to it being the Lakers. Let’s get this win.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time out West on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radi on 710am.