Archives For Finals 2010

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Basketball, like life, is about progression.  While there are valuable lessons to be learned from the past, the point is not to live on any past accomplishments or relive past failures, but to take the next step forward and improve on what’s happened. 

And this is where the Lakers are in this series with the Boston Celtics.  It’s obvious that the Lakers have learned and grown since their 2008 Finals defeat; game 1’s victory showed that fact over and over again.  The Lakers were able to get to the basket frequently, they were able to out muscle the team that many have said is stronger, they were able to out strategize and out execute the team that relies on such things to win their games.

But game 1’s effort and execution is yesterday’s news.  Just like the loss of 2008, it can be drawn on as experience and as a blueprint for what works and what doesn’t, but it can’t be used as anything more than that.  The only thing that is carried over from Thursday’s win is the result.  Boston will not come out defeated in the next contest just because the last one ended that way.  And if the Lakers expect to repeat in victory in game 2 (and as champions at the conclusion of this series), they’ll need to do more than just recall what worked, they’ll need to do what worked.  And they’ll need to compensate for what the Celtics will change, as changes are surely coming considering so much of what they tried in game 1 did not work. 

So, once again, we talk adjustments.   In an email exchange I had with Kwame A., he passed along some of things that he thinks the Celtics may try to implement in order to have a more successful game 2:

1st Adjustment: Pierce Defending Kobe. 
I think Pierce will get the bulk of the minutes on Kobe. Doc hopes this will have a two-fold effect. 

One-this will allow the Celts to contain Kobe on the perimeter more, forcing him into lower percentage shots, keeping him out of the lane, and not allowing him to create shots (or second shots) for teammates. 

Two-this will allow the Celts to keep the most important offensive weapon-Jesus Shuttlesworth-out of foul trouble, and available to take Fish and Sasha on the maze of screens he enjoys coming off of and draining sweet jumpers.  We have a counter for their inside game (our length), we have a counter for their go-to scorer (Ron-Ron), we don’t have a counter for Ray Allen and those damn highly effective, 63% of the time illegal, screens he comes of off. 

Like we mentioned in the preview, Allen coming off these screens opens up passing lanes for Rondo, open looks for Boston bigs and those are things we didn’t allow in game 1.  Weird enough, the best way to ensure Allen is on the floor to do this, is with Pierce on Kobe.

I hope that the Lakers don’t let this affect them.  They cannot counter this with an emphasized effort to get Ron the rock on the block.  They have to keep running their sets, and trust Kobe to keep the offense rolling.

2nd Adjustment: More Sheed

Again-this has a two-fold effect.  One-Sheed was the best defender on Pau in game 1.  He blocked a hook, and also was able to move better with Pau than KG could.  Wallace, for everything said about him, is a damn good post defender, and even though Perk was there for the ’08 run, Doc may defer to Sheed and allow him the most minutes against the Lakers most important offensive weapon. 

Two-Sheed opens things up a little offensively for the
C’s.  Without James Posey, the C’s only have 1 full-time threat on the perimeter-Ray-Ray, and another scorer (ADA wheelchair compliant Paul Pierce) who can masquerade as a 3pt threat.  Outside of that, Sheed is their best outside weapon.  When he is in the game, Garnett has more space to operate on the block, and Rondo and Pierce have a legitimate release valve on the perimeter when the drive to the hoop.

3rd Adjustment: More 1-4 Flat Sets For Pierce:

Paul Pierce was having a very hard time getting the ball in a position to score.  This was evidenced by his 9 field goal attempts.  Granted, he took 13 freebies, but still, this suggests Artest did a great job keeping Pierce away from his sweet spots.  To get Pierce a better chance to work in space, and to give him better passing angels on the drive, we may see lots of 1-4 flat sets featuring Pierce up top with the ball.  With their starters, this could allow them to let Allen camp out in the corner (preventing help), while leaving Perk underneath for boards and dunks, Rondo roaming and cutting and Garnett cherry picking spots on the high post to drill from.  The Lakers will have to have their rotations together for this attack.  Kobe must be vigilant not to allow Rondo a free layup on a simple cut, and Pau cannot allow Garnett to get going from 17 feet. This is why timely help by Drew-which he did quite effectively in Game 1, will continue to be key for the Lakers.

4th Adjustment:  The C’s will shrink the floor

Doc Rivers said it explicitly in the post game presser.  They want to shrink the floor.  This was what made Kobe a 40pct in the ’08 finals.  Boston can do this to teams.  They choke you off, and it is what makes them who they are.  They can do this because standard set offenses do not provide the spacing to stop the reaching, rotating and reactions of a tuned in and aggressive C’s defense.  Only thing about that is when you spread it out with great spacing, they can’t shrink the floor.  That is why the triangle is the Lakers best friend and why the 4th quarter was kind of alarming for Laker fans.  Kobe-as Dwyer on Ball Don’t Lie keeps saying-can’t go into a predominantly high screen and roll game.  This is what allows the C’s to key in.

The Lakers can leave the Tri-they did early in the game in favor of a high-low game with Pau and Drew and it worked wonderfully.  The C’s were caught off guard by that, they won’t be next game. 

The other effect of not allowing the C’s to choke you off defensively is that it stifles their transition game, and essentially, Rondo’s overall effectiveness and impact on the game.  Without the turnovers and the run-outs, Rondo is forced to operate in the half-court, and that is where the Lakers want him.

Hey, let’s just hope Tommy T. isn’t working the videotape and is out looking for a job.

I agree with Kwame on all of these points.  Boston must figure out a way to slow Kobe, stop the Lakers penetration, control their defensive backboards, and get their offensive players going where they can score enough points to match what the Lakers are capable of.

From the Lakers’ perspective, I think we should also point out that they’ll need to make some adjustments of their own even though they were the winning team.  For example, even though Gasol was effective scoring the ball, a lot of his points came off offensive rebounds, weak side flashes, and the P&R game.  In game 2, I’d like to see Pau get more straight post up opportunities so he can go to work on the low block.  Over the course of this season, we’ve seen how effective the Lakers offense is when the ball is going inside first and I’d like to see more of that in game two rather than the plan that relied on dribble penetration and screens on the wing from game 1.

On defense, I’d like to see the Lakers continue the things that worked in game one, but I’d also like to see Kobe gamble and help less on defense and not allow Rondo to get behind him as frequently.  In the last game, Kobe helped far too frequently (considering the effectiveness of the players he was helping on) and it opened up lanes for Rondo to cut through and receive passes that set up easy shots for himself or his teammates.  I’d also like to see the Lakers secure rebounds and push the ball more frequently and then get more from their transition chances.  Besides the alley oop the Kobe and the leak outs by Gasol, I’m having trouble remembering much success on the break by the Lakers.  And for a team that rebounded as well as they did while also considering how the Celtics looked in terms of their mobility and quickness, I think the Lakers could have done a bit more.

All that said, these are just a few things that we’ll be looking for.  What say you?  Let us know in the comments as we start to get ready for game 2 tomorrow.

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Many look to the 2008 Finals as being the experience the Lakers can draw on in order to have success in this series.  And while I agree with that to a certain point – there’s no doubt that loss helped foster the mental and physical toughness of this current Lakers team – I think it’s much more important to draw on more recent experiences as a stepping stone to where the Lakers are now. 

And that stepping stone would be the Phoenix Suns.  After the Lakers lost game three of the WCF, Bill Bridges noted this in the commments:

I think the loss was the best thing that could happen to a championship-seeking Lakers team.

Crazy, no? Wouldn’t it have been better if the Sun’s rolled over, continued to play matador defense, and let the Lakers out score them once again, on route to a sweep?

Had the Lakers rolled into the finals against Boston by outscoring the Sun’s while giving up close to 50% shooting, they would have not been sufficiently prepared for the Celtic’s intensity.

The Sun’s defense was a disaster in games 1 and 2, with no consistency and focus. Luckily for the Lakers, the Sun’s zone was so effective, that we just might see 48 minutes of it in game 4.

The Sun’s zone defense is the closest facsimile that the Lakers will now face to the Thibodeau strong side zone defense. Have you seen Boston’s swarming quasi-zone against Orlando?

The Lakers have an opportunity to practice sharpening up their passing for now at least two more games in a game situtation. They are going to have to be crisp and precise to score against Boston.

But it is on defense that this “practice” will matter. Practice stopping Nash’s penetration because Rondo is twice as fast. If you can stop Amare’s slip of the screen roll, Big Baby’s slip should be easy to stop.

We are also thankful for Robin Lopez’s big body to help us practice banging against Kendrick Perkins. If Bynum can’t hold his own against Lopez, how will he fare against the dour Perkins?

The Celtic’s bread and butter sequence has Ray Allen curling around a down screen who then drops it off to a cutting big man (say KG) who then finds the other big man off a weak side cut. This play challenges your ability to fight through screens, show hard and get back, and rotate smartly.

The Sun’s don’t run this exact set but the key to defending the Celtics and the Suns is the same; fight through the pick, get back from the show, and rotate quickly.

The Lakers have not got this defense right except for a short stretch in the 4th quarter of game 2. They have a great opportunity to learn in the next 2 games.

They’d better or else the finals will be a rude awakening. And f they don’t learn, they don’t deserve to go.

And commenter Evan tells us that Bill, essentially, was right on when comparing Phoenix to Boston and how we seemed prepared for what the C’s were doing on both ends of the court:

I noticed that the some of the Laker strategy on both ends in GM1 could be attributed to their experience with Phoenix, which is odd because obviously Boston and Phoenix are so different.

For example, Boston’s defense is predicated on loading up on the strong side, which to the casual observer looks like a zone, even if it’s not exactly a traditional zone.

But attacking it is very similar to attacking the zone. Against a zone, a weakside LA big (Lamar) flashes to the high post, creating high-low mayhem. Against the Boston defense, the weakside flash is also there out of the triangle, and the big hole in the middle that is typical of a zone IS THERE against Boston’s defensive scheme. (Help comes to the big, leaving either a big-to-big pass around the basket or, ahem, offensive rebounds.)

When the Lakers run the P&R, the roller (Gasol) dives to the free throw line, filling that high-post space that the weakside dive man filled when running the triangle. Same type of effect. This is how they beat the zone in Phoenix and it seems to have have helped them get underneath or below Boston’s outstanding perimeter pressure.

Secondly, and more obviously, on the few possessions where rondo had the ball in transition, a laker was picking him up by the 3-point line. If he gets any deeper, then you get those transition threes for PP and Ray. Thank you Nash and co. for 6 games of preparation, and thank you Westbrook and co. for demonstrating the transition game in general back in April.

We’ll talk adjustments and what to look forward to in terms of changes in the lead up to game 2, but for now I think we should join Evan in thanking the Suns for helping to prepare us for a team that, at first glance no one (except Bill Bridges) would compare to Boston, but ended up doing a lot of things similarly.

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When the team you follow every day gets to the Finals, you hope that they play to their capabilities.  You hope that the focus, determination, and competitiveness are there.  You look for the little things – holding a box out for that extra second, passing on a semi-open shot to reset the offense, fighting through a screen to recover to an offensive player.  Tonight, the Lakers were a team filled with guys that were doing those little things and displaying the aforementioned qualities and it led to a 102-89 victory to take that all important 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals.  What a night.

From the outset, this game had an intensity befitting an NBA Finals match up between heated rivals that had just faced off for the championship two seasons ago.  After just 27 seconds of game action, Paul Pierce and Ron Artest got tangled up wrestling for position to grab a rebound and they tumbled to the ground with their bodies and arms locked together.  This led to Ron getting up angry, Pierce reacting similarly and both teams moving into to separate them.  Only seconds later the refs were issuing double technical fouls to bring order to the proceedings.

But, the refs didn’t stop there.  Over the first quarter (and really, throughout the game) the refs seemed determined to not let this game get out of hand and for them to keep the players under control at all times.  This led to frequent whistles and an uneven pace to the early stages of the game.  In the first quarter, 18 fouls were called and each coach went deep into his bench to compensate for their suddenly foul plagued starters.  If, before this game, I were to tell you that in the first 12 minutes of game 1 that Michael Finley, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton would all play you’d have thought I was crazy.  But, sure enough, they did – spelling Ron Artest and Ray Allen and Kobe as all of these key players found themselves on the pine early with 2 fouls each.

But the refs and the foul trouble were just one story line.  Surely, Ray Allen playing only 27 foul plagued minutes hurt the Celtics.  Ray was one player for the C’s that looked confident with his offense and his shooting coming of his big men’s screens was spot on early.  But the bigger story was the performance of the Lakers.

As it’s been over the course of these playoffs, the Lakers were led by their stars.  Both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol set the tone for their team and led their mates to victory.  Whether or not the loss of 2008 was fresh on these players minds, they played like they had something to prove; like they wanted to vanquish those memories and replace them with ones that they could later recall with joy instead of sorrow.  But at the same time, they played like those memories gave them strength, like they were the fuel igniting their will to go the extra mile and make the needed plays to secure the victory.

Kobe would finish the night with 30 points on only 22 shots and rack up another 7 rebounds and 6 assists.  And while his early defense on Rondo left something to be desired – Kobe got lost on several back cuts by Rondo when over helping on KG – his offense was just superb.  There may have been a few forced shots here and there, but for the most part, Kobe was in control.  Navigating the Celtics defense and attacking at every opportunity.  It was pointed out several times during the telecast, but Kobe got to the rim much more frequently than at any point during the 2008 Finals and was able to either finish in the lane or draw fouls on the man that was guarding him.

And then there was Gasol. Soft?  Uh…not so much.  With the presence of Bynum forcing KG to now guard Pau, the big Spaniard went to work on both ends of the floor – taking it to KG at every turn – and doing everything the Lakers needed while stuffing the stat sheet along the way.  The man ended the night with 23 points on 14 shots, 14 rebounds (including 8 huge offensive boards), 3 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal.  Scoring in a variety of ways (hooks, running the floor, put backs) and contesting shots in the paint on the other end, Pau was the catalyst for the Lakers dominant inside play on the evening.

But, even though Kobe and Pau led the way they had lots of support in this game.  Every Laker that saw the court did his job and did it well.  Bynum had decent stats – 10 points, 6 rebounds – but most importantly he played 28 minutes (a number that Phil said he would like Bynum to play in a pre-game interview on ESPN radio) and really gave the Lakers a second presence inside.  And the rest of the bench players played well too, even if their overall stats and +/- numbers don’t reflect it.  They all played under control and consistently made the right decisions on offense to keep the Lakers’ momentum going throughout the game.

Especially impressive to these eyes was Ron Artest – especially on defense.  Sure, Paul Pierce ended the night with 24 points on only 13 shots (making 12 of 13 from the FT line).  But he never found a rhythm on offense and never really threatened to change the tenor of the game with his ability to score the ball.  Ron just did an excellent job of deny Pierce his sweet spots and making him work to even catch the ball.  But Ron was also solid on offense, going 5-10 from the field for 15 points and making 3 of his 5 three pointers.

Over the course of the evening the Lakers proved that they’re ready for this match up.  Ready to exorcise their green demons.  Ready to compete from the opening tip of the opening game and land the first punch.  Simply put, the Lakers were the better team tonight.  But, this is only one game.  On the Lakers’ whiteboard in their locker room after the game, it simply said “3 mo'”.  Game 2 is just as important as game one and the Lakers will need to duplicate this effort and level of execution of they expect to go to Boston with a series lead.  But for now, enjoy this win.  The Lakers lead the NBA Finals and being able to say that never gets old.

Some key numbers:

*41-32.  This was the Lakers rebounding edge over the Celtics.  As the old Pat Riley saying goes, “no rebounds, no rings”.  Well tonight the Lakers controlled the backboards and it was a key component to the victory.  I already mentioned Pau’s 8 offensive rebounds, but the Lakers had 13 as a team and their constant pressure on the C’s defensive glass didn’t allow Boston to get out in transition and get the easy buckets that their offense feeds off of.  And even though the Celtics had 12 offensive rebounds of their own, they didn’t get any 2nd chance points while the Lakers had 16.  Considering the Lakers won the game by 13, I would say that the Lakers ability to convert offensive rebounds into points was pretty important.

*48-30.  This was the Lakers advantage in points in the paint.  The Lakers really did an excellent job of attacking the Celtics interior tonight.  Be it on standard post ups or off dribble penetration, the Lakers tried to get into the lane at every opportunity and punish the C’s with shots close to the hoop.  I mentioned Kobe’s want to drive, but Fisher, Farmar, and Brown were all attacking the paint off hard drives and coming off curls.  This really compromised the C’s defense and it went a long way in winning the game for the Lakers.  The flip side of that coin was the Lakers limiting Rondo’s penetration and not really allowing Allen or Pierce to get anything going to the basket all night.  And when you consider that KG and ‘Sheed are now both jump shooting bigs, Boston needs their guards/wings to get into the lane for their offense to really hum.  Tonight they didn’t and we saw the results.

*0-4.  That’s the Celtics record when giving up 100 points in these playoffs.  The Lakers reached that threshold tonight and if they can continue to put up points, this series will be really difficult for Boston.  The Lakers had 84 points after 3 quarters and there have been several games  this post season where Celtics opponents didn’t get that in a full game.  The Lakers offensive efficiency was 114.6 on the night.  Against the vaunted Celtics defense, that number is just amazing.

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We’ve talked Boston’s O vs. the Lakers’ D and vice versa.   We’ve discussed the history of the rivalry.  And we’ve even gotten the Celtics’ perspective.  But the wait is over; it’s now time to play the games.  Game 1 of the NBA Finals is tonight and the Lakers are now in the position that they’ve played for all season – the chance to defend their championship.

But after three playoff series of varying difficulty, nothing can really compare to this stage nor prepare the Lakers for the challenge ahead.  The Celtics are the best team that the Lakers will face these playoffs and it’s not really close.  They are a team that operates within a defined structure on both sides of the ball and executes at an extremely high level while playing even harder.  They are a true team.  And in order for the Lakers to win the series – but especially game one – they’ll need to be mentally and physically prepared for what Boston is going to throw at them.

And even though we’ve covered some X’s and O’s, there are a couple more points that haven’t been explored that I’d like to touch on.  We’ve already talked about the potential of Kobe guarding Rondo.  And in his press conference yesterday, Phil Jackson said that Kobe would “occasionally be on” the C’s dynamic PG.   And while the intricacies of that match up have been discussed ad nauseam, there is one aspect that we haven’t discussed nearly enough – the cross match.  Phillip linked to a post at NBA Playbook yesterday that talked about a potential pitfall of Kobe defending Rondo being that when Rondo grabs defensive rebounds, Kobe will have to then find him in transition (as Rondo likely won’t be guarding Kobe) and this could create scenarios where the Lakers don’t have their preferred match ups in place; that the Lakers may bungle their defensive assignments and either allow driving lanes or give up open three pointers when transitioning from offense to defense.  And this is definitely a concern for the Lakers D.

However, just as big a concern should be when Kobe grabs defensive rebounds and the Celtics then have to find their proper assignments in transition (as Kobe would be defending Rondo and now the C’s PG has to make a decision on whether to stay with Kobe or go find Fisher).  Back in 2008 (and as recently as the OKC series when Kobe guarded Westbrook) one way that Kobe was able to get easier looks for himself and create offense for his teammates was by forcing the cross match in transition and then going to work on the smaller defender (the PG) that did not have time to switch off and find his own man.  If Kobe is able to get matched up on Rondo a lot (or even just on a handful of possessions) this can be the opening that he needs to get himself (and his teammates) the easy baskets that the Celtics don’t often surrender.  Especially if Kobe is able to get to the low post by executing the move that he performed so well against Utah – the back down dribble in transition on the secondary break.  Once Kobe has the ball in his hands and he identifies a smaller defender on him he instantly calls for the side to be cleared so that he can go to work on the low block.  And whether it’s Rondo or one of the Allen’s, this will be something for us to watch for tonight when Kobe is bringing the ball up the court in a semi-break for the Lakers.  Because when Kobe is able to create post up chances off the dribble (without having to fight his defender for post position, burning energy and the shot clock) he’s even more deadly with his array of quick pivots, turn around jumpers, and shot fakes-then-step throughs.

A second piece of the game plan that we’ve yet to explore fully is what role Andrew Bynum will play in this series.  We’ve heard that ‘Drew had his knee drained and that while the swelling is down, the pain is still there.  And while I’m no doctor, I would think this is to be expected.  Bynum has a partially torn meniscus and that pain isn’t just going to vanish because he had some fluid removed from his knee.  After all, he’s going to need surgery to repair the damage.  That said, I expect ‘Drew to be a bit more than just a big body on defense that clogs the lane on penetration and grabs rebounds.  Bynum is still a capable player in the post and is still a player that sets a damned good screen (both in the P&R and in the weak side actions of the Triangle).  While I don’t think we’ll see the 19 and 11 player that Bynum was in one of the games vs. the C’s in the regular season, I do think he’ll get plenty of isolations in the post where he gets a chance to go at Perkins and KG one on one without help.  And these are chances that I think Bynum can be successful in (he’s still got some of that polish, even if he doesn’t have all his lift).  I also think that Bynum will grab a couple of offensive rebounds each game due to the combination of his size and the extra attention that Gasol will get in Boston’s help schemes.  Offensive rebounds that lead to put backs and free throw attempts.

But these are trends that will play themselves out over the course of the series.  When looking at tonight specifically, I think it all comes down to the first and fourth quarters.  Being at home, the Lakers have an opportunity to use the energy of their crowd to come out and set the tone.  If they’re able to establish their style of play (an early jumper for Kobe, some good post ups from Bynum and Pau) it will go a long way towards getting their momentum moving in a positive direction.  As for the fourth quarter, the Lakers must sharpen up their execution down the stretch and get the buckets they’ll need against a tightening Celtics defense.  Remember, the C’s are prone to offensive dry spells and it’s in those stretches where their defense picks up the slack and allows them to stay in the game.  If, in the last 6-8 minutes of the fourth, the Lakers can create some distance, they should be able to win this all important game one and set the tone for the entire series.  All of this is easier said than done, but if it was as simple as just speaking it, what’d be the point in playing the game?

In the end though, this game will come down to so many little things that we could go on forever exploring the intricacies of this Finals match up.  And there will be plenty of time to do so after we have some games under our belts and some film to look at.  So for now, just sit back and enjoy the show.  The two teams that are playing the best basketball in the league are about to play that all important game 1 in the race for the championship.  There isn’t a better time to be a Lakers fan and we should all savor this moment.  Because even though this is the third straight season that the Lakers are in the decisive series, these chances are pretty rare.  We all remember the down years, don’t we?  Tonight, all I want to see is that focus and execution that we know the Lakers are capable of.  Now, let’s get that win.  

(And in case you needed any more inspiration for the game, check out LD2K’s most recent offering to get you in the mood for the game.)

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We’ve covered the series from a few different angles already, but there’s always the view from the other side.  So in the hopes of gleaning some knowledge from someone that’s seen as much of the Celtics as we’ve seen of the Lakers, I exchanged emails with Zach Lowe of the great C’s blog Celtics Hub and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions (for my answers to Zach’s questions, follow this link).  I’d like to thank Zach for taking the time to answer my questions about the C’s and giving us his insiders perspective. 

It’s obvious that Rondo has grown by leaps and bounds as a player since the 2008 Finals. He’s an All-NBA performer and a 1st Team All-Defensive member.  What do you think has been the biggest improvement in his game?

My fellow CelticsHub writer Brian Robb pointed it out earlier this season: Rondo has become an accomplished scorer from 15 feet and in. He was always a great finisher at the rim, but until this season, he struggled from the runner/floater area between the foul line and the lay-up zone. Check out the numbers at Hoopdata.com: Rondo hit 50.4 percent of his shots from between the rim and the 10-foot mark, one of the best marks in the league for a point guard. In 2009, he hit just 40 percent from that area.

His accuracy on shots from between 10 and 15 away took a similar jump. His progress on these sort of shots has given him the confidence to be a legitimate one-on-one scoring threat this season. Armed with that confidence, Rajon has attacked the paint more aggressively, which of course creates better opportunities for both himself and others.

To pick out one other thing: His sense of the court and his teammates has improved dramatically. Watch him rush the ball up in transition, slow it down when no easy first option materializes, and then, once the defense exhales, hit a trailer or cutter you (or the defense) hadn’t noticed. His feel for timing and angles has become elite.

Speaking of Rondo, he’s likely to be defended by Kobe Bryant in this series.  Do you think Rondo is better prepared for for this match up this season?  What will he need to do to be successful in this match up?

The Celtics have seen this movie enough times now. A bunch of teams regularly defend Rondo in the style Kobe made famous in the ’08 Finals—by sagging off of Rajon and daring him to shoot jumpers. The Heat did it with Dwyane Wade during the first round. The Knicks have been doing it for two seasons.

Still, I think it remains the right call: The C’s half court offense just doesn’t flow as well when teams defend this way as it does when teams defend Rajon more traditionally.

As for counters, I’ll name three. First: Get out in transition. When the Celtics run, they reach another level of efficiency and prevent teams from using this style of defense. Second: Rondo must remain aggressive. This means taking a 15-footer if he’s in a comfortable rhythm, but it also means driving to the rim even with Kobe chilling out at the foul line. It means calling for multiple screen/rolls, one up high and second at the foul line. Third: Doc Rivers must be creative. We’ve seen him use Rajon as a screener (both on and off the ball) to force switches and get Rondo’s man both engaged and moving. Rondo has also become adept at giving the ball up, moving to the wing, watching his defender rove around the court and then darting to an open area along the baseline.

And since we’re on the topic of Kobe, he’s been playing some of the best basketball of his career of late.  Who do you think will guard him and what will be the defensive strategy against him? Do you anticipate the Celtics double teaming him or do you think they’ll just single cover him by rotating the Allen’s (Ray and Tony) and Pierce?

This really depends on how the Lakers use him. Given the height advantage Kobe will have over Tony Allen and Ray Allen (and it will be the Allens doing most of the one-on-one work against Kobe), I expect to see a lot of Bryant in the post. If he sets up there in a way that slows LA’s offense, the C’s will send help—possibly even a true double-team.

On screen/roll, the C’s will probably try a number of different things, but their basic response will be to have Kobe’s man fight over the screen while the screener’s guy slides over to cut off penetration and contest a possible quick jumper. Boston does not like to trap or outright switch, even against star players.

It’s the other sort of action that concerns me—the triangle stuff the Celtics don’t see against any other team. Kobe’s going to cut to the rim, flash to the post and cut up to the elbow to receive the ball in motion. It’s difficult for a defense to help in those situations, particularly if Kobe acts decisively and doesn’t stop the ball. It will be up to Kobe’s man to stay close to Kobe while other defenders nearby make snap decisions about how aggressively they should help.

Luckily, Boston does the help and recover thing better than any team in the league. They will need to be at their best in this series.

One difference between these teams from the 2008 match up is that the Lakers now have Ron Artest to guard Paul Pierce. Does this match up concern you?  How do you think Pierce will try to attack Artest’s physical style of defense?

Sure, it concerns me, and it concerns me on both ends. On defense, it is no longer a risk-free proposition to throw Paul Pierce onto Kobe for long stretches, since there is no Vlad Radmanovic (or Luke Walton) to serve as a convenient hiding place for Ray Allen.

On the other end, it’s always a concern when an elite defender—and Artest is still an elite defender when motivated—guards one of your top guys. We know Artest is going to damn near crawl up Pierce’s jersey to stay with Pierce on off-the-ball cuts and contest those mid-range shots Pierce loves so much. We know Artest can absorb the contact Pierce likes to initiate on drives without giving ground or obviously fouling.

To me, the key is for Pierce to be decisive. If he catches the ball on the move, with just a half-step advantage, he’s got to use that advantage quickly by either shooting or driving. Once Artest sets his feet and goes chest-to-chest with you, the odds shift in his favor. If Pierce finds himself in that situation, he’s probably best served looking for a screen or (if the shot clock is running down), taking a step back and trying to drive on Artest.

Stationary shots—predictable shots—and blind drives are not going to get it done.

A major key to me in this series is how the back up big men from each team will perform.  The Celtics use a combination of Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace while the Lakers will rotate Odom in with both Gasol and Bynum.  How do you think the front lines of each team match up and do you think the C’s back up bigs will have trouble with Odom’s combination of quickness and length?

The front line match-up is going to be fun, isn’t it? So much depends on health and what the Lakers can get out of Bynum. If he and Gasol spend a decent chunk of time on the court together, it will force Garnett to guard Gasol more often than KG did during the ’08 series, when Kendrick Perkins did a better-than-expected job on Pau. An in-his-prime Gasol is the toughest possible test KG can face at this stage of his career.

Bynum’s health and foul issues, though, suggest he won’t play much more than 20 minutes per game—if that many. That leaves Gasol-Odom to soak up a lot of minutes at the two big spots, which means Glen Davis is probably going to have to spend a lot of time on Odom. Of the C’s bigs, only KG and Davis can realistically guard Odom, and Garnett is probably a more natural match-up for Gasol than is Davis. Big Baby looked good defending Rashard Lewis, but Odom is a more aggressive and polished finisher in the lane.

As for Sheed, he has a knack for making superior offensive players work very hard for their points. He may not be strong enough to defend Bynum, but he’ll make Bynum’s life difficult by knocking away entry passes, pulling out the chair and fouling hard when beaten. Wallace will have trouble dealing with Gasol at the elbow, but you’ll be surprised at how tough it can be to finish shots against Sheed at the rim, even when he’s a half-step behind. It’s amazing what Sheed can do when he tries hard.

One last thing about Sheed: That turnaround in the post remains unblockable. He can be a scoring threat in this series.

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Just as we said yesterday, defense wins championships.  A team may not need to be the best defense in the land, but they do need to get the crucial stops in the key moments of the game or be able to generate streaks within a game where they make life difficult on the opposition’s offense.  So with all that in mind, it’s no wonder that the Celtics are in the Finals and in position to win their 2nd championship in the last 3 seasons.

This Celtics team defends.  And they do so with an intensity and at a level that is greater than any team the Lakers have faced so far in these playoffs.  Fueled by an incredible scheme and the smarts to execute it, the Celtics are the NBA equivalent of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers – they just stop you, plain and simple.  So if the Lakers are going to beat this team and claim their second championship in as many seasons, they’ll need to find a way to break down the Celtics’ D to get the baskets they need to come out on top.

When I spoke with Phillip about how the Lakers could go about scoring against the C’s vaunted D, he spoke to me about getting back to fundamentals:

If the Lakers are going to be successful against that Boston defense, they’re going to have to go back to the two most fundamental offensive philosophies: 1) Moving the ball, and 2) Movement without the ball.

The Celtics starting unit will be the biggest, longest, most physical starting unit the Lakers have seen this post season. This Celtics team, much like the title winning team in ’08 defends extremely well as a team, and take pride in doing so. To counter their defensive tenacity, you have to make them work as individuals as much as possible. The Lakers have a tendency to stand around and watch others operate (most notably Kobe ) instead of moving without the ball, cutting or setting screens. If this happens against the Celtics, they will eat the Lakers alive. It all starts with Kevin Garnett, who communicates defensively in the same way someone like Ray Lewis does: he’s talking all the time, telling his guys where they need to be, when they need to be there, and what they need to do when they get there. It’s fascinating to watch how well they communicate defensively, but if you have guys constantly moving around, it gets harder for KG to pay attention to every thing going on if he has to focus more on not letting his man get free.

On this point, I could not agree with Phillip more.  The Celtics’ defense is predicated off knowing what you want to do, anticipating your next pass, and then trying to take those options away or limit their effectiveness when they start to play out.  They’re a fantastic one on one defensive team, but their team schemes are predicated off of their ability to help and recover so they give off the look of playing a “zone” scheme when, in fact, they’re actually just very good at cutting off angles and showing offensive players a second defender before they scurry back to recover to their own man.

This type of defensive scheme can be broken down in the exact way that Phillip describes – with ball and player movement – but in order to actually accomplish it,  there needs to be a high level of execution and commitment to whatever task is being performed.  That means the Lakers can’t lazily cut through the lane when they’re clearing the side for a post up and they can’t half-heartedly set screens when trying to free up a teammate.  Playing anything but all out on the offensive end will allow the Celtics to deny passes to the wing and on ball reversals, which are the staples to the Lakers motions in the Triangle.  Much like two seasons ago, if the Lakers decide that they’re going to stand and watch or in any way not move in unison and with purpose, the Celtics D will look much like the nearly impenetrable phalanx of 2008.

But the movement around the perimeter is only one key to the Celtics defense.  The other (and equally impressive) facet of Boston’s defensive work is their ability to defend the post with single coverage.  Both KG and Perkins (and, to a bit lesser extent, Wallace) are top notch post defenders using their bulk (Perkins) and incredible instincts and length (KG, ‘Sheed) to thwart most post players ability to get easy, uncontested buckets at the rim.  Ask Dwight Howard what it’s like banging with Perkins (or ask Gasol about ’08) – it’s not any fun.  Or as nomuskles emailed me and explained:

I have a strong dislike for (Perkins) but can’t deny how much he impacts the game with his strength on defense and on the boards. Will the Lakers front line stop his bullying by matching his physicality or will the Lakers try to finesse their way around him? Either option has merits but the general consensus seems to agree on the latter.

And that is the key for the Lakers.  As I mentioned yesterday in my little radio conversation (around the 32 minute mark), Perkins and KG are such good defenders that they often fight you for position, but do allow the post entry.  So, Pau (and Bynum) are going to get their chances in the post.  The key is how the Lakers attack them and what tactics they determine to work the best.  Again, Phillip gives us a potential preview of what we may see:

I think we will start to see more of the offense run through the pinch post like we did during the Utah series. The Lakers went away from that during the Suns series, mainly because of the zone, but also because Kobe put himself in a lot of isolation situations…Seeing Pau Gasol back at the elbow will do multiple things for the Lakers. One, it puts Pau in one of his most comfortable spots on the offensive end of the floor. He has a nice face up jumper, can get to the rim relatively easy against most defenders and it opens up those interior passing lanes. Either Garnett or Perkins will be forced to guard him there, opening up lanes for guys like Kobe, Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to cut to the basket. With Gasol at the elbow, the Lakers have the opportunity to make the Celtics play as individuals; spacing and crisp passing is going to be key.

I agree with Phillip that we’re likely to see Pau play more at the elbow/mid-post, especially when matched up against Perkins and Wallace (two guys that will pound Gasol and try to rough him up whenever he makes a catch in the low post).  Pau’s ability to shoot the jumper and use his good first step will pay dividends when playing 15 feet and out.  However, I also expect to see Pau in the low post when he’s matched up with KG (or, if it happens, Glen Davis).  As great a defender as KG is, his athleticism is not the same as it was two seasons ago and his frame is quite similar to Pau’s.  Gasol should be able to get moderately deep post position against KG and then use his array of post moves to get good looks at the basket.  Whether Pau turns and faces, uses his quick spin move, or backs down KG for one of his jump hooks or turn around jumpers, I do think Pau will have more freedom to play one on one than he saw against Phoenix.  And, I think the same will hold true for Bynum against Perkins.  Yes, ‘Drew will have to battle with Perk for position and he’ll surely pay the price with a variety of shoves and shivers to his back, but if Bynum can make catches from 8 feet and in he’ll show that his offensive skill set (even with the limitations of his knee) is more polished than any Center the C’s have faced these playoffs.

But (getting back to the perimeter for a moment), what can we expect from Kobe?  Two seasons ago, the Celtics were able to make Kobe work for every basket and had a litany of defenders to throw at him (Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Paul Pierce, and James Posey).  This season, the presence of Posey is gone, but these other options remain.  As Kwame A. states:

Tony Allen’s health may be very important.  He is arguably their best defender on Kobe, he played Kobe well in ’08, and also played very well against LBJ this year.

And Phillip adds on that some of what’s worked in the WCF won’t be adequate against Boston:

(Agaisnt Phoenix) when Kobe went iso, he either went one-on-one, or was able to draw double teams and find the open man. Against the Celtics, those kind of offensive principles are not going to work. Kobe is going to see a lot more one-on-one defense from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, both of whom guard him fairly well. They’ll try and force him into tough jumpshots knowing that either Garnett or Kendrick Perkins will be there waiting for him if they get beat off the dribble.

So, how to get Kobe free?  I think we’ll see a lot of what we spoke about already in this post – Kobe will need to work well off the ball and find the creases in the defense by getting free off screens and curls while also working off the post ups of Gasol.  I also think the Lakers will play a fair amount of P&R (like they did in the ’08 Finals) to force Boston to either play him with the standard hedge/recover tactic or trap him completely – which will then allow Kobe to read the defense and make the correct play coming off the screen.  And in the end, with Kobe being as dialed in as he is right now, I also expect him to take (and make) some of the tough shots that he’s been hitting since the end of the OKC series.  After all, Kobe is still Kobe and those shots are part of his repertoire.  As long as he’s not over-dependent on this part of his arsenal, I think that he (and subsequently the Lakers) will be able to score enough points.

The last two points that are very important to the Lakers’ offensive success in the Finals come down to limiting turnovers and continuing their strong play on the offensive glass.  Boston is one of the better teams at forcing turnovers and securing defensive rebounds after getting the initial stop.  If the Lakers cough up the ball too frequently it will fuel the Celtics transition game and, similar to the Suns series, allow the C’s to get easy baskets at the rim or from behind the arc (something they excel at).  Meanwhile, the Lakers also need to extend possessions by getting extra shots from securing offensive rebounds.  The C’s do have a very good defensive rebounding front line, but one player that I think can make a difference in this area is Odom.  Based off the C’s rotations, he’s likely to spend a lot of time matched up with Davis and/or Wallace and these are players that LO has advantages over (Davis with his length and ‘Sheed with his quickness).  If the Lakers can excel in both of these areas their offense will be good enough.

Obviously, this is a lot to sift through and, seemingly, a lot of aspects in this series that the Lakers will need to perform well if they hope to be successful.  But, as we mentioned, the Celtics are the best defensive team in the playoffs and things will not be easy.  All that said, the Lakers have the personnel, overall skill, and talent to score the ball effectively against this team.  It will take discipline and execution, but what else is new?  We’ll see if the Lakers are ready on both sides of the ball come Thursday.

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As the old saying goes, defense wins championships.  And since the mantra of the site is “the Lakers will only go as far as their defense will take them”, I think it’s best to start our Finals preview with the the Lakers D when the Celtics have the ball.  If the Lakers are to win this series, we all understand that they’ll also need to score the ball, but slowing down the Celtics’ attack will be just as important.  When you’re facing a defensive powerhouse like Boston, you can’t rely on your offense to win you games as they’ll never allow enough points for that to be a winning strategy.  So, the Lakers must get stops.  But how to get them?

Before we get into the sets that Celtics run, we need to explore the individual match ups in this series.  Yes, the success of the Lakers D will be dependent on the team structure and the schemes that the coaches deploy.  But, it all starts on the individual level and that means match ups.  So, the first question is who will guard who?  And even more specifically, who will guard Rondo.  When I exchanged emails with some of our long time commenters, nomuskles was wondering the same thing:

I’m interested to see how the Lakers decide to play Rondo. He’s much improved his scoring ability and decision-making. There’s been a lot of talk about how deadly Rondo has become this year. The crucial question is, can the Lakers make his life difficult and disrupt what Boston wants to do on offense? Against Phoenix, the Lakers showed that they are quite capable of mental lapses in coverage that resulted in wide-open looks for shooters. Being on the same page defensively is critical if the Lakers want to hoist another trophy.

When that question was put to Kwame A., he responded with the answer that most fans probably think is most likely:

The Rondo issue is a tricky one.  Fish really may do just as well as Kobe would guarding Rondo, but what makes me think Kobe should guard Rondo is the Ray Allen factor.  Kobe is not the type of defender that excels at running around screens and staying with a dead-eye shooter.  Kobe is much better on-ball, although Rondo ‘aint no duck walk’, Kobe needs to get the first shot at him.

Ultimately, I agree with Kwame A.  Kobe, at this stage in his career should not be asked to chase Ray Allen around screens and then stay with him when he’s on the weak side in spot up situations.  Plus, this is the way that the coaches have decided to guard Rondo since game 3 of the 2008 Finals.  In the remaining 4 games of that series and the 3 games that Kobe’s played versus Boston in the past two regular seasons (Kobe missed a game this year), he’s been deployed on Rondo.  So, if Kobe is on Rondo, the rest of the match ups should shake out this way: Fisher/Allen, Artest/Pierce, Gasol/Garnett, and Bynum/Perkins.  If the match ups do play out this way, the Lakers will not only need great individual defensive performances from all these guys but they’ll also need them to be keyed in to the Celtics offensive sets as they are a team that focuses heavily on teamwork and execution to get their baskets.

And when analyzing the Celtics sets through Synergy Sports’ database, it was this teamwork and high level of execution that stood out.  The Celtics offense actually is not that complicated.  They run P&R’s with Rondo, stagger screens for Ray Allen, isolations for Pierce, and post ups for KG/’Sheed/Perkins.  But within these base plays, there are several options on each action and the Celtics consistently seek out the extra pass in order to get a better shot.  This is where the Lakers discipline will be tested because even if they are able to shut down Boston’s primary option on a play, the C’s willingness to move the ball or reset their offense will test any defensive scheme and the Lakers will need to be able to rotate to the next player and shift their defense to account for these second and third options that are built into their sets.

A perfect example of this is evident in the baseline stagger screen action that the Celtics run for Ray Allen (and sometimes Pierce). Kwame A. explains:

Defensively, the Lakers have to create a plan to deal with the pin-downs when pierce/allen come to catch and garnett/davis are setting the screen.  These guys set great (illegal) screens, so Pierce/Allen usually have the option of an open shot, or they get the defense to get confused, both defenders go to Pierce/Allen and they both throw a great quick bounce pass to the mobile big who can roll and dunk or pick and pop.  It is a staple play and we will need to rotate weakside help over to prevent the dunk, hopefuly leaving rondo open on the weakside for an ugly jumper.

After looking at this play ran a bit more closely, what I saw was that Rondo starts out with the ball at the top of the key while Ray Allen starts out on the baseline either right outside the lane line or positioned right in the middle of the lane.  After Rondo calls out the play, Allen proceeds to run off a screen from one of the C’s big men and then curl to the opposite wing where Rondo then looks to hit him with a pass.  However, on this action there are a myriad of options and the Celtics will run this play looking for the one that is most open.  If that means hitting Allen curling to the wing than the pass is delivered there – where Allen is in position to shoot his jumper.  However if the big man guarding the second screener (who is usually Perkins) “shows” out to contest the pass to Allen, Rondo will hit that screen man with a pass as he’s the player that’s open or if  Allen does receive the pass but is covered well, he’ll also look to pass to the player that just set the screen for him.  In either case, the rolling big man either has an easy shot at the rim or he has the option to pass the ball to either the other big man that is diving to the rim from the opposite side or to the other wing player that is positioned cross court (usually Paul Pierce spotting up for a three pointer – as seen here in the first play of the highlight).

As you can see from the highlight, the quick ball movement and unselfishness leads to a wide open shot from one of the better spot up shooters in the league.  If the Lakers are to contain this action (and others just like it that involve Pierce on the strong side) they’ll need to fight through screens and help each other at every turn (while still recovering and/or rotating).  And this is where the doggedness of Fisher (and Artest) comes into play.  Fisher is one of the better players the Lakers have at fighting through screens to stick to his man or initiating enough contact that he’ll make the refs decide if the screen being set is legal or not – something that is important against a Celtic team that sets…um…some of the better moving screens in the league (as Kwame described above). And while Fish is undersized in being able to contest Allen’s jumper, he is (besides Sasha) the best at playing this action and it’s one of the main reasons I’m on board with Fish on Allen (with Kobe on Rondo).

But slowing these screen actions in the C’s half court sets are only one concern.  The other main way the Celtics get shots are in transition.  Rajon Rondo is a demon in the open court and he’s got some of the best court vision in the entire league.  This leads to him being able to get his own shot by getting all the way to rim on “one man fast breaks” and also controlling the tempo on the break so that when Pierce and Ray Allen run to the 3 point line he can hit them in transition for wide open threes.   So, in order for the Lakers to slow this aspect of the Celtics’ offense down, they’ll actually need to pull on their experiences against the Suns where  they too excelled in running to the three point line with a crafty PG feeding them for open jumpers.  Obviously Rondo is different than Nash in a lot of ways, but in this instance they’re quite similar.  If you close off the lane against him and then recover to shooters, the Celtics then become a half court team and one of their main ways of scoring the ball has been slowed (or even neutralized).

In the end, the Celtics actually embody a lot of the offensive traits that the Lakers have seen from their other opponents in these playoffs.  Like OKC, they have a tremendous talent at SF, a physically gifted PG (who is a much better play maker), and are a team that runs a lot of screen actions and pin downs to free up their wings.  Like Utah, this Boston team is well coached and disciplined and they have no qualms with pulling the ball back out and resetting their offense to get the look they want.  They’re more than willing to make the extra pass and thrive on making defenses work and react to their precision.  And like the Suns, this team is excellent in transition with a penetrating PG that loves to set up shooters that run the three point line while looking for bigs (KG/Perkins) that run to the rim.  Plus, in the half court (like Phoenix) this team will also run a lot of P&R where the PG is looking to penetrate the lane and either get his own lay up or collapse the defense so his shooters get good looks (and I haven’t even mentioned the pick and pops with Wallace – which is very similar to what the Suns do with Frye).  So, in a way, the Lakers should be prepared for what they see from the Celtics.  However, they must also understand that the C’s boast the best combination of players in these roles and that the combination of these traits – while not making them the best offense the Lakers have faced – make them quite dangerous.  And to beat them and slow them down the Lakers will need to show the Celtics that they play defense too and that the top 5 defensive ranking that the Lakers held for most of the season is not a fluke.  Whether they can do it or not remains to be seen, but I have confidence that the Lakers are up to the task.

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Many have commented that there seemed to be a section missing on Artest vs. Pierce.  Sadly this portion was left out of the post and not added back in before it went up.  So without further ado, the missing section on the match up at SF – this section was to appear right after we discussed the C’s screen action in the half-court.)

But besides the screen actions and the P&R’s run with Rondo, the other main option of the Celtics half court attack is Paul Pierce.  The Celtics run a variety of screen actions and also place Pierce in isolation situations to take advantage of his all around offensive skill set.  Being the Celtic’s leading scorer, slowing Pierce down is going to be a key factor in this series.  In 2008, Pierce’s ability to beat the Lakers SF’s (RadMan, Walton) off the dribble and create space for his jumpshot made it so Kobe had to spend a lot of time on #34 – wearing Kobe down and making him less effective on both sides of the ball over the course of the series.  However, this season the Lakers have Ron Artest to put on Pierce and it’s this match up that has everyone waiting in anticipation.  And the regular season results from this match up seem to favor the Lakers.  In the two games this season Pierce averaged 13 points (5 below his average), while shooting a combined 4-11 on three pointers.  In the game that that the Lakers won, Pierce was hounded into comitting 4 turnovers and had 5 fouls (none bigger than the offensive foul that Artest drew at the end of the game that allowed Kobe to eventually sink his game winner.)  Now, we must understand that coming into this series Pierce is playing very well and it will take a great effort from Ron to slow him down.  Pierce is coming off (probably) his best game of the playoffs as he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the series clincher over Orlando.  However, if Ron plays Pierce closely and takes advantage of the fact that Paul’s first step is slightly diminished, he should be able to stick with him off the dribble while also being able to contest Pierce’s jumper.  This will be easier said than done as Pierce is one of the best players at creating his own shot, but if Ron plays disciplined D (as he has these playoffs), I expect that we’ll be treated to a level of defense that we all wished the Lakers could have played on Pierce in 2008 where he earned the Finals MVP.

Tomorrow, when the Lakers have the ball…