It’s a cliche but still very true when it comes to playoff games – and especially NBA Finals games: the next game is always the most important. There have been countless stats recited as each game has passed (Phil’s record when winning game 1, the record of the game 3 winner when tied 1-1), but if the Lakers can win game 4they take a strangle hold on this series. Going up 3-1 would mean the Celtics need to win 3 consecutive games (including 2 on the road) to claim the championship. That’s not just an uphill climb, it’s damn near impossible when the teams are this evenly matched. Who will step up? Which team can thrive in the face of their biggest game this season? Tonight, we find out.
And while this is a team game, it will still come down to what individual players can be the ones to make a difference. So far this series, it’s been new players every night. Game 1 belonged to Kobe and Pau. Game 2 was Ray Allen and Rondo (though Pau and Bynum were also excellent). In game 3, Fisher’s late game heroics stole the show away from KG and his throwback performance. Tonight, will it be Kobe again? Will Pau bounce back from his fairly pedestrian game 3? What about Pierce and Allen – who were both substandard (especially Allen) on Tuesday? Or maybe it will be another role player – Artest or Odom, perhaps. Or maybe Bynum (surely playing, btw) will have another game that endears him to the Lakers fans as he battles his bad knee. From the C’s side, it’s potentially Nate, ‘Sheed, or maybe Big Baby builds on his solid game 3. Someone will put their individual stamp on this game and I’m anxious to see who can raise their game tonight.
But outside of these individuals, there are still the coaches and the adjustments that they have in store. In the last game, the Lakers made some subtle tweaks in marking Ray Allen and they paid off. They opened up their big men on the screen action so they simultaneously were in position to show out to play Allen on a switch while also giving the chaser more space to stay connected to Ray. And while Allen was still able to shake free on several possessions, the Lakers’ adjustment paid dividends as Allen was better covered more often and not nearly as hot as he was the previous game – leading to miss after miss.
Tonight, I expect to see some counters by the C’s to combat the Lakers game 3 approach. Maybe we’ll see the return of the screener opening up to make himself available to receive the pass in the heart of the Lakers D. Maybe the C’s will run this action more for Pierce who needs to get going on offense for the Celtics to get back into this series. Maybe the Celtics will go more to KG at the elbow and let him be the initiator of offense and let Rondo work off the ball as a cutter and screener to free up shooters on the weak side. Whatever options are employed the Lakers must be ready with their own counters in place.
Understand too that the C’s also need to make some defensive adjustments. They’re obviously one of the best defensive teams of the last decade, but in game 3 they gave up an offensive efficiency of 107.1 to the Lakers. While that’s not an extremely high number, it’s a full 8 points more than what they gave up in their game 2 win. The Lakers offensive success was masked by some poor shooting by Kobe and a slow pace, but the Lakers’ O was sneaky effective. If the C’s hope to bring that number back down, they’ll need to give up less than the 44 shots they gave up within 10 feet in game 3 by limiting offensive rebounds and denying the penetration lanes to players not named Kobe.
And what about the Lakers offensive adjustments? Down the stretch of game 3, we saw a Kobe/Fisher pick and roll that caught the C’s defense off guard, freeing Fisher up for his big shots. In this game I expect to see more variations of the Triangle to be put in place in order to get the Lakers the shots that they want. And while I’m unsure as to what they will be, I do know there are a few sets that I’d like to see the Lakers employ a bit more of. Sets that can hopefully counter the Celtics’ fantastic help and recover scheme.
First is the sideline initiation into the low post. Granted, the C’s are doing an excellent job of pushing Gasol off the block and making it more difficult for him to make catches in his sweet spot. So, the adjustment that I’d like to see is for the Lakers to start with an empty post by initiating the ball to the wing on the weak side. After the ball goes to the wing, I’d like for the guard to then cut through while the two big men on the ball side screen for each other so one of them can then cut to the ball side. This is an action the Lakers used a great deal against OKC in order to try and beat the fronting defense and to get post players moving towards the ball rather than fighting for position for long portions of the shot clock. Against Boston I think it can have a similar effect and give the Laker big men a chance to move towards the ball instead of wrestling for position. Wrestling that burns up energy and time on the shot clock.
Second, I’d like to see the Lakers initiate their offense more quickly. Too often in this series (especially in the second half of game 3) the Lakers walked the ball up and didn’t get into the motion of their sets until the shot clock was under 15 seconds. That doesn’t leave nearly enough time to allow players to screen and cut or for more than one (maybe two) options of the Triangle to play out. And when those options aren’t open, the result is often a forced jump shot that’s taken against the backdrop of a contesting defender as the clock is winding down. It’s situations like these in which the C’s defense excels and if the Lakers hope to be more successful, they’ll need to be better at avoiding these scenarios. So, I hope to see the Lakers secure rebounds and then push the ball up the court. The C’s are a very good transition defense team so I don’t expect a lot of open court baskets. But the seconds saved on the front end of the clock will pay dividends on the back end with better shots secured off of more options being explored.
Adjustments aside though, this game will really come down to poise, patience, execution, and that extra effort. Both teams are sure to play hard. But it will be the team that plays smarter in the face of extreme pressure that will win the day. It’s been that way in the first three games and I don’t expect it to change now. If the Lakers can do the things that win games – rebound, take care of the ball, avoid foul trouble (I know, easier said than done for both teams) – they’ll put themselves in a position to win the game. But, they’ll only be in position. In order to claim the prize, they must take that extra step and execute when up against a fantastic defense and a road crowd that is 100% against them.
It can be done, though. And the Lakers are a team capable of doing it. Remember, dating back to last season’s Finals (and including game 1 against Boston), the Lakers have won 7 of their last 11 playoff road games and clinched 4 series on the road. It’s never easy, but this team understands the pressure of these types of games and what’s needed in order to secure the W. Here’s to them getting it done again tonight.