KG and the Celtics Lock Down Kobe and the LakersBefore the Boston Celtics played the L.A. Lakers on Sunday night, people spoke of how the old rivalry between these teams can be revived now that both franchises have improved so much. It turns out that those people spoke too soon, because the Celtics pushed aside the Lakers as easily as they have pushed aside most of their other opponents this season, winning 110-91. Paul Pierce scored a game-high 33 points, Kevin Garnett produced a very well balanced stat line (22 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots) and Ray Allen added 19 points. Starting point guard Rajon Rondo was a late scratch with a hamstring injury but Tony Allen (16 points, four assists) took his place and Boston did not miss a beat.
Ready-made excuses were in place for the Celtics: this was Boston's fourth game in five nights--all on the road--while the rested Lakers had won four in a row and six of their previous seven games. This kind of game is often referred to in NBA circles as a "scheduling loss," a game in which the travel schedule and the opponent form a perfect storm that results in defeat. Instead, the Celtics won in commanding fashion, essentially turning the fourth quarter into garbage time.
The Celtics improved to 26-3 and have matched the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 games (though it must be added that the Bulls rang up 41 wins before suffering their fourth loss). I still don't think that this team will break that mark but one by one the Boston Celtics are answering all possible questions and shutting up any remaining doubters. Will they play good defense? Check. Will they get enough production from the starting point guard and starting center? Check. Do they have enough depth? Check. Will the chemistry between stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen be good? Check, check, check--and it might be checkmate for the rest of the league; you still have to rate the defending champions San Antonio Spurs ahead of this team, the Detroit Pistons may yet be heard from in the playoffs (though they have departed meekly each year since winning the 2004 title) and I still have faith in the eventual revival of the Cleveland Cavaliers but this Celtics team is no joke and they are making a mockery of their opponents on a nightly basis.
Kobe Bryant, who had averaged 36 ppg on .561 field goal shooting in the previous three games, scored 22 points and shot just 6-25 from the field. Bryant said, "I had good looks. I just missed them. You are going to have nights when you can't put the ball in the ocean sitting on a boat. You just move on to the next one." Bryant was hardly the only Laker who struggled. Andrew Bynum, an improving player who has started to receive outlandish praise recently, had eight points and two rebounds before fouling out and was about as invisible as a seven foot tall person can be. The Lakers shot .354 as a team and were outrebounded 49-41. Lamar Odom shot 6-17 from the field, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds; he also committed a senseless flagrant foul against Ray Allen with 2:57 left in the game and the Celtics up 103-84. Basically, Odom crosschecked Allen into the Celtics bench. Odom will certainly be fined for this and it would not at all be surprising if he is suspended for a game. Allen received a technical foul, though it is not clear what he did wrong. Fans of Amare Stoudemire, Boris Diaw and Carmelo Anthony who think that their heroes did the right things last year and were victimized when the league suspended them for leaving the area of the bench (Stoudemire and Diaw during the Spurs-Suns series) or escalating an altercation by throwing a sucker punch (Anthony in the infamous Nuggets-Knicks clash at Madison Square Garden) should note that no Celtics threw punches, left the bench area or acted the fool in any manner. In other words, the NBA's rules to prevent the escalation of confrontations do work and it is possible to exercise self control even in heated moments. Play was very chippy throughout the game and in one early sequence it looked at first glance like Garnett simply shoved Fisher to the ground for no reason. Garnett and Lakers forward Trevor Ariza each received technical fouls and a replay revealed what actually happened: Ariza pushed Garnett, who then tumbled into Fisher, knocking him over. Again, nobody lost his cool and did anything rash. Later in the game, during a stoppage of play, Garnett made a point of going up to Fisher, gesturing to where the incident had happened and apparently explaining that Ariza had pushed him. Fisher nodded his head as if he accepted Garnett's explanation.
Fisher gave the Lakers a 2-0 lead by nailing a jumper on the opening possession--and it was all downhill for L.A. after that. Less than a minute later, the Celtics took the lead and never trailed again. Bryant struggled with his shot from the outset and never really got into a rhythm. He tried to compensate for this by driving to the hoop and drawing fouls but his 10-11 free throw shooting was not nearly enough to make up for all of the field goals that he and his teammates missed. It seemed like the Lakers had an inordinate number of missed layups but the Celtics lead the league in defensive field goal percentage and point differential for a good reason: they put relentless pressure on shooters and concede nothing. The Celtics led 32-23 by the end of the first quarter and it took a buzzer beating three pointer by Fisher to pull the Lakers to within 53-45 by halftime. The Celtics built double digit leads more than once in the third quarter but when Bryant drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Fisher for an open three pointer the Lakers only trailed 72-66 and it looked like they had weathered the storm--but that is when the floodgates really opened: Pierce scored 10 straight points in the last 3:17 of the quarter, putting the Celtics up 80-66 heading into the final 12 minutes, and Boston never looked back.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM