Bryant's Big Performance Saves Lakers in Game ThreeKobe Bryant scored a game-high 36 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, willing the Lakers to an 87-81 game three win over the Celtics. Bryant earned 18 free throw attempts with his aggressive play and the only blemish on his performance is that he missed seven of them. Still, he set the tone for the Lakers right from the start, scoring 11 first quarter points, and he scored nine points in the final 6:55 to seal the deal. Sasha Vujacic was the only other Laker who scored in double figures and his 20 points on 7-10 field goal shooting were very important, particularly since Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were almost completely invisible offensively; Gasol had a game-high tying 12 rebounds but he only scored nine points on 3-9 shooting, while Odom contributed nine rebounds and four assists but only scored four points on 2-9 shooting, committed five turnovers and made numerous boneheaded plays. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 25 points on 8-13 shooting but Kevin Garnett (13 points on 6-21 shooting) and Paul Pierce (six points on 2-14 shooting) had miserable offensive performances, though Garnett did have an impact in other areas (12 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots).
There has been so much talk about how well Boston defends Bryant--including the laughable assertion that Ray Allen can stop him one on one--but after three games in this series Bryant is averaging 30 ppg on 32-69 field goal shooting (.464), slightly better numbers than he posted during the regular season, when he won his first MVP. People need to forget about two regular season games that took place more than six months ago when the Lakers had a different roster and start to understand that what happened in game one of this series is that Bryant missed a lot of shots that he normally makes; he has shot 23-43 from the field (.535) since then and that kind of Finals performance against the best defensive team in the league is most impressive. As Jerry West presciently said prior to game three, "You shouldn't worry about Kobe Bryant. His effort is always there. That's not the person. You should look at everyone else and what their effort and contribution is going to be." Lakers Coach Phil Jackson echoed that theme, telling NBA TV's David Aldridge before the game, "I think the other guys have to carry their weight."
TNT's Kenny Smith, making a guest appearance during NBA TV's pregame coverage, said that before the series he expected that either Gasol or Odom would be able to have a huge advantage--whichever one was not being guarded by Garnett. He noted that this was not the case in the first two games. The reality is that Bryant has a lot less help around him than many people seem to believe. The Celtics have three perennial All-Stars who are most likely future Hall of Famers, plus a bench that is loaded with veterans who have a lot of playoff and Finals experience; the Lakers have one one-time All-Star in Gasol and, essentially, a bunch of role players. Without Bryant holding everything together like he's MacGyver the Lakers would be fortunate to win 40 games in the tough Western Conference--yet they are now just three wins away from winning the NBA championship. No NBA team has ever won a championship with a roster that contains only two players who made the All-Star team at least once (the 2004 Pistons had two players who had already been All-Stars and three more who would later make the All-Star team at least once, including Chauncey Billups, who won the Finals MVP that season).
Coach Jackson made what turned out to be the key strategic move in the series so far, switching the defensive assignments of his starting backcourt; he put Bryant on point guard Rajon Rondo and Derek Fisher on Allen. The Fisher-Allen matchup is not a great one for the Lakers and Allen is the only player who was really productive for the Celtics offensively in game three but the brilliance of Jackson's decision is that it had a great impact at both ends of the court; Rondo is not a great outside shooter, so Bryant was free to roam around and disrupt whoever had the ball and this contributed to the slow starts that Garnett and Pierce had. Meanwhile, this crossmatch situation meant that whenever the Lakers got a stop and pushed the ball in transition Rondo had to guard Bryant, which is of course a tremendous advantage for the Lakers. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned this point immediately and the crossmatch led to the Lakers' first field goal when Bryant caught the ball in the post against Rondo, spun baseline to avoid Kendrick Perkins' double team and scored right over the top of Garnett at the rim; it would be good for the Lakers if Gasol and Odom were able to complete plays that forcefully against Garnett instead of acting like they are scared to death of him.
Bryant got fouled after snaring an offensive rebound and made two free throws to put the Lakers up 8-2 at the 8:05 mark of a very choppy first quarter; both teams missed a lot of shots and committed careless turnovers. On the next possession, Bryant got a defensive rebound and went coast to coast, forcing Rondo to foul him. Again, a big difference between Bryant and Odom is that when Bryant goes coast to coast he generally scores, draws a foul or passes to a teammate for a wide open shot. Odom's open court skills are very overrated: he repeatedly makes poor decisions that result in wild shots, bad passes or charging fouls. Bryant only split those free throws, the beginning of a difficult night at the free throw line for someone who consistently shoots well over .800 on his free throws. Fisher stole a pass by Pierce and fed Bryant, who missed two free throws after Allen fouled him.
The Celtics have repeatedly burned the Lakers this series with transition baskets after the Lakers take bad shots or make turnovers. After Odom got a defensive rebound, dribbled coast to coast and made a terrible pass to Gasol that was stolen by Rondo, Allen made a transition three pointer to cut the Lakers' lead to 9-5. A little bit later, Gasol set a screen for Bryant at the top of the key and then dove to the hoop. Bryant read the defense, found an angle to attack and made a left handed layup to put the Lakers ahead 17-12; his ability to finish well with either hand has been crucial in this series, because at least one big man usually challenges him every time he drives and in several of those situations a right handed shot would have been blocked. The next time the Lakers had the ball, Bryant drove to the hoop, attracted the defense and made a gorgeous behind the back pass to Gasol, whose soft attempt was snuffed by Garnett--don't talk about Bryant only having one assist in this game unless you also mention how many of his great passes to Gasol and Odom became blocked shots, soft moves and turnovers.
The Lakers did not utilize the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that much in the first quarter because they scored a lot of points in transition and when they were in the halfcourt they often took advantage of the Bryant-Rondo mismatch. However, one time that they ran the action and did not score provides an instructive example of how everyone must be on the same page for this play to work: with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter, the Celtics trapped Bryant after a Gasol screen, Gasol rolled to the hoop and Bryant swung the ball to Jordan Farmar, who was open because the defense sagged into the paint to deal with Gasol. Gasol seemed to flash open for a split second but then Turiaf dove into the post, bringing his defender into the paint and thus allowing him to, in effect, guard two people at once--if Turiaf had waited, then Gasol would have had a clear path to the hoop. Instead, Farmar fed the ball to Turiaf in the post and Turiaf missed a turnaround jumper.
So much has been said about Bryant's field goal percentage--which, as noted, is now above his regular season average--that few people seem to have noticed how terribly Garnett is shooting: Garnett has shot just 16-53 from the field (.302) since the first half of game one and the overall trend for him in this series is spiraling downward, from 9-22 (.409) in game one to 7-19 (.368) in game two to 6-21 (.286) in game three. Obviously, if Bryant performed that way the Lakers would get killed--and he would then get killed in the media--but the Celtics are strong enough defensively and have enough firepower elsewhere to be competitive despite Garnett's disappearing act. Bryant scored 11 first quarter points while Garnett was scoreless and missed all five of his field goal attempts, but the score was tied 20-20 at the end of the quarter. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers quite accurately told ABC's Michele Tafoya, "We weathered the storm early."
Odom committed his third foul at the 11:37 mark of the second quarter but the Lakers played better after he went to the bench. The key factor was that Coach Jackson did not give Bryant the rest that he normally gets at the start of the second quarter and instead left him out there to stabilize the reserve players; the Lakers' bench performs much better with Bryant on the court than they do when they are left to their own devices, which is why Jackson played Bryant a game-high 45:15. Bryant scored the first points of the quarter after he caught the ball at the three point line, dribbled to the midrange area and drilled a pullup jumper. That may sound simple but Van Gundy explained that it is not: "People don't understand just how hard that shot is. He caught the ball, put the ball down at full speed to his right, balanced up, went straight up and down to avoid the charging foul and knocked it in...It's the hardest shot to defend in the NBA--the pullup jump shot. Very few people have that shot because it is very difficult to balance after picking up the dribble." That is a shot that LeBron James does not consistently make, which is why his shooting percentage was so awful in the 2007 Finals versus the Spurs and in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics. I've made this comparison between Bryant and James before, but it cannot be emphasized enough because it highlights the difference between being the best player in the NBA and being the second best player; this is one of the reasons that Van Gundy said that Bryant is so far ahead of the rest of the league that "LeBron James is number three. There is no number two."
Bryant hit a couple free throws after a postup move to make the score 24-20 and then a play happened that beautifully illustrates how important it is to the bench players to have Bryant on the court with them. Bryant received a pass near the hoop, causing the defense to collapse to him, so he passed to Ronny Turiaf in the lane, Turiaf swung the ball to Luke Walton, Walton passed to Farmar and Farmar kicked the ball to Vujacic, who drained a wide open three pointer. In the boxscore, Farmar gets an assist and there is no statistical evidence that Bryant did anything but if he is not in the game that play most likely never happens because all of the defenders would have stayed at home; that is another reason why Bryant's assist total in this game is a poor indicator of how much "assistance" he actually provided to his teammates.
Bryant again showed off his left handed skills by taking a defensive rebound coast to coast and finishing strongly with his off hand. That may sound easy but he weaved his way through the entire defense and completed the play against bigger defenders at the hoop, while most of Odom's long distance forays in this game ended in disaster. Soon after that a Farmar three pointer put the Lakers up 34-25, their biggest lead not only in the game but in the series up to that point. After Walton's weak layup was blocked by P.J. Brown, Allen fed Garnett an alley-oop for a transition dunk, Garnett's first field goal in eight attempts and another example of Hubie Brown's oft repeated maxim that when a team misses a layup the opponent will often score an easy basket within a few seconds. That is also an example of how bad offense leads to defensive breakdowns; many times in this series we have seen Gasol, Odom and other players make weak plays in the paint that the Celtics turned into wide open shots. The Lakers' halfcourt defense has actually been good for most of the series but they have been hurt in transition and the blame for that goes squarely on the shoulders of players who are not finishing strongly enough in the paint on offense.
Now that Bryant had helped the reserves to build a working margin, Coach Jackson took advantage of a timeout situation at the 5:49 mark to give Bryant a rest for several minutes while only having him out of the game for 1:38 on the clock. As soon as Bryant returned he faced up Allen in an isolation and drained a pullup jumper over him. Van Gundy said, "Picture perfect execution of the pullup jump shot. Stops, on balance, great follow through--that's textbook, young people." Mark Jackson added that this is not an accident, that Bryant's skill is the product of all of his offseason work on his game. It is worth noting that this is the same kind of shot that went in and out for Bryant on several occasions in game one; we'll see how many of them he misses the rest of the series.
Allen made a three pointer to cut the margin to 43-37 at halftime. Bryant scored 19 first half points on 6-10 field goal shooting and 7-12 free throw shooting. Gasol shot 0-3 from the field and had two points and four rebounds while Odom had 0 points and four rebounds. Allen led the Celtics with 12 points, Garnett had two points on 1-9 shooting and Pierce had two points on 1-7 shooting.
In the third quarter, Odom picked up right where he had left off. He turned the ball over the first time that he touched it and then after Bryant made a steal and spoonfed him for a layup his shot was blocked by Perkins. Bryant made a runner, missed a jumper and then hit another pullup jumper to put the Lakers up 47-39. Van Gundy said, "You want a term for indefensible? Right there. Drive it left, spin back right, balance up, elevate, great defense by Ray Allen. There's nothing he can do. There's nothing anyone in this world can do." That is the important point: it is true that from a fundamental standpoint Allen plays sound defense against Bryant--but to suggest that he can stop him one on one is absurd.
Rondo left the game early in the third quarter after spraining his ankle. He was replaced by Eddie House and that changed things for the Lakers offensively and defensively. A defender must stay attached to House at all times because he is a great shooter, so that opened things up for the Celtics offensively and the Lakers no longer enjoyed the crossmatch advantage of Bryant on Rondo. The Celtics' offense came alive and the Lakers hit a dry spell during which they made only one shot in the 4:17 after Bryant's pullup jumper. Meanwhile, Garnett scored five points and assisted on a House three pointer as the Celtics took a 51-49 lead. The Celtics pushed that edge to 61-56 before the Lakers returned to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play. This time, Bryant accepted the trap, read the defense and found an angle to drive to the hoop and hit a running bank shot. Coach Jackson took Bryant out at the 1:07 mark in order to let him rest during the break between quarters. The Celtics led 62-60 going into the fourth quarter after Odom blew yet another layup after getting a defensive rebound and going coast to coast.
Naturally, Coach Jackson put Bryant right back in at the start of the fourth quarter instead of giving him the rest that he would normally get at that time. Each team made a three pointer to open the final stanza and then neither team scored for more than two minutes. With 9:36 left, Odom picked up his fourth foul with yet another charging foul; he has yet to understand that the Celtics led the league in taking charges and that you cannot simply drive straight into the teeth of their defense. The difference between Bryant and Odom in that regard is that Bryant is much better able to read the defense, see where the proper angles of attack are and know when to try to get all the way to the hoop and when to shoot a pullup jumper. Of course, Odom does not have a reliable pullup jumper, so that is not really an option for him. A couple James Posey free throws put the Celtics up 68-66 but that would turn out to be their last lead of the game.
A defensive breakdown left Bryant wide open behind the three point line and he drilled that shot to put the Lakers ahead 69-68. Derek Fisher and Bryant each made a pair of free throws to extend that margin to 73-68. Odom had been out of the game since committing his fourth foul but he returned at the 6:27 mark and soon made his presence felt by missing a layup, turning the ball over and missing a dunk. Gasol flailed at the rebound of Odom's miss and seemingly accidentally tipped it in without having inside position but that was an important play because it put the Lakers up 77-70 with 4:17 left. The Lakers went through a strange stretch during which they apparently forgot that Bryant is on the team and they had several possessions during which he did not receive the ball in a scoring area. At one point, Van Gundy said, "There can't be a possession in the last three minutes of a game that means so much where Kobe Bryant doesn't touch the ball." Not surprisingly, the Celtics trimmed the lead to 78-76. After the teams traded misses, the Lakers had the ball with less than two minutes left and they made the biggest play of the game. The Celtics trapped Bryant just inside the frontcourt and he passed to Odom, who swung the ball to Vujacic for a wide open corner three pointer that put the Lakers up 81-76. Mark Jackson said, "That's a shot created by Bryant--takes the double team, willing passer." Yes, Odom got the assist but Bryant made the play, because if he had not been on the court then the Celtics would not have double teamed anyone, Vujacic would not have been open and Odom would have most likely turned the ball over, missed a shot or committed yet another charging foul--that has basically turned into his signature move. A bit later, play by play man Mike Breen recited Vujacic's numbers and said, "What a game by Vujacic" and Mark Jackson immediately replied, "But the play is made by Bryant."
After a defensive stop, Fisher made two free throws to put the Lakers up by seven but the Celtics quickly cut it to five after the Lakers played terrible defense on an out of bounds play and let Garnett waltz to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. With the game and the series on the line, the Lakers used their best play, a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll. This time, Bryant went away from the screen and hit a jumper. Bryant seemed a little more reluctant to pass to Gasol in this game than he usually does but one can hardly blame him considering how softly Gasol has been finishing plays.
House's three pointer made the score 85-81 Lakers with :59 left. For most of the series, the Celtics have been tilting the floor toward Bryant but we have seen that throughout this game he repeatedly burned them not only with his scoring but also by creating open shots for his teammates, even if he did not get assists on those plays. Therefore, they decided to do something that they have rarely done: ask Allen to guard Bryant one on one with no help. Bryant worked Allen into the lane, gave him an up and under move worthy of Kevin McHale and dropped in a short jumper. Mark Jackson said, "What I don't understand is playing him straight up. You are saying to Ray Allen it's your job to stop Kobe Bryant. It's not going to happen in our lifetime. He can't guard Kobe Bryant one on one." Perhaps during a timeout Mark Jackson could educate some of the media members who are at the game about this and then we would not be subjected to stupid articles about how the Celtics are guarding Bryant one on one (they didn't for the most part until this play) and how well Allen is stopping Bryant (he can't, as Jackson quite correctly said).
Of course, this game would not have been complete without another offensive foul by Odom. This one was strange even for him. After the Celtics missed a shot and got an offensive rebound, Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen. Mark Jackson mentioned earlier in the quarter that illegal screens by Garnett were freeing up Celtic shooters, to which Van Gundy had quipped that it is not illegal if it is not called. Those illegal screens were the only way that the Celtics could loosen Pierce from Bryant's defense but this time the referees called the foul. So the Lakers now had the ball with a six point lead and :21 left. For some reason, the Celtics made no attempt to foul to stop the clock, so the Lakers could simply have dribbled the clock out but instead Odom bulled into the lane and committed a charge with :06 left. Pierce then missed a three pointer and the game was over. What if Pierce had made that shot, stole the inbounds pass like Reggie Miller and hit another three pointer? Odom's stupid move opened the door, however slightly, to the possibility of the Celtics forcing overtime. As NBA TV's Pete Vecsey said, now we can all understand why Coach Jackson called Odom "a confused player" after game two.
This was a big win for the Lakers, because a loss would have meant that a Boston championship would just be a matter of time. That said, the Lakers must put together two more similar efforts just to get the series back to Boston without facing elimination and then they will have to figure out how to win a game there. It would be most helpful if Gasol would start playing with more aggressiveness and if Odom would actually check in to the series mentally.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 AM