Celtics Build 24 Point Lead, Survive Huge Lakers Rally to Win Game Two, 108-102The Boston Celtics led the L.A. Lakers 95-71 with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win. Paul Pierce, showing no ill effects from his game one knee injury, led the Celtics with 28 points on 9-16 shooting from the field. He also had eight assists and four rebounds. Leon Powe came off of the bench to contribute a playoff career-high 21 points in just 14:39, shooting 6-7 from the field. Kevin Garnett controlled the boards with a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just 17 points on 7-19 field goal shooting. Ray Allen had an efficient 17 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo only scored four points on 1-4 field goal shooting but he had 16 assists, six rebounds and just two turnovers. P.J. Brown did not have huge individual numbers (six points on 3-4 field goal shooting, three rebounds) but he had a +20 plus/minus number, easily a game-high total, and that reflects not only his impact but also how completely the Celtics' bench outplayed the much vaunted--and overrated--Lakers' bench. Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds, shooting 11-23 from the field. He had 13 points and two assists during the Lakers' 31-9 fourth quarter run that almost turned into the biggest comeback in Finals history. Pau Gasol had decent numbers (17 points on 8-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, four assists) but for the second game in a row he was very quiet offensively in the second half (four points). Vladimir Radmanovic struggled terribly for most of the game but he scored seven points during the late comeback, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Lamar Odom added 10 points and eight rebounds but he made a lot of bad plays at both ends of the court and he was the only Lakers starter who had a negative plus/minus number (-13). Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Odom, "He looked like a confused player out there at times."
The Celtics only outrebounded the Lakers 37-36, which frankly is hard to believe because while watching the game it seemed like the Celtics got every loose ball and key rebound. The Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 9-3 during the late run, so that is part of what made the final numbers closer. The Lakers shot 41-83 from the field (.494), including 10-21 from three point range (.476), but of course those numbers were also skewed a bit by the late rally, during which the Lakers made five of their Finals record-tying seven fourth quarter three pointers. The Celtics shot 36-68 from the field (.529), including 9-14 from three point range (.643). The Lakers' defense was horrible, particularly in the second and third quarters when they gave up 63 points. Another huge factor was the incredible free throw disparity: the Celtics shot 27-38 (.711) from the free throw line, while the Lakers shot just 10-10, the fourth fewest free throw attempts ever in an NBA Finals game. Some of that can be attributed to the Celtics being more aggressive and opportunistic but there were several times that various Lakers--particularly Bryant--drove to the hoop and seemed to be fouled but nothing was called; I don't think that this was a conspiracy or anything deliberate, those are just the breaks of the game and Bryant said after the game that you have to play through such situations without losing your aggressiveness. In a game in which the rebounding and points in the paint battles were pretty even it strains credulity a bit to believe that one team was fouling that much more often than the other; the fouls called on the Lakers seemed to be correct and mostly stemmed from them being out of position and thus reaching with their hands instead of sliding their feet but the Celtics also did a lot of reaching and grabbing that was not called. The free throw situation was a factor in the game but it did not decide the outcome. As Bryant said, "What we have to do is get those loose balls, get timely rebounds and stop them from knocking down those transition threes and we'll be fine." Then, he added with a smile, "A free throw or two wouldn't hurt."
Any idea that Allen is primarily guarding Bryant one on one was refuted on the very first possession of the game. Bryant caught the ball in the post and Kendrick Perkins all but abandoned Odom on the perimeter in order to step into the paint and dissuade Bryant from getting into the middle. Bryant made the right read and passed to Odom, who countered the Celtics' rotation by swinging the ball to Radmanovic, who missed a jumper. The only way for the Lakers to punish the Celtics for the extra defensive attention that they are giving to Bryant is for his teammates to make open shots. That is why it is not optimal to have Odom on the same side of the court as Bryant when Bryant posts up; Odom is not a knock down shooter, his driving ability is overrated and, as Coach Jackson noted during his pregame standup, the Celtics led the league in taking charges. That is why it is asinine to make a general statement like "Bryant should drive to the hoop and not settle for the jumper"; it only makes sense to drive against the Celtics from certain angles and against certain matchups. When Bryant posts up it would be best to have a three point shooter in the corner, a three point shooter at the top of the key and Odom crashing the boards from the weak side. Or the Lakers could put Gasol around the top of the key, ready to shoot an 18 foot jumper if his man traps Bryant in the post. Gasol is a much better faceup shooter than Odom. Odom has never completely grasped how to play in the Triangle and how to properly read situations and this is just one example of the "confusion" that Jackson mentioned.
The Lakers scored their first points of the game when Derek Fisher lobbed a pass to Odom, who cut to the hoop and dunked; Odom is much, much more effective offensively as a pressure release player coming in from the weak side than he is as a primary option on the strong side. Garnett missed a jumper on the next possession but Perkins got the offensive rebound and passed to Pierce, who drained a wide open three pointer. Coaches and students of the game know that one of the best times to shoot three pointers is right after an offensive rebound, because the defense is scrambling around.
In what may turn out to be a recurring theme in this series, Radmanovic picked up his second foul very early--this time at the 10:06 mark of the first quarter. Coach Jackson tweaked his rotation, electing not to go with regular substitute Luke Walton or his game one choice of Sasha Vujacic; instead, Jackson deployed Trevor Ariza, a midseason acquisition who has spent most of his time with the team sidelined by injury. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy questioned this move, saying that Ariza's inability to hit an outside shot would hamper the Lakers' offensive attack. In fact, Jackson later conceded that putting Ariza in the game messed up the Lakers' offensive rhythm. Ariza only played a total of 7:19, missing his only shot, grabbing two rebounds and committing two fouls and one turnover while compiling a plus/minus number of -6. Pierce went right at Ariza as soon as he came into the game but he missed a jumper and Bryant grabbed the rebound and went coast to coast to make a running bank shot for his first points. That was an excellent opportunity to drive because the Celtics' defense was not set, so Bryant did not have to worry about committing a charging foul or having his shot blocked. The teams exchanged baskets and then Pierce drove to the hoop, was fouled by Ariza and converted the free throw for a three point play. Van Gundy noted that Ariza had a miscommunication about how to defend that play.
Gasol made a nice left handed hook shot over Garnett to put the Lakers up 10-8 and then Allen missed a three pointer. On the next possession, Bryant posted up Allen and Perkins again double-teamed Bryant. This time, Bryant spun away from the trap, drove along the baseline and passed to Gasol, who let the ball go right through his hands. Gasol pointed to the floor to indicate that he preferred for Bryant to give him a bounce pass but ABC's Mark Jackson retorted, "Give me a catch," saying that Bryant did his job by drawing the defense and that Gasol should have caught the ball and finished the play. To his credit, Gasol posted up the next time, did a nice drop step move against Garnett and dunked the ball. After a Bryant free throw and an Odom tip in the Lakers were up 15-8, which would prove to be their biggest lead of the game. The Celtics answered with an 11-4 run and then Bryant picked up an offensive foul, his second foul of the game. Van Gundy immediately said, "I don't like that call," arguing that there was only marginal contact of the kind that could be called on every play and that it is not right to make such a call unless the officials are truly going to blow their whistles for every such infraction. A good indication of how bad the call was is that Mark Jackson actually agreed with his former coach instead of arguing with him. Bryant sat down at the 1:59 mark with the Lakers leading 19-18. Jordan Farmar hit a late three pointer to give the Lakers a 22-20 lead at the end of the quarter.
The Lakers' bench has been highly praised this season but I have consistently maintained that they are overrated. For one thing, the statistics for reserve players are highly context dependent because they play limited minutes and are able to pad their numbers in garbage time situations. Also, the Lakers' reserves often play alongside Bryant and they are much more effective in that case than they are when they are simply dueling head to head with other reserves. Obviously, with Bryant on the bench in foul trouble the reserves were on their own to start the second quarter--and the result was not pretty: in just 2:20 they committed four turnovers, Vujacic missed a jumper and Farmar missed a wild running shot in the paint. Coach Jackson told ABC's Michele Tafoya between quarters that he planned to keep Bryant out until the 8:59 official timeout--but he had to burn a timeout at the 9:40 mark just to get Bryant back in the game because the Celtics had already made a 10-0 run. Bryant immediately hit a jumper to make the score 30-24 Boston. However, once a team goes on a run and gets confidence and momentum--particularly at home--it is not so easy to get the game back under control. The Lakers briefly got as close as 41-37 but then Pierce and Allen opened things up again with back to back three pointers. Bryant assisted on a Radmanovic three pointer that made the score 47-40 Celtics at the 2:06 mark but right after that Bryant picked up his third foul and went back to the bench; the Celtics closed out the half with a 7-2 run in the last 1:53 as Bryant sat and they led 54-42 at halftime. In the second quarter the Lakers outscored the Celtics 18-17 with Bryant on the court and were outscored 17-2 in the less than four minutes that he was out of the game due to foul trouble. Understandably, during the halftime show Van Gundy said, "The biggest factor in the first half was Bryant's foul trouble."
At the start of the third quarter the Celtics pushed the lead to 58-42 before Odom hit a jumper and Bryant scored on a sensational, twisting drive through the heart of the Celtics' defense. Bryant thought that he was fouled and said so in no uncertain terms to referee Dan Crawford, who immediately hit him with a technical foul. Van Gundy commented, "I love the fire of Kobe Bryant. That is what greatness is all about. An incredible spin move, thought he got hit. Sometimes there is a good time to take a technical foul and make a point." Allen made the technical free throw and then Pierce hit a three pointer to put the Celtics up 62-46 but Bryant scored six points and had an assist in a 13-6 run as the Lakers cut the margin to 68-59. The Lakers had finally found an offensive rhythm by using the one set that has been most consistently effective against Boston, a screen/roll play involving Bryant and Gasol; virtually every time the Lakers run this action they get an open shot for Bryant, Gasol or a player on the weak side. If you want to know the difference between watching a basketball game and understanding it, contrast the post-game "analysis" of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry with what Van Gundy said during this third quarter stretch: Wilbon and Barry said that the Lakers got in trouble offensively because they went away from the Triangle Offense, while during the flow of the game Van Gundy correctly said, "I love the adjustment by Phil Jackson. No more Triangle. Side pick and roll with Bryant, post Bryant, iso Bryant. Bryant is the one who is going to bring you back in the game. Plays he makes, free throws he makes, shots he creates for himself and his teammates." The Lakers scored three straight baskets in a 1:14 stretch by playing this way: first, Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol, passed to Odom and Odom passed to Gasol on the move for an easy dunk; second, Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol, split the trap and elevated for a jumper; third, Bryant drew the defense and passed to Gasol for an open jumper.
Unfortunately, Radmanovic--who Coach Jackson has publicly referred to as a "space cadet"--mysteriously got the strange idea that the Lakers' best offensive play is for him to isolate one on one off the dribble and this brainstorm resulted in him missing a jumper and throwing an awful pass that Garnett stole. To make things worse, on each of the ensuing defensive possessions he got burned by Pierce. Mark Jackson said, "Four straight bad possessions by Radmanovic, two on offense and two on defense." Coach Jackson took Radmanovic out at the next stoppage of play but Radmanovic had already effectively killed the Lakers' rally and jump started a Celtics' run that pushed their lead to 83-61 by the end of the quarter.
Bryant assisted on three straight Lakers baskets to start the fourth quarter, the last of which was a Ronny Turiaf dunk after he ran a screen/roll with Bryant. Van Gundy again noted the effectiveness of that play, saying "The side pick and roll has really hurt the Celtics" and adding that even though the Celtics were winning handily that was something they would need to address. Although the Lakers' offense was once again clicking, they could not gain much ground because they were not getting defensive stops. The low point came when Leon Powe received an inbounds pass, dribbled coast to coast and scored an uncontested layup to make the score 93-71 Celtics. Garnett soon made a jumper to put the Celtics up 95-71, their biggest lead of the game. Then Bryant took over and the Lakers almost pulled off a most improbable comeback. First he hit a jumper, then he drew a foul and made both free throws and then he drew the defense before passing to Radmanovic for an open three pointer. Later, in a 1:03 stretch, Bryant made a three pointer, scored on a drive and scored on a tough left handed drive to make the score 104-95 Boston at the 1:50 mark. Fisher stole the ball from Pierce and Vujacic hit a transition three pointer to bring the Lakers within six points and then Radmanovic stole Pierce's pass and raced to the hoop for a dunk that cut the lead to four points. The next time the Celtics had the ball it looked like no one wanted to shoot and Rondo ended up missing a jumper near the end of the shot clock. Bryant got the rebound, drew a foul on Pierce and sank two free throws to pull the Lakers to within 104-102 with :38 left. Amazingly, all the Lakers needed was a stop and a score. Pierce drove to the basket, drew a foul on Fisher and made both free throws. The next sequence is a little hard to understand: after a timeout, Bryant inbounded the ball with :22 left and the Lakers never got the ball back to him. Instead, they wasted eight seconds before Vujacic took a three pointer that Pierce partially blocked. Bryant had popped open at the top of the key before Vujacic shot the ball and there was still enough time for Bryant to score a two pointer, have the Lakers foul, take a shot and then foul again if necessary. Understandably, Bryant did not seem real happy about not getting the ball back in that situation. Two James Posey free throws closed out the scoring.
Someone asked Coach Jackson after the game if the Lakers can carry the momentum from their late rally into game three but he immediately said, "No," quipping that L.A. is 2500 miles away and they cannot carry the momentum for that distance. The last team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the Finals was the 2006 Miami Heat, who trailed for most of game three before Gary Payton hit what turned out to be the game-winning shot; Dwyane Wade performed marvelously in that contest and played at a high level as the Heat swept the next three games. For the Lakers to duplicate that feat they will need to play better defense, keep the rebounding margin close and have a much better understanding of what their offensive strengths are.
I picked the Lakers to win this series because I thought that the Celtics would not have an answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play and that their success with this action would be enough to cancel out the slight rebounding deficit that I expected them to suffer. As Van Gundy noted during the telecast, the Lakers have in fact enjoyed success with that set. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have not run it enough and their rebounding (in game one) and defense (in game two) have been poor. We have seen many instances in these playoffs of teams performing much differently at home than on the road, so the likelihood is that the Lakers will win game three and probably game four--maybe even by large margins. However, there is no way around the fact that the Lakers face a steep uphill climb to win this series because they will have to beat the team with the best regular season record in the NBA four times in five games. That is not impossible but history suggests that it is not very likely, either.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM