Celtics Overwhelm Lakers, Claim 17th ChampionshipFor the first five games of the NBA Finals, the heavyweight match between the Celtics' league best defense and the Lakers' high powered offense was a close bout but in game six the Celtics landed a stunning knockout punch, posting a 131-92 victory to claim the franchise's 17th championship. After a competitive first quarter, the Celtics completely dominated the Lakers in every conceivable way, finishing with a 48-29 rebounding advantage, outscoring the Lakers 16-2 in fast break points, demolishing the Lakers 44-29 in points in the paint and forcing 19 turnovers while only committing seven. The Celtics set a Finals single-game record with 18 steals and held the Lakers to a Finals record low two offensive rebounds, which is particularly remarkable considering that the Lakers shot just .422 from the field. The Lakers had absolutely no defensive presence, recording 0 blocked shots while letting the Celtics shoot .494 from the field, including 13-26 (.500) from three point range.
Kevin Garnett tied for game-high scoring honors with 26 points, ripped down a game-high 14 rebounds and added four assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Garnett shot 10-18 from the field and was the best all around player on the court. Ray Allen also scored 26 points, shooting 8-12 from the field, including 7-9 from three point range. Allen tied the single game Finals record with his seven three pointers and his 22 three pointers in the series shattered the old record of 17 that had been held by Dan Majerle (1993) and Derek Harper (1994). Rajon Rondo had a brilliant all around game: 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals, just one short of Robert Horry's single game Finals record. James Posey came off of the bench to score 11 points on 4-4 shooting and play excellent defense against Kobe Bryant, while fellow reserve Eddie House added nine points and five assists.
Here is all you need to know about how balanced and deep the Celtics are: Finals MVP Paul Pierce shot 4-13 from the field and was Boston's fourth leading scorer in the series clincher. Pierce finished with 17 points and a game-high 10 assists. He averaged 21.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and 4.5 rpg while shooting .432 from the field in the series. It is interesting how perception becomes reality and how winning alters perception: this is being called a breakout series for Pierce, yet those numbers are lower than his career regular season averages in every category except assists. Pierce certainly played well in the Finals, he would have received my vote for Finals MVP and he was the best player on the court at times but this series and Boston's entire playoff run did not reveal anything new about his game except, perhaps, his ability to play very good defense; what this series showed is how much a team can accomplish when everyone focuses primarily on winning and when a team has a defensive mindset. Pierce has been a great player for many years but now that the Celtics are a championship team people are more willing and able to recognize and acknowledge his abilities.
Frankly, no Laker played particularly well. The Celtics were determined to not let regular season MVP Kobe Bryant beat them and, other than a quick 11 point burst in the first quarter, they forced Bryant to take contested shots or pass the ball to teammates who lacked focus, discipline and purpose. Bryant finished with a hard earned 22 points on 7-22 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. Bryant would never admit to being tired but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that Bryant seemed a little leg weary as the game wore on; that is hardly surprising considering that this team depends on him to score 30 points while shooting a good percentage, create scoring opportunities for players who cannot do so for themselves and have a major impact defensively by either guarding a top notch scorer such as Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or by being a Scottie Pippen-like help defender who roams around covering up the defensive shortcomings of his teammates. I've said my piece on the stupid and superficial Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons but any objective comparison of these two players has to begin with an incontrovertible fact: when Michael Jordan won six championships he played alongside a Top 50 player in Scottie Pippen, a guy who was the team's leading playmaker and who shouldered a major load defensively. In contrast, the Lakers essentially need Bryant to be Jordan and Pippen--scorer, facilitator, primary defender and help defender--while critics are interpreting Bryant's failure to be both guys to mean that he is not as good as Jordan was. I don't think that Bryant is as good as Jordan was but this series did not really shed any new light on that subject: the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers plus a number of excellent role players, while the Lakers have Bryant and a supporting cast that is not nearly as good as advertised, a point that I made repeatedly during the playoffs even as I correctly picked the Lakers to win the West precisely because I rightly expected that Bryant's greatness would be enough to mask the team's weaknesses.
Lamar Odom had quite possibly the least meaningful double double in Finals history, shooting just 2-8 from the field while compiling 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He amassed 10 of his points and three of his rebounds after the Lakers already trailed by at least 24 points. Jordan Farmar scored 12 points off of the bench, but the Lakers trailed by between 27 and 40 points when he scored the last nine of them in the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol had an incredibly soft and indifferent performance, producing just 11 points and eight rebounds while committing five turnovers; the contrast between Garnett's strong presence in the paint and Gasol's meek, timid effort was stunning and that was probably the single biggest individual mismatch in this game, with Ray Allen versus Sasha Vujacic coming in second--the major difference being that Garnett dominated Gasol when the outcome was in doubt, while Allen rained three pointers versus Vujacic's clueless defense when the Celtics already enjoyed a large lead.
Nothing that happened in the first five games or the initial 17 minutes of game six gave any indication of how lopsided this contest would turn out to be. Keep in mind that in the past two games the Lakers ran out to huge first quarter leads and even when they trailed by 24 in game two they roared back to cut the margin to two points late in the fourth quarter. These teams seemed to be evenly matched squads that featured contrasting styles, a gritty and tenacious Boston defense battling a powerful L.A. offense--and then Boston simply steamrolled L.A. in the final 31 minutes.
The Lakers took a 4-0 lead after Bryant hit a long jumper and Derek Fisher sank two free throws. The Celtics missed their first four shots and the early moments of the game looked like a carbon copy of the first quarters of games four and five, when Bryant nominally guarded Rondo while roaming around disrupting Boston's offense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said, "I love what Kobe's done on the first two possessions, the help he's given to force the ball to Rondo." An early sign that the other Lakers were not prepared to match Boston's focus and physicality came when Gasol received the ball in the post and absentmindedly allowed Rondo to simply rip it right out of his hands. Rondo burst down court and fed Allen for a transition three pointer. On the next possession the Lakers again gave the ball to Gasol in the post but instead of making a strong move he fired a wild pass that Bryant had to run out to half court to save. Allen and Kendrick Perkins double teamed Bryant at halfcourt as the shot clock went below 10 seconds and the possession ended with Odom bricking a three pointer. ABC's Mark Jackson observed, "That's the third time he (Gasol) caught the ball on the block--very passive, very tentative. He has to look to score." The Celtics defense has primarily focused on stopping Bryant anyway and once it became clear that no other Laker had brought any kind of game with him they attacked Bryant like a shark detecting blood in the water.
Allen made a couple free throws to put the Celtics ahead by one point but then Bryant sandwiched two three pointers around a couple Rondo free throws to put the Lakers up, 10-7. Allen made a technical free throw after a defensive three seconds call and after Perkins missed a layup, Odom grabbed the rebound and went coast to coast. As he crossed midcourt, I wondered aloud, "Missed layup, offensive foul or turnover?" This time it turned out to be the former, as Odom's layup attempt bounced wildly off of the backboard. As I have mentioned before, Odom's shots have no touch from any distance--they either go directly in or they miss badly, but he rarely benefits from a "shooter's roll," even on layups. Hubie Brown often says that when you miss a layup in the NBA the other team scores within a few seconds and, sure enough, Garnett Bogarted Gasol in the lane and made a layup to tie the score.
The next time down the court, Bryant and Gasol ran a screen/roll play. Bryant threw a behind the back pass to Gasol but Rondo again ripped the ball out of Gasol's hands. Bryant stole the ball right back and when Rondo grabbed his jersey Bryant flung the ball at the hoop from behind the three point line, trying for a four point play but no foul was called. Incredibly, the ball almost went in the hoop anyway. The next time the Lakers had the ball, Gasol posted up the much smaller Pierce and, instead of forcefully using his height and size advantage, missed a fadeaway jumper. Mark Jackson declared, "That's good defense but that's horrible offense...Phil Jackson got up, looked at Gasol and said, 'You have to play tough.' And he's 100% right. There should be 13 guys talking to him that way."
The Celtics made just three of their first 15 field goal attempts but they kept the score close by forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive boards. Bryant continued to try to get Gasol and Odom involved but that simply did not work. Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double team and tried to feed Odom in the paint but Odom literally backed away from the ball and Pierce stepped in for the steal. A Rondo jumper gave the Celtics a 12-10 lead and the Lakers once again fed Gasol in the post. Gasol got nothing accomplished and passed the ball back to Bryant with just four seconds left on the shot clock. Bryant pump faked, used an escape dribble and buried a three pointer to make the score 13-12 Lakers at the 5:30 mark; he made four of his first five shots and scored 11 of the Lakers' points. After Bryant's shot went in, Van Gundy exclaimed, "That is incredible right here. Good close out by Ray Allen, good pressure on the shot." The problem for the Lakers is that you cannot beat a 66 win team when only one player came to play and the other players expect him to do everything for them offensively and defensively. Van Gundy said of Gasol, "Three turnovers, soft on the boards, soft on the post. The contact level is going to be higher in this game and Pau Gasol's got to play through it."
If the Lakers had a better, more complete team then Bryant would guard Allen but the Lakers had so many other defensive problems that they put Fisher on Allen and used Bryant to roam around and clean up everyone else's mistakes. While that helped to keep Pierce and Garnett quiet in the early going, Allen scored eight points in the first 7:30. The Lakers enjoyed their last lead of the game at the 3:31 mark when Luke Walton's two free throws put them up 18-16. Garnett made three straight shots and Pierce hit a jumper to give the Celtics a 24-20 lead at the end of the quarter. The Lakers' final six possessions of the quarter consisted of another steal by Rondo from Gasol, a missed layup by Bryant, a turnover when Farmar dribbled between his legs and lost the ball out of bounds, a missed jumper by Farmar, two free throws by Farmar and a missed three pointer by Bryant. Bryant finished the quarter with 11 points on 4-7 shooting, while Garnett led the Celtics with 10 points on 5-7 shooting. Michele Tafoya interviewed Coach Jackson after the quarter and he stated the obvious: "Pau's got to do a better job...He's got to be stronger."
Jackson substituted Ronny Turiaf for Gasol at the start of the second quarter and kept Bryant in the game instead of giving him his usual rest. The Lakers tried to post up Turiaf but Sasha Vujacic was unable to feed him the ball, so Bryant received a pass at the top of the key with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. While the other four Lakers stood around instead of cutting or setting screens, Bryant tried to create something against some excellent defense by Posey. Bryant finally ended up nearly making a contested jumper over Posey. The Lakers retained possession after a loose ball foul and Vujacic made a jumper to cut the lead to 24-22.
I thought that the most important offensive set in this series would be the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play but after some initial success early in the series Gasol became increasingly tentative and that set lost some of its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the Celtics gave the Lakers a taste of their own medicine by involving Pierce in a lot of screen/roll plays. Usually, Garnett set the screens but in game six House set the screens, forcing the Lakers to find a way to react without leaving him or Pierce open. The Lakers had a great deal of difficulty defending this play, as first House hit a jumper and then Pierce drained a three pointer. Odom actually had a productive coast to coast excursion, drawing a foul and making two free throws to pull the Lakers to within 29-26. Then Pierce missed a three pointer but after Odom got the rebound he threw a horrible full court pass that Posey easily intercepted. Pierce drove to the hoop and got his fifth assist on a nice feed to Leon Powe.
After Bryant missed a three pointer, another Pierce-House screen/roll led to Fisher switching on to Pierce, who took him into the post, drew a foul and split a pair of free throws. Bryant made a free throw after a defensive three seconds call and Gasol made perhaps his best move of the night, connecting on a hook shot for his first field goal of the game. The Lakers only trailed 32-29 at the 7:50 mark and no one could have imagined the onslaught that was about to take place. It began with the Celtics getting three offensive rebounds on one possession, a tremendous display of energy and hustle that led to a Posey three pointer. Then House hit a three pointer and two free throws and Posey drained a three pointer as the Celtics made an 11-0 run in just 2:21. The Lakers never got closer than 10 points the rest of the game.
After Vladimir Radmanovic missed a three pointer, he committed his third foul by bumping Pierce on an inbounds play. Van Gundy said, "That's an inexplicable play by Radmanovic. It's a hard enough matchup but to bail Pierce out at 20 feet knowing that you are in the penalty, that's just bad basketball." Pierce made the two free throws to increase the lead to 47-33. The Celtics closed the quarter on a 9-0 run in the last 1:59 to take a 58-35 halftime lead. Garnett had 17 points on 8-12 shooting plus six rebounds, while Pierce shot just 2-9 from the field but had 10 points and nine assists; the Lakers failed miserably to defend his screen/roll plays with House, repeatedly giving up open shots to Pierce, House or one of the Celtics' big men. Bryant had 14 points on 4-11 shooting, missing his last six attempts. Gasol had six points and four turnovers in the first half, while Odom scored just four points in the first half, missing all four of his field goal attempts.
If the Lakers took any solace from the fact that they had been able to cut a 24 point deficit to two points in game two, the Celtics quickly dashed those hopes in the third quarter. Van Gundy summed matters up nicely: "Indifferent defense by the Lakers as a team." The Lakers gave up 31 points in the third quarter and 42 points in the fourth quarter and did not even hint at making a rally. Allen hit six of his three pointers in the second half as Vujacic repeatedly failed to trail him on screens, leaving him wide open. Bryant made three of his first six field goal attempts of the half but after his driving layup at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter the Lakers still trailed 85-56. He missed his final five field goal attempts of the game.
The Celtics deserve a lot of credit for the tremendous commitment they displayed at the defensive end of the court from the first game of the regular season until the final moments of the NBA Finals. Coach Doc Rivers emphasized defense and he brought in assistant coach Tom Thibodeau to construct the team's defensive game plan; before ESPN.com's Bill Simmons dares to celebrate the Celtics' triumph he should have to write 100 times, a la Bart Simpson, "Doc Rivers is a very good NBA coach." Garnett set the tone at the defensive end of the court and everyone else followed. Pierce and Allen were not known as exceptional defenders prior to this season but they each rose to the challenge, especially in the playoffs. Anyone who thinks that one player should get all the credit or all the blame for what happens to his team must keep in mind that last season Pierce's Celtics, Garnett's Minnesota Timberwolves, and Allen's Seattle SuperSonics each missed the playoffs. Only by combining forces, sacrificing parts of their offensive games and committing to playing defense did these three future Hall of Famers finally win the championship that had eluded each of them for their entire careers. Another significant factor in the Celtics' success is the play of the team's bench, led by playoff tested veterans James Posey, Eddie House, Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown. Young big men Leon Powe and Glen "Big Baby" Davis also contributed at various times during the regular season and the playoffs. Finally, young starters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins were considered to be major question marks coming into the season but they proved their value on many occasions.
The Lakers were a popular pick to win this series. I thought that the Lakers would win but not for the reasons that other people did, such as their supposed depth. Frankly, when I saw how many people were picking the Lakers--and who some of those people were--the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had made a mistake. I thought that the Lakers would win because of the very high level that Bryant played at during the first three playoff series, a run that included victories over the defending champion Spurs and the other 2007 Western Conference Finalists, the Utah Jazz. Both of those teams are more physical than the Lakers, who were outrebounded overall during their first 15 playoff games. Defense and rebounding win championships but the Lakers defended well enough in spurts and were so efficient offensively that I thought they could prevail over the Celtics even though I expected the Celtics to outrebound them. In the first three rounds, the Lakers made good use of the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action, constantly creating good shots for Gasol or for various Lakers on the weak side. Bryant averaged more than 30 ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field. Watching the Celtics struggle to knock off Cleveland despite LeBron James' inability to shoot from the perimeter, I assumed that the Celtics would have a great deal of problems containing the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll because Bryant is such a great perimeter shooter. What went wrong for the Lakers?
1) Although Bryant shot better than James did versus Boston and committed fewer turnovers, Bryant did not shoot .450 from the field, which I considered to be the benchmark for both he and the Lakers.
2) Gasol and Odom played timidly for most of the series.
3) No other Laker stepped up consistently on offense.
4) Collectively the Lakers lacked energy and toughness.
5) Bryant proved to be the only competent Laker perimeter defender, which necessitated using him as a roamer plus as the primary defender on Pierce or Allen at different times.
6) The Lakers got no production out of the small forward position.
7) The Lakers got outrebounded by 5 rpg, which is right at the edge of what I considered to be a working margin for them, but they failed to make up for this deficit with excellent offensive execution.
All of the talk about a Lakers' dynasty in the making is extremely premature. Andrew Bynum has yet to put together half a season's worth of productive NBA games, let alone prove that he can be a reliable playoff performer. When--if--he fully returns to health he can give the Lakers more paint presence but he will not singlehandedly correct all of the problems that the Lakers had in the Finals. Also, I have yet to hear serious discussion of the fact that he, Gasol and Odom cannot possibly play extended minutes together because none of them is a small forward. Bynum or Gasol can play center with Odom at power forward or Bynum can play center with Gasol at power forward but if Gasol and Bynum are on the court together then Odom will have to be on the bench in favor of someone who can play small forward. The ideal scenario for the Lakers would be for Bynum to quickly prove that he is healthy and productive so that the Lakers can trade Odom in exchange for a legitimate starting small forward; that is a position that is a glaring need for them, because Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza are each best suited to be bench players.
Also, while many people have said how great Gasol is--and some have ludicrously suggested that he is more valuable than Bryant--I have consistently and correctly insisted that Gasol is a good player, a one-time All-Star, but not a true franchise player. Everyone who mocked Memphis for trading him failed to understand why they made that move. Gasol had been their best player for many years and they never won a single playoff game--not a series mind you, but a single game. The Grizzlies came to the conclusion that they could never build a championship team around him, so they decided to get rid of him and stockpile draft picks and expiring contracts. Whether this works depends on who they draft and which free agents they are able to sign but the relevant factor in this discussion is that Gasol is emphatically not a franchise player and not an elite player, a designation that I reserve for the top 15 players in the league--members of the All-NBA Team, a distinction that Gasol has never earned even once (Garnett has made the All-NBA Team nine times, Pierce has made it three times, Allen has made it twice and Cassell made it once). Gasol's field goal percentage soared as a Laker because of all of the easy scoring opportunities he received as a result of the defensive attention that is focused on Bryant.
The reality is that the Lakers are not as good a team from players 2-12 as many people think and Bryant deserves even more credit for the team's success than he has received, although you can be quite certain that the story will be spun 100% opposite to that truth in the coming days, weeks and months.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM