Celtics Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Win 97-91 to Take 3-1 Series LeadThe Boston Celtics recovered from the largest deficit at the end of the first quarter in NBA Finals history to post a thrilling 97-91 victory that all but assures that they will win a record 17th NBA title. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with a game-high 20 points on 6-13 shooting but just as importantly he had a team-high seven assists and he played excellent second half defense against Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen had a very strong game, scoring 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds while playing all 48 minutes. Kevin Garnett added 16 points on 7-14 shooting and a game-high 11 rebounds. Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics bring playoff tested veterans off of the bench; James Posey, a key contributor to Miami's 2006 championship team, scored 18 points, shooting 4-8 from three point range. He helped to spread the floor in the second half, which opened up scoring opportunities for Pierce, Allen and Garnett. The Celtics' reserves outscored the Lakers' reserves 35-15 and held the L.A. bench scoreless in the second half.
Lamar Odom got off to a wonderful start and he had 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists at halftime after shooting 7-7 from the field; he was almost completely invisible in the second half, finishing with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while shooting 8-11 from the field. Kobe Bryant shot just 6-19 from the field but he had a game-high 10 assists to go along with his 17 points and four rebounds. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 18 fourth quarter points and assisted on three of the other four field goals that the team made, accounting for virtually all of their offensive production in the final stanza.
Pau Gasol contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds; like Odom, he was much more active and effective in the first half than he was in the second half. Game three hero Sasha Vujacic scored just three points on 1-9 field goal shooting and he struggled just as much at the other end of the court, getting burned by Allen for a driving layup that gave the Celtics a 96-91 lead with :16 left in the game.
This series is a battle between Boston's league-best defense versus the Lakers' high powered offense. In the first half, the Lakers' offense had the upper hand but in the second half the tide completely turned; it is very instructive to examine why both of those things happened. First I will describe how the Lakers built their huge lead and then I will explain what factors enabled the Celtics to put together their record setting comeback.
Odom's struggles in the first three games of this series have been well chronicled, so the Lakers smartly decided to get him involved in the offense on the very first possession of the game with a quick hitting play. Bryant brought the ball up the court, handed off to Odom and set a screen on Garnett. Odom drove to the hoop from the top of the key; slowed down by Bryant's screen, Garnett arrived late and goaltended Odom's layup attempt. Meanwhile, the defensive adjustment that Coach Jackson made in game three continued to pay dividends as Kobe Bryant nominally guarded Rajon Rondo while roaming around and completely disrupting Boston's offense. There are two ways to deploy a great defender like Bryant: one is to assign him to lock down one particularly dangerous player and the other is to put him a on a non-threat, enabling him to be very disruptive to the other four offensive players. Coach Jackson did both things with Scottie Pippen in the 1990s, sometimes having him guard a Hall of Famer like Magic Johnson and other times putting him on someone like Utah's Greg Ostertag so that Pippen could use his long arms, quickness and anticipation to shut down Utah's offense. "Kobe might be the best help defender I've seen since Pippen," Coach Rivers said after the game.
The Lakers converted the Celtics' missed shots and turnovers into transition scoring opportunities, which led to two Derek Fisher free throws and a pair of free throws that Bryant split. After Bryant missed the second free throw, the Celtics committed a loose ball foul, enabling the Lakers to retain possession. They ran a screen/roll play with Bryant and Gasol. Allen and Kendrick Perkins aggressively trapped Bryant well beyond the three point line, Bryant fired a jump pass to Odom in the paint and Odom made a beautiful touch pass to a cutting Gasol for an easy dunk. "You trap Kobe Bryant, he takes the trap, hits the man at the free throw line and it's (a pass from) big to big," ABC's Jeff Van Gundy explained. This action is very difficult to stop if it is run correctly and this is an example of perfect execution by the Lakers: The threat of Bryant shooting a three pointer and/or driving to the hoop forced the aggressive trap, Odom stepped aggressively into the void to force Garnett to guard him and Gasol rolled to the hoop uncontested. As we will see, later in the game the Lakers did not run this action with nearly the same crispness.
Vladimir Radmanovic fed Odom for a dunk and Fisher passed to Odom for a layup to put the Lakers ahead 11-4 at the 8:32 mark. Although Odom is often praised for his ability to handle the ball in the open court, he is actually most effective cutting to the hoop from the weak side and receiving a pass for an easy score; when he is the primary attacker from the strong side he often commits offensive fouls, turns the ball over or attempts wild shots. Sure enough, Odom got a defensive rebound at the 7:01 mark, dribbled coast to coast and threw the ball away. Still, the Lakers were in a good rhythm offensively and defensively and they continued to extend their lead; with Bryant roaming around on defense the Celtics struggled to get off high percentage shots and each of their misses and turnovers fueled the Lakers' transition game. If the Lakers were not able to score in transition then they efficiently ran their half court offense; a screen/roll play involving Fisher and Gasol collapsed the Celtics' defense, resulting in an open three pointer by Radmanovic that gave the Lakers a 20-6 lead. The Lakers also had success running Bryant into the post, where he drew double teams and fed open shooters.
An interesting play happened at the 3:50 mark: Bryant and Odom ran a screen/roll play and Bryant passed to Odom, who danced around in place with his dribble before sinking a jumper. As I noted in an earlier post, Chris Paul was credited with several assists during the playoffs on plays like that; in this case, Bryant was quite correctly not awarded an assist because Odom did not make an immediate action to shoot after he received the ball from Bryant--but with this kind of scorekeeping subjectivity it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between players' assist totals.
The Lakers continued to play at a very high level at both ends of the court and they took a 30-12 lead after a couple Gasol free throws that were made possible by Bryant passing out of a double team in the post. Another well executed Bryant-Gasol screen/roll led to a cross court pass by Bryant to Trevor Ariza, who buried a three pointer that made the margin 34-12. "Very few players can throw the diagonal skip pass on the money," Van Gundy said; I think that Bryant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady are the three best current practitioners of that difficult play. The Lakers closed out the quarter with Bryant driving to the hoop, drawing a double team and passing to Gasol, who made one of two free throws after being fouled. The Lakers led 35-14, the biggest first quarter lead in NBA Finals history. They shot 11-17 from the field (.647) and held the Celtics to 6-22 (.273) field goal shooting. Bryant scored three points--all on free throws--but he had four assists and created several other scoring opportunities for his teammates. ABC's Mark Jackson declared, "Kobe has been the difference offensively. He puts the ball on the floor, almost like Steve Nash, once he leaves the floor he's looking to make the right play." When the Celtics trapped him he did not force shots but instead passed to the open man.
With the Lakers enjoying a big lead, Coach Jackson was able to give Bryant his usual rest at the start of the second quarter, as opposed to having to keep him on the court to prevent a collapse. The Lakers held their own for 3:47 with him out of the game and still led 40-19 when he returned. The play of Trevor Ariza at the end of the first quarter and during the early part of the second quarter deserves mention. Ariza was very active on the boards, played energetic defense and contributed not only the three pointer after Bryant's pass but also a putback dunk while Bryant was not in the game. The Lakers took their biggest lead of the game when Bryant drove to the hoop, drew all five Celtic defenders into the paint and kicked the ball out to Vujacic, who made his only shot of the game, a three pointer that put the Lakers up 45-21 with 6:45 remaining in the first half. Neither team scored in the next 2:04 and then the Celtics went on a 12-0 run in just 1:43. Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Posey each scored during that spurt, while the Lakers shot 0-3 from the field and committed a turnover. Just like the Lakers' defense helped fuel their offense early in the game, their inability to get stops prevented them from getting out in transition to score easy baskets. Although Fisher drove to the hoop and converted a three point player to push the lead back to 48-33, that Boston run provided the Celtics with a crucial confidence boost. Coach Rivers said after the game that he told his team at halftime that this spurt showed that they could mount a comeback in the second half.
After Allen missed a three pointer, the Lakers returned to the reliable Bryant-Gasol screen/roll and once again a trapped Bryant passed to Odom who fed Gasol for a dunk. The Celtics answered with a free throw after a defensive three seconds call and a Posey three pointer to make the score 50-37. The Lakers outscored the Celtics 8-3 in the final :59 to lead 58-40 at halftime after Jordan Farmar made a running three pointer at the buzzer.
The Celtics have outplayed the Lakers in the third quarter throughout the series and Coach Jackson told his Lakers at halftime to not settle for having the lead but rather to go out and win the third quarter. That proved to be easier said than done. The Celtics scored four quick points before Bryant made a jumper, his first field goal of the game. Baskets by Rondo and Garnett cut the lead to 60-48 but Odom hit two free throws, Radmanovic scored on a layup off of an Odom feed, Bryant made another jumper and Fisher hit a jumper to make the score 68-48. It seemed like the Lakers had weathered the storm but in fact that was their last hurrah. The Celtics made a couple adjustments that turned out to be critically important: Pierce took over the primary defensive assignment on Bryant and Coach Rivers put Eddie House in the game in place of Rondo. Pierce is bigger and stronger than Allen, so he can guard Bryant on the post without the Celtics having to send a double team. Although Bryant hit those jumpers early in the quarter over Pierce--and Bryant had a productive fourth quarter--this switch enabled the other Celtics to really focus on staying attached to their men. Pierce volunteered at halftime to take this defensive assignment and Coach Rivers and Allen readily agreed. Putting House--and James Posey--into the game greatly improved the Celtics' offensive spacing and prevented Bryant from roaming defensively the way that he did in the first half. These adjustments made the Celtics more efficient at both ends of the court; by improving their offense they shut down the Lakers' transition game and that helped the Celtics defense because the Lakers then had to score against the Celtics' half court defense.
The Celtics made a 23-5 run in the last 7:08 of the third quarter to cut the Lakers' lead to 73-71. How did they turn things around so completely? With Pierce making it more difficult for Bryant to post up, it was even more important for the Lakers to generate something with the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that has been so successful throughout the series. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the last time that they ran that play well came at the 7:08 mark, when Bryant passed to Gasol, who fed Fisher for an open jumper. The Lakers still led 73-64 at the 1:41 mark when Bryant fed Gasol in the paint and Gasol missed a dunk. "You're too big and skilled to miss that shot," Mark Jackson exclaimed. After House hit a three pointer, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll produced nothing because Gasol did not dive to the hoop aggressively and the other three Lakers stood around like mannequins, forcing Bryant to shoot a jumper right before the shot clock expired. Coach Jackson said afterwards, "We didn't have guys that stepped up and helped out in that second half." The Celtics outscored the Lakers 10-0 in the last 2:01 of the quarter, a run punctuated by an uncontested dunk by P.J. Brown after a defensive breakdown with :01 left.
Towards the end of the game, Van Gundy offered this explanation for why the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll did not work as well in the second half as it did in the first half: "The Celtics have made some great adjustments in their pick and roll defense. They're softer on the screener, which has taken away that high-low pass that we saw in the first half." I agree with Van Gundy to an extent but I also think that the Lakers did not execute properly in several ways: Gasol did not set his screens with authority, he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop and no one popped to the free throw line the way that Odom had been doing. Gasol's passive play enabled the Celtics to simply stay on their own men instead of having to either trap or switch. Therefore, Bryant was left handling the ball with the shot clock winding down and no good options. After the third quarter, Coach Jackson told Michele Tafoya, "We just did things offensively that put us in bad situations. They got their transition game going and their half court game going."
Bryant and Turiaf ran a screen/roll to start the fourth quarter and Turiaf was fouled after receiving a feed from Bryant--but Turiaf missed both free throws. The Celtics tied the score at 73 after a post up move by Leon Powe. A Bryant drive put the Lakers ahead again but Pierce answered with a jumper. The teams continued to trade baskets--a Bryant jumper, a Garnett jumper, an Odom layup on a feed from Bryant--until Pierce missed a jumper, the Lakers pushed the ball up the court and Bryant's fast break dunk made the score 81-77 Lakers. Posey answered with a three pointer; the Lakers had real problems covering Posey and House at the three point line because they also had to keep track of Pierce, Garnett and Allen. A Gasol jumper put the Lakers up 83-80 with 4:55 left but then things fell apart for the Lakers. After Garnett made two free throws, a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll once again led to nothing after Gasol basically just stood around; Odom ended up with the ball in the post and he fired up a wild shot that did not even come close to hitting the target. A House jumper gave the Celtics their first lead of the game, 84-83. The Lakers again ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll; this time, Bryant passed to Gasol, who made a weak pass that Allen stole. Pierce missed a three pointer but Allen got the offensive rebound and later in that extra possession he scored on a sweet reverse layup to make the score 86-83 Boston with 3:16 left. Vujacic and Farmar each missed jumpers before Garnett caught the ball in the post, made a strong move and shot right over Gasol to put the Celtics up 88-83 with just 2:10 remaining. Bryant then made two free throws, so the Lakers needed a stop and a score. Instead, Pierce used a screen to get into the paint and draw a foul on Gasol. "That's bad defense by Gasol," Mark Jackson said, adding that after the screen it was Gasol's responsibility to zone the area and prevent Pierce from turning the corner. Pierce split his pair of free throws, so the Lakers were only down 89-87 after Bryant drove past Pierce for a tough layup in traffic--but then Posey stabbed the Lakers with a dagger three pointer. Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and passed to Fisher, who nailed a jumper from just inside the three point arc. "That's a critical mistake by Fisher," Van Gundy said. "If you're going to shoot from that distance make it be a three."
Pierce drew another foul and made both free throws but Bryant fed Gasol for a dunk to cut the margin to 94-91 with :40 left. On the Celtics' next possession, Garnett came up to set a screen for Allen, who waved him off in order to go one on one versus Vujacic. With the other Laker defenders staying attached to their assignments, Allen got by Vujacic for a layup and a 96-91 lead. The Lakers then made a tactical error by passing the ball in before calling a timeout; by rule they now had to burn a second timeout in order to advance the ball. In the end that did not matter because the Lakers were not able to score anyway.
After scoring 58 first half points the Lakers scored just 33 second half points. With House and Posey spreading the floor, Bryant was not able to roam on defense, the Lakers were not able to get stops and their transition offense died. Meanwhile, putting Pierce on Bryant curtailed Bryant's post up opportunities and made it imperative for the Lakers to get something out of their screen/roll game--but when Gasol and the other Lakers played tentatively the task fell to Bryant to create something out of nothing. After their great first quarter, the Lakers shot 21-60 from the field (.350) the rest of the way to finish with a .416 shooting percentage.
Bryant struggled with his shooting overall but he shot 4-8 from the field in the fourth quarter and, as noted in the second paragraph, he accounted for 16 of his team's 18 fourth quarter points.
No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. The Lakers may bounce back to win game five at home on Sunday but it is very unlikely that they will win two straight games in Boston. This game will become a staple feature on ESPN Classic and NBA TV and will forever be a part of Celtics lore.
I think that comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan is pointless--I prefer to compare Bryant to other active players. However, it is wrongheaded for John Hollinger to say that this game proves that Bryant should never be compared to Jordan (although I do agree with Hollinger's main assertion in that article, namely that Rivers coached a great game). When Jordan won six championships he was paired with a Top 50 player and future Hall of Famer in Scottie Pippen, so he had another great player who could shoulder a big load offensively and defensively. The case for Jordan's superiority over Bryant should be made based on a comparison of their skill sets, not on the basis of Bryant not being able to lead an inferior supporting cast to victory in the Finals over the best team in the league. Jordan had playoff games during which he shot worse than 6-19 from the field and the Bulls won anyway because they had Pippen and/or because other members of the supporting cast stepped up. Here are three examples: Chicago 103, New York 83, Chicago 87, Seattle 75 and Chicago 75, Miami 68
In contrast, the only future Hall of Famers who are sharing the court with Bryant in this series are all wearing Celtic green: Garnett, Pierce and Allen. That means that the Celtics can target Bryant in ways that the Lakers cannot target any of Boston's "Big Three." Bryant is alternately asked to be a roamer defensively to disrupt Boston's offense and then he is asked to be a stopper against (at different times) Allen and Pierce. As detailed above, it is up to Bryant to create most of the Lakers' offense, while the "Big Three" not only share that load but also have veteran reserve players who can step up. So why did I pick the Lakers to win this series? I thought, based on how the Lakers played down the stretch of this season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs, that Bryant had just enough help around him to lead the Lakers to victory over the Celtics; it now looks like that is not in fact the case.
Just to make sure that I am being perfectly clear about this, I agree with Hollinger that Jordan was a greater player than Bryant but I disagree with his assertion that this one particular game proves that point. If this game proved anything it proved that Bryant needs more than one one-time All-Star to lead the Lakers to a series victory over a deep team that has three future Hall of Famers.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM