Celtics Ride Strong Second Half Defense to 98-88 Game One VictoryIn the heavyweight match of the Celtics' league-leading defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense, score round one for the defense; the Celtics held the Lakers to 37 second half points, survived an injury scare involving Paul Pierce and emerged with a 98-88 victory. Pierce had to be carried off of the court at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after spraining his right knee but he returned just 1:45 later and a few minutes after that he nailed two big three pointers to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead that they never relinquished. Pierce finished with 22 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, including 15 third quarter points on 5-5 field goal shooting. Kevin Garnett tied Kobe Bryant for game-high honors with 24 points and Garnett also had a game-high 13 rebounds. Ray Allen shot just 5-13 from the field but he played a good floor game (eight rebounds, five assists) and still scored 19 points on the strength of 7-8 free throw shooting. Oft-criticized point guard Rajon Rondo had a nice all around game with 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Kobe Bryant scored 24 points and had six assists but he shot just 9-26 from the field as the Celtics did a good job of keeping him out of the paint and limiting his trips to the free throw line (6-6). Derek Fisher (15 points, six assists) played well, Pau Gasol (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists) was solid if not spectacular, but Lamar Odom (14 points, six rebounds) faded in and out. The Lakers got very little production from their much vaunted bench, which contributed just 15 points on 5-13 field goal shooting and not only played poor defense but committed 11 fouls that contributed to Boston's seven point advantage from the free throw line.
The Lakers started the game with some misdirection offensively; while it would be natural to expect them to feed the ball to Bryant--the leading scorer in the playoffs--they instead put him on the weakside and ran some screen/roll plays with Fisher and Gasol and Fisher and Odom. The first one resulted in a jumper by Gasol, while Odom missed a layup after the second one. Defensively, the Lakers used the same strategy employed by Boston's Eastern Conference opponents, using Rondo's man to roam around and cause disruption. The Lakers took a 6-2 lead as the Celtics shot 1-3 from the field and committed three turnovers in the first 2:38. The Celtics quickly settled down and took their first lead (7-6) on a Rondo jumper.
Bryant got off to a slow start, shooting just 2-8 from the field. All eight of his shots were jumpers and none of them were bad shots, as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson confirmed in his interview with Michele Tafoya after the quarter; those are the same shots that he made in the first 15 playoff games as the Lakers won the Western Conference. Sure, the Celtics would prefer that Bryant shoot jumpers as opposed to getting into the lane but those are also shots that Bryant and the Lakers expect to convert.
Meanwhile, Garnett had a strong first quarter, scoring eight points on 4-7 shooting and grabbing four rebounds. There was much speculation about how the Lakers would guard Paul Pierce but they simply used starter Vladimir Radmanovic on him and sent double-teams to dissuade Pierce from getting into the paint. When Radmanovic picked up his second foul at the 5:01 mark of the first quarter and went to the bench Jackson elected to replace him with Sasha Vujacic instead of Luke Walton. Bryant shifted to small forward and drew the responsibility of checking Pierce. That matchup did not hurt the Lakers at all--Pierce had three first half points on 1-4 field goal shooting--but Vujacic had serious problems guarding Allen, who scored five quick points to put Boston up 19-14. The Celtics led 23-21 at the end of the quarter.
Sam Cassell checked in for Rondo in the second quarter and he made three shots in a row versus Fisher, simply shooting over the smaller Lakers point guard. The Lakers solved that problem by switching Bryant on to Cassell. The Celtics led 40-37 at the 5:14 mark when Pierce picked up his third foul and went to the bench for the rest of the half. On the Lakers' next offensive possession they ran an action that I expected them to use more frequently, a screen/roll play involving Bryant and Gasol. Gasol slipped the screen, dove to the hoop and Bryant fed him a great pass for an easy dunk. As ABC's Mark Jackson noted, that was a play that Celtics Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Robert Parish used to run all the time; the great thing about it is there are so many adjustments that the offense can make depending on what the defense does. I think that the Lakers can get more high percentage shots out of this set than anything else. A couple possessions later, the Lakers ran this set again, the Celtics double-teamed Bryant and he fed Gasol a great pass through traffic for another dunk. The difference between how the Celtics guarded Bryant and how they guarded LeBron James a couple series ago could not be more glaring: when James came off of screens the Celtics played off of him, leaving him nowhere to drive and nowhere to pass, resulting in a lot of missed jumpers by James (and some turnovers when he tried to force passes). In contrast, the Celtics sent both defenders to aggressively trap Bryant, but he strung them out until Gasol popped free. Honestly, I cannot understand why the Lakers would not run this action virtually every time they are in a half court set unless there is some glaringly obvious mismatch to exploit elsewhere.
Later in the quarter, Bryant caught the ball on the right baseline and he was wide open behind the three point line; if he were James the Celtics would obviously let him shoot that shot but instead Garnett ran at him and Bryant waited patiently before passing to an open Gasol, who got fouled and made both free throws to put the Lakers up 49-44. Although some people assert that Bryant "trusts his teammates more" this season, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy kept it real: "You get trusted when you produce." Van Gundy noted that last year Bryant would have shot the three pointer in a similar situation because the alternative would have been to pass to Kwame Brown and Van Gundy added that Bryant would have been absolutely right to shoot it in that case. Those six points by Gasol are examples of scoring opportunities created by Bryant's shooting ability even in a game during which Bryant shot poorly; the Celtics know that Bryant is a good shooter and whether or not he is shooting well at a given time they have to respect his shot and that opens the floor up. The Lakers led 51-46 at halftime.
Despite Bryant's eight points on 3-10 field goal shooting in the first half, the Lakers were in good shape because Bryant was creating easy opportunities for Gasol (12 points on 5-7 shooting), Fisher was taking advantage of his open shots (13 points on 3-5 shooting) and the Lakers shot 50% from the field while only committing four turnovers. Their offensive execution was trumping Boston's defense and physicality. Garnett had 16 points on 6-9 shooting plus six rebounds but no other Celtic was really doing much damage. However, that five point advantage that it took the Lakers 24 minutes to build disappeared in the first :45 of the third quarter as Pierce scored a layup and then converted a four point play after Radmanovic fouled him on a successful three point shot. Bryant hit a jumper to put the Lakers back on top (53-52) but Pierce and Garnett answered with a couple jumpers of their own. The Lakers went back to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll and this time Bryant got into the paint, drew the defense and passed to Radmanovic for a wide open three pointer to tie the game at 56. Right after that, Radmanovic got his fourth foul and Vujacic came in to replace him, so Bryant again shifted to small forward. Bryant made a very tough turnaround jumper and Van Gundy declared, "That's an impossible shot to defend."
After the teams alternated missed shots, turnovers and fouls, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and fed Gasol for a dunk. The Lakers seemed to be in great shape after another Bryant-Gasol screen roll play resulted in a Bryant bank shot to put the Lakers up 62-58. Celtic center Kendrick Perkins landed on Pierce during that play and Pierce lay in agony on the court before being helped to the locker room by several teammates. With the Lakers leading and the status of the Celtics' go-to offensive player uncertain it looked like the Lakers had a great chance to take command of the game. Instead, Bryant missed a couple jumpers and Vujacic played horrible defense on Allen, giving up a wide open three pointer that tied the score at 62 (Rondo had previously split a pair of free throws). Odom then missed two free throws, Fisher missed a jumper and Allen made two free throws after drawing a foul on Vujacic. The Celtics led 64-62 and the Boston crowd roared as Pierce literally skipped back from the locker room and checked into the game. Note that the Celtics went in front while Pierce was out of the game; afterwards, someone asked Coach Jackson if Pierce coming back to the court had inspired the Celtics and Jackson got a look on his face that suggested that this was the dumbest thing he had ever heard: Jackson replied that what mattered was not that the crowd cheered when Pierce returned but rather that Pierce later hit some big shots. The Lakers actually regained the lead with Pierce on the court and Bryant's ability to distort the defense was the primary reason why. First, there was a transition situation with Garnett running alongside Odom but Garnett left Odom when Bryant received the ball at the three point line, enabling Bryant to feed Odom for a layup. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough that if that were James behind the three point line Garnett would have simply let him shoot (and most likely miss). Then, after an Allen score the Lakers ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll, five Celtics collapsed into the paint to contain Bryant and he passed to Vujacic at the three point line. Garnett ran out to Vujacic and fouled him. Vujacic's free throws pulled the Lakers to within one and then Bryant converted a fast break dunk on a feed from Fisher and made a turnaround jumper to put the Lakers up 71-69. After P.J. Brown blocked an out of control shot by Odom, Pierce got free in transition and made a three pointer. Then Gasol slipped the screen, received a feed from Bryant and missed a layup, leading to another transition three pointer by Pierce. That put the Celtics up 75-71 and they never trailed again. Those missed layups by Odom and Gasol that resulted in Pierce treys were the turning point in the game; that was essentially a 10 point swing--four points that the Lakers did not get and six points that they gave up that Pierce would probably not have scored in a half court situation with Bryant guarding him (Pierce did most of his damage against other defenders). The Lakers are not going to beat Boston on the glass, so they must convert a high percentage of their easy scoring opportunities. The Celtics led 77-73 at the end of the third quarter.
Jackson left Bryant in at the start of the fourth quarter, something that he has done a few times in close playoff games when he has not felt comfortable giving Bryant the rest that he usually gets at that time. Bryant opened the quarter by making a jumper to cut the lead to 77-75 but the Celtics went on a 9-3 run to take their biggest lead of the game. Bryant missed a jumper and made a bad pass for a turnover during that stretch. Jackson, whose 1992 Bulls once made a double-digit comeback in a Finals game versus Portland with Michael Jordan on the bench and Scottie Pippen on the court with four bench players, then decided to give Bryant a three minute rest. That is a counterintuitive move that most coaches would not have the guts to make but the Lakers responded well to this challenge, getting some stops and scoring four points to shave the lead to 86-82. Jackson put Bryant back in the game after a timeout and with the Lakers having just two seconds to get off a shot. Bryant missed a jumper and Pierce scored in the post after the much smaller Fisher got switched on to him. The Lakers only trailed 88-82 with 5:23 left but they made just one field goal the rest of the way. After his great first half Garnett almost completely disappeared in the second half, missing eight field goal attempts in a row at one point--but his massive two handed put back dunk over Gasol ended that streak and gave Boston a 94-86 lead with 1:32 left. On ABC's replay, you can clearly see Gasol waiting for the ball to come to him and not boxing out Garnett, who simply stepped in front of the rim, jumped up and went after the ball while Gasol reacted way too late.
After the game, Coach Jackson said that the story was a "tale of two halves," adding, "They did a much better job on the boards and that was the difference in the ballgame." The Lakers shot 50% from the field and led 51-46 at halftime but they scored just 37 second half points on 33% shooting and finished the game with a 41.6 field goal percentage. The Celtics enjoyed a 46-33 rebounding advantage, which obviously is not good for the Lakers but something that they could have survived if they had continued to shoot well; of course, that puts a lot of pressure on their offense but that is the formula that they used to storm through the Western Conference playoffs.
Bryant said, "They played a lot more physical than we did and that is something we have to address. It was a good experience for us. A nice little kick in the ass." Asked about his shooting, Bryant replied, "I had some great looks but they just didn't stay down for me...Those little midrange jumpers that I get, I have to knock them down...I just missed some bunnies, some really, really good looks and I'll be thinking about them tonight."
Looking forward to game two, there are four main questions:
1) What is the status of Paul Pierce's knee injury?
2) Will the Lakers be able to convert a better percentage of their open shots?
3) Can the Lakers narrow their rebounding deficit or will they simply have to make up for it in other areas?
4) Who besides Bryant can play good defense for the Lakers against the point guard, small forward and shooting guard positions?
I suspect that Pierce's injury will bother him more as the series progresses and that it will have a tendency to tighten up after halftime, which is lengthier during the postseason. The Lakers need to raise their field goal percentage above .450, which would have meant making three more shots in game one; considering how many of their shots went halfway down and came out, that is very doable. By playing more aggressively and making up in hustle and speed what they lack in bulk the Lakers should be able to limit the Celtics to a rebounding advantage of four or five a game. As for the Lakers' perimeter defense, they will live and die with Rondo making jumpers but they will have to get better defense from some combination of Fisher, Farmar, Vujacic and Radmanovic versus Pierce, Allen and Cassell. The way that the Lakers had to keep switching Bryant on to someone to cool him off is reminiscent of what happened in the 2004 Finals, when whichever Detroit guard was being checked by Gary Payton had a field day while Bryant contained the other guard.
The tendency after each playoff game is to overreact and think that the winning team will not lose a game and that the losing team cannot possibly win. This series is a battle between Boston's strengths in rebounding and defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense; what most commentators will probably neglect to mention about this game is that the Celtics only shot .421 from the field and committed 13 turnovers compared to just eight turnovers by the Lakers: the Lakers' defense is better than many people think and it will not take a dramatic offensive improvement by the Lakers to win game two and thus seize homecourt advantage. Make no mistake, though, losing game one should not be easily dismissed, because game one winners end up winning the series nearly 80% of the time; the onus is on the Lakers to win game two but they did enough positive things in game one to show that they are certainly capable of doing just that.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM