Lakers Advance From "Elite Eight" to "Final Four"No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals but prior to game five Kobe Bryant compared the Lakers' situation to the NCAA Tournament, suggesting that they must win in the Elite Eight (game five), the Final Four (game six) and the Championship Game (game seven) in order to be crowned the 2008 NBA Champions. The Lakers advanced past the "Elite Eight" on Sunday night with a 103-98 victory. Bryant led the Lakers with 25 points and a game-high five steals. He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom provided the type of performance the Lakers desperately need from him, scoring 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking four shots. Pau Gasol contributed 19 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. The Lakers got very little out of their bench players with the notable exception of Jordan Farmar, who scored 11 points on 5-9 shooting. Paul Pierce had an outstanding performance in defeat, scoring 38 points, passing for a game-high eight assists and grabbing six rebounds. He set a Finals record by making 10 free throws in the fourth quarter. Kevin Garnett's minutes were limited by early foul trouble and he finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and no assists. Ray Allen scored 16 points but shot just 4-13 from the field.
Kendrick Perkins was unable to play due to his shoulder injury. Leon Powe started at center in his place but he only played 4:59. P.J. Brown scored four points in 24:53 and for the rest of the time the Celtics used a small lineup.
Starting point guard Rajon Rondo only played 14:32, scoring three points on 1-7 shooting, passing for three assists and compiling a -15 plus/minus rating. Boston Coach Doc Rivers candidly admitted that Rondo was benched not due to injury but rather because of his ineffectiveness. Basically, Kobe Bryant has taken Rondo out of the series and forced the team with the best record in the league to change its rotation; in both game four and game five, the Lakers built big early leads in no small part because Bryant was nominally assigned to guard Rondo but in fact served as a roving help defender, much like Scottie Pippen did during his glory days. That left the Celtics playing four on five offensively and thus fueled the Lakers' transition game. Using a small lineup, the Celtics mounted a historic comeback in game four but in game five the Lakers weathered the storm, thanks to better play from Gasol, Odom and Farmar.
The Lakers quickly dispelled any notion that their game four loss had broken their spirits. Gasol made an aggressive move the first time he caught the ball in the post and connected on a hook shot to put the Lakers up 2-0. Leaving Rondo unattended, Bryant stole the ball from Garnett and nailed a three pointer in transition. The Celtics did not get on the board until Garnett made a jumper at the 9:18 mark. Derek Fisher hit a three pointer after Bryant collapsed Boston's defense with his dribble penetration and then Bryant's turnaround jumper put the Lakers up 10-2 with 8:38 left in the first quarter. It is difficult to separate the Lakers' scoring prowess from their defense because the two are connected, particularly against a great half court defensive team like Boston; when the Lakers don't get stops and have to inbound the ball they have to go against Boston's entrenched defense and naturally it is much more difficult to score in that situation. It will be interesting to see if Coach Rivers takes Rondo out of the starting lineup to nullify the impact of Bryant's help defense, because the Celtics will truly be tempting fate if they keep facing 17-20 point deficits after the first 12 minutes.
After Garnett drained another jumper, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy pointed out a flaw in Gasol's defensive technique: "That's poor defense by Gasol. Kobe has cushioned Rondo. Why is he (Gasol) coming in to help?" When Gasol left Garnett to bother Rondo it freed up Garnett to make a jumper. Obviously, the Lakers' defensive plan is based around letting the ball "find" its way to Rondo, so leaving Garnett open to attend to Rondo is a major mental mistake by Gasol. If you want to play a good drinking game while watching game six, take a swig every time Van Gundy or Mark Jackson either describe Gasol as soft or point out how bad his defense is. This is why I keep making the point that numbers lie--or at least they can mislead if they are used without considering the proper context. Gasol had 10 defensive rebounds and two blocked shots but if you watched game five with an educated eye--or simply listened as Jackson and Van Gundy described what their educated eyes saw--then you understand that Gasol made numerous defensive lapses. Similarly, although Gasol's offensive numbers were good his play at that end of the court was inconsistent. For instance, at the 7:01 mark, he made a weak move in the post and put up a soft shot but then he made up for this lapse by getting the offensive rebound, scoring, drawing a foul and making the free throw.
Bryant made back to back three pointers to put the Lakers up 24-10 with 4:55 remaining in the first quarter. He already had scored 14 points. The Lakers pushed their lead to 39-22 by the end of the quarter, nearly mirroring their first quarter performance in game four. The difference this time was that Bryant was the dominant scorer (15 points in the quarter) while in game four he served primarily as a playmaker in the first half and did not make a field goal. Van Gundy said that it is "Russian roulette" for the Lakers to play like they did in game four because it is unreasonable to expect Bryant to hardly shoot at all for a half and then flip a switch and be a big time scorer in the fourth quarter.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson took advantage of the 17 point first quarter cushion to get Bryant some rest but it is often dicey for the Lakers when Bryant is out of the game, particularly against good teams. Sure enough, by the 9:19 mark the lead had been cut to 43-32 and Bryant reentered the game. Pierce only scored five first quarter points but he had the Celtics' first eight points of the second quarter and once a great player gets rolling it is tough to cool him off. The Lakers' problem is that they have no one who can effectively guard Pierce other than Bryant but at various times they also need Bryant to guard Allen or to serve as a roaming help defender while nominally checking Rondo. In game five the Lakers did not put Bryant on Pierce too much until the fourth quarter because Bryant experienced some early foul trouble. Van Gundy openly questioned whether Laker defenders--other than Bryant--had read scouting reports or watched enough film to even know what Pierce's tendencies are. Van Gundy said that instead of crowding Pierce the Laker defenders should force him to shoot pullup jumpers. I have often mentioned the importance of the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play to the Lakers but the Celtics also run a deadly screen roll/action with Pierce and Garnett. The Lakers do a very poor job of flooding the paint with bodies defensively, something that Van Gundy mentioned several times, and because of this Pierce repeatedly got all the way to the front of the rim on his drives and/or earned free throw attempts.
The play that happened right before Bryant checked back in provides a good example of the severe defensive lapses that plagued the Lakers in this game. Allen scored a wide open layup on a baseline out of bounds feed from Pierce. Van Gundy said, "That's a total team breakdown"; the play was so poorly covered by the Lakers that Van Gundy could not even tell for sure how the Lakers were supposed to defend it. Van Gundy was incredulous when the Lakers made the same coverage mistake on an inbounds play early in the third quarter and they also had this problem late in the game, a lapse that could have ended the series.
Even with Bryant back in the game, the Celtics maintained the momentum that they began building in his absence and they cut the lead to 43-39 after Pierce hit a three pointer at the 6:44 mark. Much has been said about Bryant's leadership style, body language and his method of interacting with his teammates--but little time is spent actually analyzing those moments when Bryant is perturbed and trying to ascertain what is really happening in those situations. If you look at the play by play sheet, at the 5:44 mark of the second quarter you will see "Bryant turnover: bad pass." If you looked at the court at that time you saw Bryant grimacing at Gasol and motioning with his hands. What was that all about? Gasol set a screen for Bryant and after the two defenders trapped Bryant he whipped a pass to Gasol--or, rather, to where Gasol should have been to catch the ball and dunk it. As Mark Jackson explained, "Pau Gasol soft rolling to the basket looking to pop (out to shoot a jump shot) as opposed to rolling and Bryant says, 'This (game) is for all the marbles.' You have to be aggressive and with mean intent roll to the basket and look to finish. Pau Gasol has to make the proper adjustments." I made the same observation about Gasol in my game four recap: "Gasol did not set his screens with authority (and) he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop...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."
Someone who does not know anything about basketball may form a negative impression of Bryant while watching his reaction to that play but in fact Bryant is being a good leader because he is impressing upon Gasol the importance of the moment and reminding Gasol exactly what he is supposed to be doing--and for those of you who insist on bringing up Michael Jordan's name every other minute, Jordan used to run down court screaming to his coach to get certain teammates out of the game because they kept messing up plays. You can interpret that as evidence of Jordan's great leadership/killer instinct or as an indication of how hard he was on his teammates but Bryant's interactions with his teammates are mild compared to Jordan's.
Incredibly, after scoring 39 first quarter points the Lakers went scoreless for a 6:57 stretch in the second quarter. They finally got on the board again by returning to the old reliable Bryant-Gasol screen/roll. This time Gasol rolled to the hoop more aggressively, Bryant passed to him and Gasol passed to Odom for a layup. It is fine to look at Bryant's shooting numbers (8-21 from the field), assist total (four) and turnover total (six) but you do not have a complete picture of the imprint he left on this game unless you also consider the numerous plays in which he got the "hockey assist" by making the pass that led to the assist. The Celtics are determined to not let Bryant's scoring beat them but he is smart enough, patient enough and skilled enough to accept the trap and make the correct pass. A significant portion of the Lakers' half court offense in this series is a result of Bryant-Gasol screen/roll plays and the ensuing defensive rotations that leave various players open. Here is how Mark Jackson describes the importance of this play: "You put so much pressure on the defense because you have a home run hitter with the ball in his hands. You look to trap, he has to be a willing passer--he does it to Gasol, lob pass to Odom, everybody touches it. A high percentage, quality possession."It is worth noting that Odom generally operates on the weak side when Bryant and Gasol run this action; Odom is much more effective there than he is when tries to create something with the ball on the strong side.
The Lakers pushed their lead to 50-42 after another Bryant-Gasol screen/roll resulted in a bounce pass from Gasol to Odom, who converted a three point play. Next time down court, Farmar shot an airball from three point range instead of swinging the ball to an open Bryant. An Allen three pointer made the score 50-45 and the Lakers answered with a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that resulted in Bryant passing to an open Farmar, who drained the three pointer this time. Mark Jackson commented, "Kobe Bryant continues to make the right plays. Farmar shoots an air ball prior to that. Trust your teammates to make the play and Farmar rewards his faith."The thing that Farmar and Sasha Vujacic need to understand is that there is absolutely no reason for them to force shots when Bryant is on the court because all they have to do is pass the ball to him, wait for him to be trapped and then be ready for the return pass. That is the message that Bryant delivered to Vujacic during a timeout before Vujacic hit his dagger three pointer in game three.
The Lakers led 55-52 at halftime. Pierce had scored 21 points, while Bryant led the Lakers with 15. Considering what happened in game four and that the Celtics had already all but erased a 19 point lead, it felt like the Lakers were holding on for dear life in the third quarter. Pierce split a pair of free throws at the 9:59 mark to give the Celtics their first lead of the game, 58-57, but Boston never led by more than two points. Bryant picked up two charging fouls--his third and fourth fouls overall--in the third quarter but he still played the entire second half other than the last :53 of the third quarter. The sequence that resulted in Bryant's second charging foul is interesting. Bryant and Gasol ran a screen/roll and Bryant passed to an open Gasol around the free throw line but Gasol did not take the shot, instead passing back to Bryant. With the shot clock dying, Bryant drove into the paint to try to create something (after he already had created an open shot for Gasol) and he was called for an offensive foul. Mark Jackson said, "Pau Gasol had a foul line jump shot. In the Triangle Offense that's where Phil Jackson has made his money. Bill Wennington, Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue--guys are ready to knock down jump shots. Pau Gasol is turning those shots down." Am I "blaming" Gasol for Bryant's foul? No. What I am saying is that basketball is a team sport and there is a delicate balance involved in various on court interactions. Turning down an open shot is neither a good thing nor a selfless act; it hurts the team and it can lead to problems, such as a worse shot being taken as the shot clock winds down, a turnover or an offensive foul. Garnett is also a player who often turns down open shots.
The Lakers made a 14-6 run to close the quarter and Bryant was heavily involved even though he did not score a point and only had one assist during that stretch. First, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to Fisher, who made a jumper, got fouled and finished off the three point play. Then Bryant drove to the hoop and passed to Fisher, who swung the ball to a wide open Vladimir Radmanovic, whose three pointer gave the Lakers a little breathing room (71-64). Odom ended that run by trying to go one on one from the top of the key and losing the ball; he belongs on the weak side as a finisher of plays, not on the strong side as the initiator. Odom did make a positive contribution to the late quarter surge, converting a layup off of a feed from Gasol. The Lakers led 79-70 going into the fourth quarter.
Pierce scored 12 fourth quarter points as the Celtics outscored the Lakers 28-24 in the final stanza. The Celtics tied the score at 90 with 4:35 left but never took the lead. Gasol raised Mark Jackson's ire when he missed a very tentative looking shot not quite midway through the quarter: "That's a weak move when you're trying to take this series back to Boston. KG's in foul trouble. Make a big time, aggressive move."
Van Gundy pointed out several times during the game that the Lakers go for shot blocks while the Celtic defenders get in position, sacrifice their bodies and take charges. A vivid illustration of this happened at the 2:56 mark, when Pierce got loose in the lane and Farmar twisted his body sideways trying to block Pierce's shot instead of squaring up his body and taking a charge.
Bryant had seven points and three steals in the fourth quarter. His two free throws at the 2:14 mark put the Lakers up 97-93 right after Garnett missed two free throws that could have tied the score. Pierce answered Bryant's free throws with a pair of free throws of his own a minute later and then the Lakers had a bad possession that ended with a missed Fisher three pointer. A little earlier, Van Gundy declared, "The ball has got to be in Kobe Bryant's hands right now and it's got to be in Lamar Odom's hands against Posey. Anything else is not good enough." I'm not convinced that Odom posting up Posey is such a great matchup for the Lakers but I definitely agree that in late game situations Bryant should be the primary ball handler.
With less than :40 left, Bryant made the biggest play of the game, poking the ball away from a driving Pierce, receiving a lob pass from Odom and cruising in for a two handed dunk that put the Lakers up 99-95. A three pointer by House cut the lead to 101-98 with :14 left but Fisher sank two free throws and stole the ensuing inbounds pass to seal the deal.
Whatever happens in this series, this was the final Lakers home game of the 2007-08 campaign and after the team grew so much in such a short period of time it would have been a terrible ending to have the Celtics celebrating a championship victory in the Staples Center. Instead, both teams will make the long journey back to Boston to decide matters. It is only natural to think that it is unlikely that the Lakers will win both games in Boston--not only has no team come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit but no road team has won games six and seven in the Finals. However, the Lakers are 48 minutes away from forcing a winner take all showdown. Although Pierce was magnificent in game five he did not look so great in the first game in L.A. after the long flight and the short rest. The Lakers must guard against being satisfied just to extend the series and they must not only continue to fine tune their pick and roll execution but also find some defensive answers for the Garnett-Pierce screen/roll that did a lot of damage in game five.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:28 AM