Bryant Leads the Way as Lakers End Celtics' 19 Game Winning StreakKobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points on 13-23 field goal shooting, grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and added five assists as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 92-83, ending Boston's 19 game winning streak. Pau Gasol spent most of the game reprising his soft performance in last season's NBA Finals versus Boston but he came up big in the closing minutes and finished with 20 points on 7-14 shooting. He also had five assists, several of them coming after he set a screen for Bryant, rolled to the hoop, received a pass from Bryant after Bryant was double teamed and then reversed the ball to an open shooter on the weak side. Gasol's three rebounds--a sad total for a mobile, athletic seven footer--are a glaring indication that he still needs to play bigger and stronger in the paint versus the physical Celtics frontcourt. Lamar Odom, who has been inconsistent this season as a bench player after spending most of his career being a starter, provided a nice lift with 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Sasha Vujacic (10 points) was the only other Laker who scored in double figures. This game was supposed to be a signature moment for Andrew Bynum--who did not play in the Finals due to injury--but he finished with just nine points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes.
Kevin Garnett led Boston with 22 points on blistering 11-14 field goal shooting and he also had nine rebounds. Paul Pierce scored 20 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. Ray Allen, Boston's leading scorer this season, finished with 14 points on 5-14 shooting, including 3-11 from three point range. Rajon Rondo has been playing very well this season--possibly well enough to be selected to the All-Star team--but he only had six points on 3-11 shooting, though he did contribute a game-high 12 assists. Rondo's floor game can be deadly but against the Lakers he only had three rebounds and one steal.
Bryant guarded Rondo for much of the game, conceding him the jump shot in order to harass other Celtics who are bigger threats as scorers; having Bryant guard Rondo worked well for the Lakers during the Finals and Bryant's ability to wreak havoc by roaming away from Rondo to double-team other players led to Boston Coach Doc Rivers saying last June that Bryant is the best help defender in the NBA since Scottie Pippen was in his prime.
Bryant played a game-high (and season-high) 43:04 minutes. Despite all of the talk about the Lakers' talent and depth, it has become increasingly obvious recently that the Lakers are very dependent on Bryant playing at a high level in order to win games, even against weak teams; in contrast, LeBron James has had the luxury this season of sitting out most or all of the fourth quarter in several games because his Cavs were winning so easily. Bryant has played 40 minutes or more in three of the Lakers' past six games and, after starting out the season with a scoring average in the 24-25 ppg range as he gave his teammates opportunities to carry the scoring load, Bryant has averaged nearly 31 ppg in the past eight games, during which time the Lakers went 6-2.
There is so much talk about who should be the MVP and what criteria should be used to decide this issue but Bryant's all-around performance versus Boston should not be forgotten when the official votes are cast a few months from now; Bryant provided a vivid demonstration of exactly what it means to play at an MVP level at both ends of the court against a dominant team that just set an NBA record by starting out the season 27-2.
Bryant's statistics in this game were very impressive but to fully understand Bryant's impact you had to watch the game with a clear understanding of what both teams were trying to do. For instance, the Lakers took an early 5-3 lead after Derek Fisher made a three pointer from the left baseline. The play by play sheet simply notes that Luke Walton earned an assist on the play but that does not really explain what happened. The play began on the other side of the court, when Pau Gasol set a screen for Kobe Bryant on the right wing. Both defenders trapped Bryant, who then passed to Gasol. Gasol swung the ball to Walton, who then reversed the ball to a wide open Fisher. Fisher was open as a direct result of the defensive rotations that began with the Celtics trapping Bryant and then scrambling to guard the other four Lakers with three defenders. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play was a highly effective action for the Lakers last season and throughout the Western Conference playoffs, including a convincing 4-2 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. When Gasol sets a good screen and moves aggressively to an open area, the defense is severely compromised because of Bryant's ability to shoot, drive and pass. Hubie Brown often mentions that the second pass out of the trap leads to a wide open shot and the way that the Lakers run this action (when they do it correctly) is a perfect example of that. What broke down for the Lakers in last year's Finals was that the Celtics' physicality dissuaded Gasol from setting his screens and rolling in an effective manner, thereby leaving Bryant trapped 20 feet from the basket with no open teammates to pass to and the shot clock running down.
The Celtics answered Fisher's three pointer with a driving dunk by Pierce versus Luke Walton. This play epitomizes the poor defense that the Lakers have often played recently; instead of forcing Pierce toward the baseline (where a help defender should be waiting), Walton allowed him to get to the middle of the lane, a cardinal sin in any NBA defensive scheme.
A couple possessions later, the Lakers again ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. This time, Gasol missed an open jumper after Bryant accepted the trap and passed him the ball. ABC's Mark Jackson said, "You can see the way that the Celtics are playing the pick and roll against Kobe Bryant, Gasol is going to have that shot." In other words, the core tenet of Boston's defensive philosophy versus the Lakers is to send two (or more) players at Bryant whenever possible and let anyone else shoot an open shot, even a former All-Star like Gasol who has good range and is shooting better than .560 from the field this season.
Rajon Rondo got loose for a couple layups as a result of poor screen/roll defense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy, his voice dripping with disgust, said, "Every team struggles with the pick and roll in the NBA but the Lakers right there--inexcusable, two layups given up on the exact same play." What happened was Kendrick Perkins set screens against Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum did not offer enough help to keep Rondo out of the lane. You can rest assured that it was no accident that the Celtics involved Bynum in screen/roll coverage; Bynum's poor defensive rotations are part of the reason that he is often on the bench down the stretch in close games.
The Celtics led 13-10 before Bryant nailed a tough turnaround jumper. Van Gundy commented, "They shouldn't even give assists on plays like that. A guy goes into the lane, steps back and hits a fadeaway over a great contested hand. Man, he makes that shot look easy." Fortunately, the Lakers scorekeeper correctly did not award an assist on that play but I wonder how many assists are awarded around the league in similar situations? The fact that Van Gundy, a former NBA coach, thought that this was worth mentioning is quite revealing and when I have charted Chris Paul's assists in a few home games he has received assists when making passes on such plays.
Gasol struggled tremendously early in the game and his worst play of the game happened at the 3:02 mark of the first quarter. Bryant, stationed on the left baseline, fed Gasol a perfect bounce pass into the post; much like an NFL quarterback will throw a pass to lead his receiver away from defenders and into open space, Bryant placed the pass perfectly, leading Gasol into an open area in the lane. All Gasol had to do was catch the ball, spin into the middle and dunk. Instead, Gasol went into the middle slowly like he was tiptoeing into a dark alley and then he pump faked a few times before tossing up a soft layup that missed; his move was so soft that it looked like he instantly went from being seven feet tall to being about four foot two. As Hubie Brown might say, "When you get in the lane as a big man, would you please go up strong with two hands and either dunk the ball or get fouled?"
After missing his first four field goal attempts, Gasol got on the board late in the first quarter, draining a wide open jumper. The play by play sheet lists Odom's assist but does not really tell you what happened; Bryant caught the ball in the post and Kendrick Perkins left Gasol wide open to double team Bryant, who passed to Odom. Boston led 24-23 at the end of the first quarter, shooting 61% from the field but committing six turnovers; careless ballhandling has been a Celtic weakness this season and that is something that the quick, long armed Lakers used to their advantage, forcing 17 turnovers overall.
Bryant had 10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting in the first quarter. When you combine his scoring with the shots that he created for teammates because of the double teams he attracted, Bryant accounted for the majority of the Lakers' points even though he did not officially have any assists--but that kind of effectiveness is so much more significant than someone getting five assists in a quarter by passing to players who execute three fakes and take multiple dribbles before they finally shoot.
Usually, Bryant rests from late in the first quarter until the early to middle portions of the second quarter but that was not the case against Boston. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has publicly admitted that he trusted his bench too much early in the season. Recently, Laker Hall of Famer (and TV analyst) James Worthy went even further, saying that all of the Lakers other than Bryant were "dead weight" in the team's recent back to back losses against Miami and Orlando.
Early in the second quarter, Mark Jackson mentioned that Phil Jackson was "keeping first unit guys in, putting pressure on the Celtic bench"; the Lakers began the first quarter with starters Bryant and Bynum playing with reserves Odom, Vujacic and Trevor Ariza. That group, playing against Pierce and four Celtic reserves, helped the Lakers take a 32-26 lead. Bryant was involved in all nine of those Lakers points: he scored four points, helped Odom earn a trip to the free throw line by drawing a double team and feeding him the ball and then Bryant made a sensational play, tipping a ball ahead to Ariza in the open court. Ariza ran down Bryant's pass and fed Vujacic for a three point play. Bryant was credited with a defensive rebound on the play, while Ariza earned the assist.
The usually perceptive Van Gundy kept talking about how the Lakers are deeper than the Celtics but this run hardly proved it; Bryant, not the reserves, keyed the Laker attack, though Odom, Ariza and Vujacic certainly deserve credit for taking advantage of open opportunities.
The Lakers briefly took their biggest lead of the game--39-29--as Bryant stayed in the game until the 5:06 mark of the second quarter, getting his first rest while the Lakers enjoyed a 39-33 advantage. The Lakers could have had two more points but Perkins blocked Gasol's layup attempt after a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play led to a Bryant pass to Bynum and Bynum's feed to a cutting Gasol. Jackson barely rested Bryant for two minutes before putting him right back in the game with the Lakers up 46-39.
Garnett scored on two alley oop dunks and started out with 10 points on 5-5 shooting, prompting Van Gundy to scoff at Phil Jackson's pregame statement that Gasol is an "underrated defender." Van Gundy declared, "Are you kidding me? This is like a dunk fest."
After Perkins blocked another Gasol layup (Gasol had three of his shots blocked during this game) and Gasol complained to one of the referees about being fouled, Mark Jackson said, "Forget about the contact. You have to be a seven foot force. Look to put the Celtic defender in the rim by dunking the basketball."
Mark Jackson also had critical words for the Lakers' other starting big man after a Perkins dunk cut the Lakers' lead to 48-43: "My problem with Bynum on that last possession is you can be the helper but also get back in the paint and contest the shot of Perkins. Sort of quit on the play."
The Lakers pushed the margin to 51-43 after a well executed Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play resulted in Bryant passing to Gasol who then fed Walton for an open three pointer. Pierce answered with a pair of free throws to make the score 51-45 at halftime. Bryant scored 16 first half points on 8-13 field goal shooting. The Celtics stayed in contact by outscoring the Lakers 28-16 in the paint in the first half (Boston won that category 44-34 by the end of the game).
The Lakers went up 57-49 after Bynum' s dunk at the 9:07 mark of the third quarter but then the Celtics went on a 15-5 run keyed by Pierce's 10 points. During that stretch, Bryant went 0-3 from the field and no other Laker could get anything going offensively. Coach Jackson sat Bryant out for the final 2:48 of the third quarter but this time the Lakers bench did in fact provide a boost without the benefit of having Bryant around to draw double teams; Vujacic hit a jumper and Odom drained two three pointers. Gasol added a free throw after being fouled away from the play as Vujacic hit his shot and the Lakers led 71-67 heading into the final 12 minutes.
It is again worth noting that Coach Jackson only rested Bryant twice and for less than three minutes each time; Bryant played the entire fourth quarter. After Boston cut the margin to 75-73 at the 9:10 mark, neither team led by more than two points for more than seven minutes. Garnett hit a jumper and scored on another alley oop dunk to put Boston up 81-79 at the 3:56 mark and it seemed like maybe Bryant and the Lakers had run out of gas. Gasol had shot just 4-11 from the field up to that point, fully justifying Boston's strategy of swarming Bryant and daring anyone else to make a shot. With the shot clock winding down, Bryant hit a tough jumper to tie the score. Ray Allen missed a three pointer and then Bryant fed Gasol for a jumper. After Allen missed another three pointer, Bryant fed Gasol for a running shot in the lane. Garnett drained a long jumper but Bryant again drew the defense before feeding Gasol for a layup/three point play opporunity. Gasol made the free throw to put the Lakers up 88-83 with 1:28 left. Mark Jackson said, "We said it earlier. Kobe had to be great. Well, this is great, making the extra pass, realizing what is being most effective at the offensive end. They're double teaming him, he has to make the play. If you're Pau Gasol in Memphis you have to make all the plays. If you're Pau Gasol with the Lakers you can play off of a great player in Kobe Bryant."
Next, Gasol made a great defensive play, switching out on Ray Allen after a screen and then blocking Allen's three point attempt. Bryant grabbed the rebound and, just like he did in the first half, passed the ball ahead to Ariza in the open court. Ariza's reverse dunk made the score 90-83 and after a couple Boston misses Bryant finished the scoring with a driving layup.
Prior to the game, many people said that this showdown was more important to the Lakers than it was to the Celtics and I agree with that perspective: the Lakers were playing at home and they lost to the Celtics in the Finals so the onus was on the Lakers to show that they can stand up to Boston's physicality. However, this game was obviously important to Boston, also; all three members of the "Big Three" played more minutes than usual and it is obvious that this game could have implications down the road, both in terms of home court advantage and from a psychological standpoint. The Lakers still have a lot to prove about their defensive intensity and their overall toughness but this was a big win and something that they can use as a reference point and a building block for the rest of the season.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 AM