Lakers Outlast Celtics in Overtime, Reclaim Best Record in the NBALamar Odom's two free throws with :16 left in overtime proved to be the difference as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 110-109. Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 26 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had a team-high tying five assists but the Celtics made him work for everything he got, as Ray Allen and Paul Pierce took turns hounding him into 10-29 field goal shooting. Even though Bryant had a rough shooting night, he came through with three three pointers in the fourth quarter, the last of which put the Lakers up 101-100 with 1:30 remaining, their first lead in the second half.
Pau Gasol came up big with 24 points on 10-14 shooting plus a game-high 14 rebounds. Odom was MIA in the first half (two points on 1-3 shooting, three fouls) but finished with 20 points, six rebounds and three assists. Allen--who was just named to the All-Star team by Commissioner David Stern as a replacement for the injured Jameer Nelson--led the Celtics with 22 points, while Pierce added 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists but shot just 5-13 from the field. Kevin Garnett had 16 points and six rebounds before fouling out with 4:22 remaining in regulation.
Sometimes players and teams attempt to downplay the importance of a regular season game but the Lakers are not even trying to pretend that this was just another game. Bryant said, "This was not a statement to anybody else, this was a statement to us. Last year they took it from us, and I'm not going to live with that. I'm not going to sit here and let this team get punked any more."
On Christmas Day, the Lakers beat the Celtics 92-83 to end Boston's 19 game winning streak and this victory stopped Boston's current winning streak at 12. Last year, the Celtics swept the Lakers, achieved the best regular season record in the NBA and used the homecourt advantage to full effect during the playoffs as they captured their NBA record 17th championship; this year, the Lakers have swept the Celtics and are on course to fulfilling Coach Phil Jackson's publicly stated goal of making all of the other contenders have to go through the Staples Center to win the championship.
While the Lakers certainly enjoyed the finish of this game, the start was anything but auspicious: Boston raced out to a 9-2 lead. Odom has a tendency to passively drift around the court, so Jackson attempted to get him engaged early in the game, calling his number on the Lakers' first possession; Odom made a strong drive to the hoop and drew a foul on Rajon Rondo but Odom missed both free throws, essentially transforming that possession into nothing more than a turnover. Defensively, Bryant reprised his role as a roamer, assigned to guard Rondo but giving the non-shooter a lot of space in order to attempt to disrupt the other Celtic players. The problem for the Lakers was that in transition there were cross matches all over the place and the Celtics feasted on wide open shots and easy put backs. Odom threw the ball away on the Lakers' second possession before finally scoring a jump hook over Pierce.
After the Celtics scored three straight baskets in the paint, Bryant answered with back to back field goals: first he posted up Allen, spun away from double teamer Kendrick Perkins and nailed a short jumper and then he drove through the heart of Boston's defense to make a layup. Meanwhile, Odom continued to struggle; on one possession he drove into the paint, passed up a short shot and then got the ball back only to brick a jumper. Mercifully, he committed his second foul at the 6:34 mark and had to go to the bench. By that time the Lakers had cut the lead to 11-10 and soon after that Gasol hit a jumper to put them ahead for the first time. Allen and Derek Fisher traded three pointers before Bryant caught the ball on the post and slipped a nice feed to Gasol for a dunk. The Lakers had steadied themselves and they were up 23-20 by the end of the quarter. Bryant led both teams in scoring (10 points), rebounds (four) and assists (three).
TNT's Craig Sager asked Coach Jackson how the Lakers had withstood the early Boston barrage and Jackson whimsically replied, "Luck," noting that the Lakers had played awful transition defense but that the Celtics missed some open shots. Bryant had already attempted 10 shots and Coach Jackson offered this explanation for Bryant's aggressiveness: "If Lamar's going to be bashful six feet from the basket he (Bryant) is going to sense that and take some shots (but) we've got to get other guys involved." I have never understood why some commentators and fans blame Bryant for allegedly "forcing" shots but they don't direct their ire at guys like Odom who turn down open shots; it is very damaging for a team offensively if a player turns down an open shot, because in the NBA with the 24 second shot clock you are not likely to get another good open opportunity on that possession. Bryant "forcing" a shot that he is capable of making is a better option than an open player refusing to shoot and that is why when Bryant senses a vacuum--as Jackson has put it on other occasions--he tries to fill that vacuum.
One thing that really worked well for the Lakers in the first quarter was a screen/roll action involving Bryant. Josh Powell came in for Odom and did a good job setting screens and then either rolling to the hoop or spotting up for open jumpers that he proved he can make. Bryant scored the final field goal of the quarter on a midrange jumper after getting a defensive rebound, going coast to coast and using a middle screen from Powell to get just enough air space to shoot. After the Celtics missed, the Lakers had an opportunity to score again but this time the Bryant-Powell screen/roll went for naught after Bryant swung the ball to Trevor Ariza, who took one dribble and let the clock expire before shooting. Bryant immediately said to him, "Shoot the ball." That is yet another example of the harm caused by a player not taking an open shot.
Bryant went to the bench to get a quick rest at the start of the second quarter. Gasol and Odom stayed in the game with three bench players (Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar). Gasol assisted on an Ariza layup and then converted a three point play. TNT's Doug Collins reported that Coach Jackson told him that Gasol is capable of scoring versus Boston's bigs but that at times Gasol is "reluctant" to assert himself; Jackson wants Gasol to take the ball to the hoop strongly and not just meekly flip the ball at the hoop.
What I have noticed about Gasol in the year that he has been a Laker is that he has thrived as a teammate of Bryant's; Gasol shot .589 in 27 games as Laker last season after shooting .501 in the first 39 games while playing for Memphis and he is shooting .564 this season. I am not denigrating Gasol's abilities at all when I say that he benefits from playing alongside Bryant. Gasol is an All-Star caliber player and if he were the best player on the Lakers then he would be double-teamed fairly regularly--but because Bryant's presence requires that the defense be "tilted" in his direction, Gasol generally only receives single coverage when Bryant is in the game with him. Gasol plays a finesse oriented game, so he is a lot more comfortable beating one defender by using his finely tuned skills than he is dealing with multiple defenders, particularly if one or both of them bang Gasol around. When Bynum was healthy and playing center, Gasol played power forward and relied on his faceup game but with Bynum out of the lineup Gasol is spending a lot more time in the post; Bynum is more physically imposing than Gasol but Gasol is actually a more polished and skillful low post scorer, so the Lakers' offense really does not suffer much--if at all--with Bynum out, particularly if Odom (who now starts at power forward) is focused on the task at hand (the Lakers do miss Bynum's size and presence defensively and on the glass). The Lakers made it to the Finals with the Gasol-Odom tandem starting at center-power forward and that was without Gasol having the benefit of a full training camp to learn the nuances of the Triangle Offense.
The Lakers led 35-26 when Bryant returned to action and here is where the plus/minus stat can be a little dicey: he had barely taken his warmups off when Vujacic committed back to back turnovers that led to two baskets for Eddie House--a layup and a three pointer. Those were House's first points of the game and, as Collins often says, once a shooter sees the ball go in the basket it makes all the difference in the world; House ended up scoring 16 points in 20 minutes, providing a major spark off of the bench. Not surprisingly, Coach Jackson quickly took Vujacic out of the game but the damage had already been done in terms of switching the momentum.
The Lakers were not able to build their lead back up but with 1:52 remaining in the half they enjoyed a 51-46 advantage. However, they closed out the half very poorly, giving up six straight points, including two layups--and it could have been even worse, because Luke Walton threw away an inbounds pass all the way from one baseline to the other. Since no one touched the ball, the Celtics had the opportunity to inbound the ball at their offensive end of the court with just under two seconds remaining and Allen ended up with a good look at a jumper but he missed the shot. Walton is a good passer but I'm not sure that he is a good inbounder, even though the Lakers often use him in that role; this is hardly the first time that Walton has used bad judgment when inbounding the ball.
The sloppy way that the Lakers closed out the first half seemed to carry over into the start of the second half and the Celtics soon enjoyed a 59-51 lead after making a 7-0 run. Bryant airballed a three pointer and lost the ball while driving to the hoop during that stretch. Fisher committed his third foul but Coach Jackson left him in the game and that decision paid off when Fished nailed a jumper to stop the bleeding. Soon after that, things began to get a bit chippy: Bryant and Rondo were called for a double technical foul after they got into a jawing match, then Rondo was whistled for an away from the play foul on Bryant and soon after that Garnett and Odom started woofing at each other after Garnett committed an offensive foul. What the TNT guys missed is that right after the foul, Odom slapped Garnett on the rear end--and that was why Garnett headed toward Odom to say something. You could even read their lips as Garnett told Odom not to do that and Odom answered that he'd do whatever he wanted to do. For some strange reason, Perkins decided to foul Gasol right in front of a referee, prompting Reggie Miller to quip that Perkins probably did not graduate summa cum laude. It was quite evident that the Celtics had decided to up the ante on physical contact and trash talking but the Lakers neither backed down nor lost their composure.
At halftime, studio guest Karl Malone had suggested that maybe Odom needed someone to slap him to wake him up and after the game Malone said that perhaps all of these little skirmishes did just that. Whatever the reason, Odom became a lot more active at both ends of the court. Nevertheless, Boston led 81-77 going into the fourth quarter after Pierce made a strong drive past Bryant with two seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Bryant sat out the opening minutes of the fourth quarter but the Lakers bench did a credible job of keeping the score close. That said, Bryant returned not a moment too soon, because Boston was up 91-85 with 7:46 left in regulation and the previous two Lakers possessions had ended with Odom and Ariza missing long jumpers. Odom made a layup to trim the margin to 91-87 and after Perkins committed a loose ball foul Odom drove to the hoop, missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, scored and got fouled. His free throw brought the Lakers to within one point but then Rondo hit consecutive shots to give Boston a 95-90 cushion. Now it was Bryant's time to shine; he countered Pierce's excellent defense by draining three three pointers in just under four minutes, enabling the Lakers to take a slim 101-100 lead. After the second of those three pointers, Collins said, "He can miss 10 straight and think he's hot. That's the beauty of great players." During Bryant's three point barrage, Garnett fouled out after pushing Derek Fisher as they pursued a loose ball. The Celtics led 95-93 when Glen Davis came in for Garnett.
After Davis missed a jump shot, the Lakers squandered an opportunity to extend their lead when Gasol drove to the hoop but missed everything on his layup attempt. He grabbed the rebound but the shot clock expired before he could shoot. Collins commented, "That's one of those that Pau Gasol has to go in and try to tear the rim down. You can't flip that shot...That's one of those plays that aggravates Phil Jackson." That was the kind of play that cost the Lakers dearly in the Finals last year. This time, though, the Lakers dodged a bullet because neither team made a field goal in the final 1:30. Pierce split a pair of free throws to force the game into overtime after he and Bryant each made great defensive plays: first Pierce smothered Bryant and did an excellent job of forcing him to shoot a contested jumper and then Bryant blew up Boston's final possession by poking the ball away from Pierce as time ran out, forcing House to launch a desperation shot.
Odom opened the overtime by making a jump hook but then the Lakers gave up three straight layups. Bryant did not make a shot during the extra session but he had an impact with his passing and his defense. Bryant's feed to Gasol for a layup tied the score at 105 and Bryant helped to hold Pierce scoreless in the overtime. Trailing 107-105, the Lakers ran the play that proved to be their bread and butter in the latter stages of last season: a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action with Odom flashing to the high post. Bryant passed to Odom, who then fed Gasol for a dunk. After Pierce turned the ball over, Gasol split a pair of free throws but Boston took the lead on a Davis jump shot--his first and only points of the game. Bryant missed a tough jumper over Pierce but Gasol blocked a shot by Davis, who then fouled Odom. Odom's two free throws closed out the scoring, as Pierce and Allen missed jumpers in the closing seconds.
The Lakers shot well from the field (.477) but shot just 17-29 (.586) from the free throw line and were outrebounded 47-42. They did not play a perfect game by any means but considering who they were playing and the fact that this was their third game in four nights this is an impressive win. Gasol played over 46 minutes after logging 45 minutes the previous night, while Bryant played 45 minutes on the heels of playing 38 minutes just two days after he had scored 61 points in 37 minutes. The Lakers' two All-Stars are carrying a heavy load but they get a couple days to rest now before concluding this road trip in Cleveland, where the Cavs have not lost a game this season. Most likely, either this game or Sunday's game will turn out to be a Finals preview.
Coach Jackson and Bryant have repeatedly stressed that the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals last year because the Celtics displayed more toughness. Toughness is not about screaming loudly or flexing your muscles; toughness is about making the plays that have to be made down the stretch in close games and not backing down when the other team challenges you mentally, psychologically and physically. The Lakers improved to 5-0 on their East Coast road trip, winning the second game of a back to back after their victory in Toronto on Wednesday--and they accomplished this without the services of Andrew Bynum, the biggest and most physically imposing member of their frontcourt. That is how you prove your toughness and that is how you build the foundation for a championship run.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM