First, a rhetorical question: will we see the Lakers and Celtics meet in the 2010 Finals?
For many, that was a popular pick heading into the season, with Boston getting a (hopefully) healthy Kevin Garnett back after he missed the 2009 playoffs alongside Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, the much-improved Rajon Rondo and the acquired Rasheed Wallace. The Lakers, meanwhile, likely improved a team that beat Orlando 4-1 in the Finals by acquiring Ron Artest.
By Christmas, Lakers – Celtics still looked to be a good bet, with the NBA’s last two champions featuring largely the same players posting respective 23-5 records while looking at times like Shaun White on the half pipe, destined to settle the most current in a history of feuds.
Yet since X-Mas, Boston hadn’t held up its end of the bargain, assembling a paltry 10-13 mark to L.A.’s 19-8, pitting them a full 8.5 games behind Eastern Conference leading Cleveland (and that was before the Cavs added Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline).
At the center of Boston’s recent struggles has been Father Time, most notably as pertaining to Garnett, the league’s best defensive player and an extremely efficient and heady offensive force during Boston’s title run, who’d missed 10 games while dealing with a sore knee.
With this in mind, we kept a close eye (position-by-position) on how Boston looked against the Lakers on Thursday night in Los Angeles, albeit with the not-at-all-insignificant absence of Kobe Bryant, who missed his fifth straight game with a strained peroneal tendon.
Trailing 76-69 heading into the fourth quarter, the Lakers posted a superlative 13-0 run to momentarily take an 84-80 lead with 7:14 to play, but managed just two points for the rest of the game as Boston eked out an 87-86 victory. Derek Fisher had a chance to win the game with a last second shot, but was well off on a deep jumper with Ray Allen draped to his chest (Fisher later said he thought Allen was going to take Boston’s foul-to-give).
There was some contention before the play, as Lamar Odom had cleared a defensive rebound off a Pierce miss on the previous possession and Pau Gasol had signaled a time out with around six seconds remaining, but LA was awarded just 2.2 seconds with which to work when the whistle finally blew.
In Bryant’s absence, Fisher and Shannon Brown combined to make just 3-of-18 shots as LA’s starting back court, while Pau Gasol scored 22 points, Ron Artest 15, Andrew Bynum 14 and Lamar Odom 13. Odom added 14 rebounds off the bench and Gasol three blocks as the Lakers out-rebounded the Celtics 50-43 but shot only 40.2 percent from the field.
Boston was led by Ray Allen’s 24 points, all of which came in the first three quarters on 10-of-12 shooting, while Kendrick Perkins added a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double. Rajon Rondo led the way with 11 assists, but made only 6-of-17 field goals including 2-of-10 in the second half. Like LA, Boston failed to score in the final 2:24 of action, but Rondo’s eight-foot runner high off the glass was the ultimate difference in the game.
When the Lakers beat Boston on Kobe Bryant’s last-minute shot on Jan. 31st, their greatest struggle in the ball game was containing Rajon Rondo in the second quarter. Boston outscored the Lakers 33-17 in that period, thanks to Rondo’s nine points, eight assists and two steals, many of which came with Shannon Brown defending him. Bryant had defended him quite well for the rest of the game, but on Thursday it was Brown who got the start on Rondo in Bryant’s absence, with Derek Fisher checking Ray Allen.
Rondo found his own offense early, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting, though Brown made progress as the first quarter by blocking Rondo’s final attempt at the rim. From that point on, however, Rondo began to settle for jumpers – missing all but two of 10 in the second half. By the end of the third quarter, he’d already amassed 10 assists, many of which came on catch-and-shoot swishes from Allen, but his missed wide-open jumpers played a key role in LA’s big fourth quarter run (13-0). Ultimately, Rondo notched 14 points and 11 assists on 6-of-17 shooting.
(Sidenote: The Celtics don’t have a backup point guard; Rondo plays a team high 37 minutes per game, though Boston did acquire Nate Robinson (who’s more of a shooting guard) in a trade with New York for Eddie House (Phil Jackson actually said he thought House was the better fit in Boston, as his “quick strike” threes can really change a game).
Fisher struggled with his shooting throughout the evening, making just 1-of-9 shots (0 of 3 from three) including the potential game winner: “They had a foul to give,” said Phil Jackson afterwards. “Fish broke off his cut. He was supposed to open the floor up and we were supposed to have an option there. It didn’t work.”
Perhaps the league’s best shooter, Ray Allen was anything but when LA won the first matchup, missing all six of his three-point attempts including a potential game-winner after Kobe’s free throw line jumper. In that game, he made just 2-of-10 shots, but on Thursday it was an entirely different story. It was just the opposite in Los Angeles, as Allen was on fire in the first three quarters. He made 10 of his first 11 shots, including all four three-pointers, to pace Boston with 24 points, before missing his final four shots of the game.
Allen will always end up a tough matchup for the Lakers, since Bryant will usually guard Rondo, forcing Derek Fisher to give up at least five inches to Allen, who needs little room to get his shot off anyway … Sasha Vujacic, on the other hand, is actually two inches taller than Allen, and did an excellent job chasing him around screens in the fourth. That defensive stretch coincided with LA’s 13-0 run at the other end of the floor.
Offensively at the two guard, Shannon Brown started for LA, and struggled throughout with his shooting. He made just 2-of-9 shots, among the misses a pull-up jumper with 1:15 left that would have put L.A. up one. After scoring a career-high 27 points on Tuesday, Brown finished with eight on Thursday. Of course, it’s not Brown’s fault he had to play 39 minutes against a tough defense in Kobe’s absence, and something that wouldn’t happen with No. 24 on the floor.
Perhaps the most fun one-on-one matchup between Boston and LA is the Paul Pierce – Ron Artest battle, which in Boston started before the ball even went up in the air as the two refused to seed any territory. In interviews, Artest refuses to even mention Pierce as someone he thinks of as a rival, confident that he can contain him better than perhaps anyone in the league. That was certainly the case in Boston, when Artest harassed Pierce into 4-of-11 shooting for only 15 points.
As it turned out, it was more of the same in this one, Artest winning the one-on-one battle of the following lines:
Artest: 15 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover
Pierce: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 1 turnover
With Artest in his face, Pierce took only nine shots, four of which were three-pointers, while on offense Artest had his two most explosive dunks of the season, including a left-handed thunder jam on Rasheed Wallace in the second quarter. It’s a big win for the Lakers if Artest simply battles Pierce – likely still Boston’s best player – to a draw, let alone taking the matchup.
This battle is pretty fun as well. Kevin Garnett, notorious for his maniacal level of play and eagerness to intimidate his opponents, has had success roughing it up with Pau Gasol in the past … but not so much since the 2008 Finals. Pau was excellent against Boston last season, and in Game 1 played Garnett to a draw at worst, making 4-of-9 shots for 11 points with 11 rebounds. Garnett had just 10 points himself, however, and finished the night at -13, while Gasol was only -1.
Garnett looked to be moving better on Thursday, managing four points, four boards and two assists in the first quarter before picking up his second foul. He was very effective again in the third quarter before picking up his fourth foul, getting up to 13 points, five boards, two dimes and two blocks punctuated by a fierce one-handed slam dunk from the right block. But Gasol was even better, refusing to back away from the physical play of KG and Rasheed Wallace (“I think we’re matching up well physically and stepping up – we understand that’s what it takes to win the whole thing.”) He finished with 22 points and three blocks to lead LA, plus seven boards.
If Gasol had any regrets, it was not figuring out a way to execute in the final two minutes. Most notably, Gasol tried to find Brown cutting to the hoop with 31 seconds to go and LA down one instead of looking for his own shot. Unfortunately for LA, Brown stopped his cut a bit early, and Boston gained possession back.
Kendrick Perkins is known as one of the league’s better one-on-one paint defenders, particularly after his past success against Orlando’s Dwight Howard. However, Andrew Bynum has had success against Perkins this season, dropping 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting in Boston and scoring L.A.’s first six points to help the Lakers stay in a ball game that saw the Celts make 11-of-14 shots (78 percent) to start.
In the third quarter when Boston had again pushed their lead to double-digits, Bynum came up with back-to-back tough buckets in the paint, the second off an offensive board, to reach 12 points with eight boards, as Perkins had just six points and seven boards at that point. Bynum finished with 14 points and nine rebounds in 27 foul-shortened minutes, while Perkins managed 13 points and 14 rebounds in 33 minutes.
Bynum’s points came primarily from moves around or through Perkins, while the Celtics’ center got six of his 13 points on put-backs.
Rasheed Wallace was Boston’s big bench acquisition in the offseason, a necessary one at that against LA to at least try and counter what Lamar Odom offers off the pine. Wallace, however, did next to nothing in Boston (three points and one rebound in 20 minutes). Odom, playing only 21 minutes himself while dealing with foul trouble and Bynum’s success, did manage seven points, four boards and two assists in still one of his least productive games of the season.
In LA, Odom took a while to get into the action before absolutely exploding for two left-handed hammer dunks in the second quarter that energized the rest of his game. Wallace struggled in the first half, and after checking in early in the third due to four Garnett fouls, continued to struggle, checking out with just two points on 1-of-9 shooting towards the end of the period. Odom went on to star in LA’s 13-0 spurt that included his pull-up three (and subsequent wide grin) in transition to tie the game at 80, and finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. Wallace scored four points with three rebounds and two blocks.
Big Baby Davis, Marquis Daniels and Tony Allen didn’t give Boston anything worth mentioning off the pine (eight total points), while Jordan Farmar was the only other Laker to receive significant minutes (22). In the fourth quarter, however, Sasha Vujacic played a key role in LA’s big run, scoring six points including two at-the-rim finishes, while harassing Allen around the court defensively (as mentioned in the “Shooting Guard” section).
Odom alone, however, gave LA’s bench a clear advantage.
The Lakers now have four days off before a road back-to-back in Memphis and Dallas next Tuesday and Wednesday, for which they hope Kobe Bryant makes his return after five straight missed games.
As for the potential Lakers – Celtics Finals?
Who knows … but wouldn’t that be fun?
Until then, your numbers:
78 Boston’s shooting percentage to start the game as the Celtics hit 11-of-14 shots. The Lakers, however, managed a 7-0 run to cut the first quarter deficit to just three when it had risen to 11.
24 Points in the first three quarters from Ray Allen, who made 10-of-11 shots to start including 4-of-4 from three-point land. Allen, however, didn’t score in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to the defense of Sasha Vujacic off the bench.
16.7 The shooting percentage of LA’s starting backcourt due to Derek Fisher’s 1 of 9 and Shannon Brown’s 2 of 9. LA shot 40.2 percent as a team.
13 Straight points scored by the Lakers between the 10:23 and 7:14 marks of the fourth quarter, turning a nine-point deficit into a four-point lead.
7 LA’s edge on the glass in the fourth quarter (17-10), partially a result of good overall defense that held Boston to just 11 fourth quarter points.