After seizing home court advantage back from Boston with a Game 3 victory on the road, the Lakers expected the Celtics to come out like cornered dogs in Thursday evening’s Game 4.
They were right … but L.A. couldn’t tame the beast.
Riding a surge of extra energy from their bench in the fourth quarter, Boston outscored L.A. 36-27 in the final period to seize a 96-89 victory that tied the NBA Finals at two, ensuring that if the Lakers are going to win a 16th championship, it would come back in the City of Angels.
“They had their backs to the wall tonight,” said Lakers head coach Phil Jackson. “They played desperate, and they got away with it.”
While Bryant and Pau Gasol scored 33 and 21 respective points, L.A. got only 35 points from the rest of its squad. The team’s two stars, who combined for 87 minutes of run, appeared to tire down the stretch while C’s subs Glen Davis and Nate Robinson combined for 15 of their 30 total points in the final period.
The Lakers struggled defensively down the stretch with that fatigue, caused in part by the absence of Andrew Bynum, who stayed in the locker room at halftime trying to get his ailing right knee ready to go but could offer only two minutes of second half playing time, 12:10 total.
“Obviously we miss Andrew when he’s not out there,” said Gasol. “He’s been so effective blocking shots and rebounding. Those two things alone are a big plus for us.”
While Phil Jackson said that the team hoped the two days before Sunday’s Game 5 proved enough to get Bynum’s swollen knee ready to go (Bynum himself vowed to play), his absence provided some background to some statistical categories dominated by Boston.
The Celtics grabbed seven more rebounds (41-34), scored 20 more points in the paint (54-34), amassed 20 second-chance points thanks mostly to 16 offensive rebounds (to 10 and eight for L.A.) and outran the Purple and Gold to the tune of 15 fastbreak points against two from the Lakers.
“They got all the energy points, the hustle points, second-chance points, beat us to loose balls,” added Kobe Bryant. “That’s how the game turned around.”
In fact, 22 of Boston’s 36 fourth quarter points came in the paint.
“They really stepped on it in the fourth quarter,” said Phil Jackson. “We seemed to not be able to stop the momentum of their game. Their bench outplayed us in that sequence, and even with all that, at the end of the game we had our shot at it and couldn’t continue what we had to do.”
The Celtics successfully pushed Gasol and Lamar Odom 17 feet away from the basket particularly in the fourth, which contributed towards Bryant having to create perimeter looks for himself often late in the shot clock. After connecting on 5-of-7 threes in the first three quarter, he made only 1-of-4 in the fourth, and 2-of-6 shots overall.
“He was tired,” explained Jackson. “Physically he had to work too hard in the course of the game, and he couldn’t finish it out like he wanted to. We’ll have to do something different the next game to get him off the floor and keep him ready for that fourth quarter.”
Bryant, never one to concede that he is injured or tired, simply said “no” to postgame questions of that nature, suggesting that he was worried not at all about his shooting (“I can always go get a bucket”) but only about his team’s defense and rebounding.
That will be the team’s focus heading into Game 5, when the Lakers have a chance to take a 3-2 lead back to L.A. if they’re able to come away with a second road win.
“I think we have enough in our arsenal to produce,” said Gasol. “We know what to do, we know how to get it done.”
We’ll see about that on Sunday.
Until then, your numbers:
1:50 Second half minutes for Andrew Bynum, who’s ailing right knee was too swollen for him to be effective. His absence certainly affected L.A. adversely in several categories as documented below.
6 Points for Derek Fisher after he dropped 11 crucial ones in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s Game 3 win. Fisher was limited by foul trouble throughout, playing only 30 minutes, which Kobe Bryant said hurt the Lakers at both ends of the floor.
16 Offensive rebounds for the Celtics, which emphasized Boston’s desperation/effort and helped produce a 20-10 edge in second-chance points.
20 More points in the paint for the Celtics (54) than the Lakers (34), a category that L.A. almost always wins, including Games 1 and 3 (see: Bynum’s absence/Boston’s effort).
33 Points for Kobe Bryant to lead all scorers, on 10-of-22 FG’s and 7-of-8 FT’s. It marked the 13th time in 20 postseason games that Bryant had scored at least 30.