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June 12, 2008 | 11:41 pm

The lead in to the question presented to Doc Rivers after the game seemed innocent enough:

"Doc, we've seen teams come back from deficits like this before..."

Stop right there.  No, we haven't.  Not in the NBA Finals, at least.  No team, going back to the 1971 championship series (the NBA's records for in-quarter stats don't reach back any deeper), has ever blown a lead as large as the 24 point cushion the Lakers gave away Thursday night in their 97-91 loss to Boston in Game 4 of their best-of-seven.  No team has ever blown a bigger first quarter lead than the 21 point margin LA had after the opening 12, or a bigger halftime advantage than the 18 they held at the break.  I'm sure there are more ugly numbers buried in the books, but those are the biggies, and they're more than enough.  With the win, the Celtics take a commanding 3-1 lead heading into Sunday's Game 5.

This, folks, was a killer. 

Click below for the breakdown... or at least a rundown.

What looks in the box like a tale of two halves- Lakers up by the aforementioned 18 points when the buzzer sounded on the second quarter- was really a tale of one great 18 minute run for the Lakers, and total domination by Boston over the last 30. 

Let's start with what worked...

THE FIRST QUARTER:

No question, the Lakers were the beneficiary of some bad shooting from the Celtics, but importantly, they took advantage.  They ran, they pushed, they forced the Celtics into mistakes.  They moved the ball, they got men open underneath the Boston defense.  LA's first possession of the game saw LO aggressively come off a screen at the top of the arc, and drive hard to the basket and draw a foul.  Derek Fisher penetrated on Rajon Rondo, and drew a foul.  Kobe aggressively drove the hole on the break, picking up a foul on KG.  The Lakers hurt the Celtics on the pick and roll, activated Odom early, found space for their shooters, and basically looked like the offensive juggernaut they had been throughout the regular season. 

By the time the curtain fell on the first, Odom had 13 points on 6-6 from the floor, five boards, and a pair of dimes.  Boston, in contrast, had 14 points, six boards, and one assist.  Tack on the rest of the team and LA held a 35-14 lead, shot nearly 65%, held the Celtics to 27% and forced four Boston turnovers. 

At this point, I can only assume many of you were dancing wildly in front of the recliner, dousing yourself joyously in tequila while swinging your pants over your head (perhaps you celebrate in a different way, but you get my point).  I'm sure many in the media corps hit up Expedia to check flights to Boston.  From there, it was supposed to be all down hill. 

It was, but not in the way LA (the city, the team, the fans) had hoped. 

THE SECOND QUARTER:

The record will show LA finished the quarter with an 18 point lead, but from my end, it was misleading.  Over the course of the period, Boston began to exert its influence on the game, and the Lakers began to wilt.  After playing even for the first six minutes or so, Boston went on an 18-7 run, and looked like they'd shave LA's lead down to a very manageable margin by the break.  With nine seconds left, Fish showed some incredible patience, working the Boston D and resetting on a high screen with Gasol.  On the second go round, Pau was there, Fish threaded the needle between two defenders, and Gasol went to the hoop for the and-one.  After a Vlad Rad PF gave the Celtics a point at the line, Jordan Farmar hit a running triple at the buzzer.  6-1 advantage in the last 10 seconds, 13 point lead goes to 18. 

It only masked what was going wrong, though.  Perhaps we didn't realize it yet, but the writing was on the wall. 

THE SECOND HALF:

Whatever good things the Lakers did early, they abandoned them as a group in the second half.  The numbers on both ends are staggeringly bad for loyalists of the purple and gold.  LA abandoned the offense, became impatient with the ball, and started taking and missing a lot of bad shots.  That, of course, led to a lot of good looks for the Celtics.  In the third, Boston logged seven dimes on 11 field goals, a very impressive number for a team on the road.  They out rebounded LA 12-6, out shot them 61%-28%.  Most of the damage, though, as it did in the second, came in the last half of the period.  Boston shaved all but two points off LA's 20 point lead with a 21-3 run over the last 6:04.  The Lakers were limited to a single field goal in that stretch, and even that was a lucky break, as Kobe gathered the ball after a near turnover from the Lakers, and found Gasol underneath for an easy dunk. 

Aside from that, the Lakers offense was truly busted. 

In the fourth, the toxic combination of bad offense and weak D again bit the Lakers, who were outscored 26-18.  The Lakers were 8-21 in the quarter, while Boston was an even 50%, including two critical threes from James Posey.  On perhaps the last chance for the Lakers to get a stop, down by three with under 20 seconds left, the Celtics spread the floor, isolated Ray Allen on Sasha, and the vet blew by him for a layup, before Gasol could recover from the wing. 

Game over.

Obviously, there were plenty of things to point to when trying to figure out what went wrong.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • The Lakers, after the first quarter, completely abandoned the offense.  They began pounding the rock, looking for shots as individuals rather than moving the ball, moving themselves, cutting and passing.  The patience they showed early, complimented by Doc Rivers after the game, was gone. And, as we all know by this point, when they stop operating with efficiency on the offensive end, LA suffers on defense.  Boston began to find space.  Pierce, limited to six points in the first half, had nine in the third.  Eddie House, in because Rivers felt the Lakers were playing off Rondo too much, hit a pair of threes.  Allen had six.  And so on. 
  • At halftime, it seemed like a good sign that the Lakers were up by 21 while Kobe didn't have a field goal.  In hindsight, I'm not sure it was.  Kobe came out in the third looking to get himself going.  More iso, more one-on-one, more jumpshooting.  All of that equals less ball movement.  I'm not blaming Kobe any more than I am anyone else on the team- I don't think he played particularly well, but it's not like he was the catalyst for Boston's comeback- but any rhythm the team had, from getting the ball inside to Pau or keeping LO involved, was gone by the fourth. 
  • Kobe took eight of LA's 21 shots in the fourth, dominating the ball early in the quarter but moving it late, when the Lakers were able to generate some buckets.  He didn't get much help, though.  Sasha, who followed up his big Game 3 with a clunker tonight, was 0-4.  LO was 1-3.  Pau was 2-3, including a dunk on a nice feed from Kobe with 40 seconds to go, and a dandy runner on KG in the lane a few minutes before.  I thought he might have been more effective, if...
  • He had been on the floor earlier.  I think PJ left Pau on the bench for too long, going with Ronny for the first six minutes of the quarter.  Other aspects of the late game rotation I didn't like- Fisher sitting for all but the final two minutes of the game, and LO out for Vlad Rad down the stretch.  The former, Jackson said, was a matchup thing.  "I just felt that Jordan's quickness against Eddie House was probably important for us to have, a little more harassing defense up the court and some pressure in his reactive time a bit."  As for the latter, it had to do with floor spacing to get Kobe looks late.  "Lamar had a great first half, but the second half obviously wasn't as successful.  They were, what we call spying off him, going and helping off him and double-teaming, and we need to spread the court and open up the court so we could get something accomplished there at the end of the game and get some opening opportunities in the lane."

Both are certainly plausible, but I feel like on a guy like House, who isn't going to do much but catch and shoot, run off screens, etc., Fish is more than capable of handling the task of checking him.  When the team is having so much trouble running the offense, that would seem to be a good time to go back to the guy who has been there, who has the experience, and is likely to make better decisions.  Removing Odom for Vlad makes some sense, and he's actually finished a few games of late on the bench, but in this case, while Radmanovic spreads the D, he's also a liability on the other end, and can't handle the ball.  At that point, there was no other threat on the floor to create other than Kobe. 

On the one hand, the Lakers scored enough over the last two minutes, but couldn't keep the Celtics off the board.  Would either of these personnel decisions have really made a big difference?  Hard to say.  I'll have to look at the tape, as they say.  As a group, though, the Lakers had already fallen apart.  One guy here for one guy there?  Not sure if that matters. 

  • No supporting cast.  Nice early minutes for Trevor Ariza, who finished the first half with six points and five boards, but in the second half, he was on the floor for the 10-0 run the Celtics had to close the third quarter.  Sasha?  1-9.  Farmar?  1-6.  Walton?  1-3.  Turiaf?  No points in 10 minutes.  Vlad was a non-factor after the first quarter.

In the end, the biggest problem for the Lakers is the Celtics.  They're a better team.  If both teams show up and play well, the Lakers are likely to come out on the wrong end of the stick.  Boston is bigger, stronger, more disciplined, and far better defensively.  For all the talk of this guy not playing well or that guy not showing up, the elephant in the room is the quality of the two teams.  At this point, I'm ready to say that I, like a lot of other writers, underestimated Boston and how they match up to LA.  Can the Lakers come back?  It's possible, I guess, but I'd be pretty shocked if they managed to win three straight from a team that has proved themselves superior. 

BK


It struck me as interesting how a couple players were asked about what went wrong, whether what the Lakers did wrong, the Celtics did right, and their answer included the following phrase:  "I don't know." Sometimes you hear that from a player and you know it's simply him not wanting to talk, hoping a lack of details will eventually lead to a lack of interest from the surrounding reporters.  This was different. I honestly felt like these guys weren't dodging questions when stuck for an answer.  Truth be told, a lot of writers uttered the exact same words when we talked about it afterward.  A collapse of such a magnitude is really hard to wrap your head around.   I sure haven't managed to do it yet.

The most common explanation I got (and I happen to agree) was purple and gold offensive execution going to hell in a hand basket.  Derek Fisher said so.  Ditto Ronny Turiaf.  And you won't get any argument from Lamar Odom or Pau Gasol.   From almost the moment the second half commenced, the Lakers inexplicably got away from the crisp ball movement, multiple touches and continual motion on display in the opening 24 minutes, the same prowess that allowed them to build a huge lead with only three points and no field goals from Kobe Bryant. In the second half, we saw much more dribbling and fewer passes, much more Kobe (who never found an offensive groove and didn't seem to accept it) in isolation holding the ball for several seconds, little running, zero patience, and a decreased variety of guys with the rock, especially inside.  Everything was thrown out of whack and the Lakers never were same again.

"It was bad execution as a team," lamented Odom in the locker room. "We stopped running our offense," vented Ronny Turiaf, who grew increasingly frustrated talking about the matter.  "We stopped doing the things that got us the lead.  Making sure that everybody was touching it and getting us easy looks.  We weren't respecting our offense."  Asked about what the Celtics did "better" on defense in the second half, Fish didn't see much of anything.  "I don't think it was that spectacular compared to the defense they played before," shrugged Fisher.  "I think we just did a poor job.  If we came in with 25 turnovers, then I'd agree that the defense was spectacular.  It's not as if they forced us to do some things that we didn't want to do.  We just weren't smart on our end in terms of making sure we continued to execute."

There were other elements I don't think helped matters.  I thought Phil Jackson went too long without Derek Fisher in the fourth quarter.  I get why he wanted to spread the floor during the last couple minutes with Vlad Radmanovic, meaning Odom would grab a seat, but considering how poorly Vlad played in the second half, Fisher and Sasha Vujacic were already on the floor, I'd have kept Lamar in there and tried to involve him more.  There were also matters like missed assignments (especially around the arc), lowered energy, and a decided lack of poise and focus.  But all season long, we've seen the Lakers get tripped up on defense when their offense is cockeyed.  The latter typically dictates the former, which is why Kwame Brown's excellent defensive ability in the paint never elevated the Lakers one bit.  Putting aside his other limitations, 54's total inability to operate within the offense resulted in defensive breakdowns each game.  The Lakers are often at their best defensively when they do the right things on the other side of the ball.  Tonight, the Lakers tore apart their offense as a unit and a big price was paid.

Great line from Fisher, though, when asked if winning was possible.  "Call Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and all those Boston Red Sox and ask if it's possible."  More than a little ironic that he'd reference another Beantown squad that overcame big deficits in 2005 and 2007 en route to a pair of World Series titles to help illustrate his point, but for those seeking out silver linings, ain't a bad angle to run with.

AK


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