So far, then so close, then so far
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Lakers were generally outplayed for the bulk of the action, save a six minute stretch at the end of the first half where they turned a five point deficit into a five point lead. Sunday night in Game 2, they opened the game strong, taking a seven point advantage on a tip in from Lamar Odom with 6:15 to play in the first. From there, things turned Boston's way. Decisively. Washington Generals vs. Harlem Globetrotters, Shaq vs. free throws, Oliver Miller vs. the training table decisively. The Celtics locked down on a foul-plagued Lakers squad- more on that later- and opened a 12 point lead at the half, a cushion they pushed to 22 closing the third, and 24 with 7:55 remaining in the fourth.
At that point, the Celtics became complacent defensively, careful not to foul a desperate Lakers bunch and content to trade hoops, bleed the clock down, and send the fans out to the pubs with a big collective smile. Except a funny thing happened- they stopped trading. The Lakers shaved 10 points off the deficit over the next 2:40, and another 10 in the next four minutes. After two free throws from Kobe with 38.4 to go, the Lakers were down only two, needing a stop.
Didn't happen. Derek Fisher was called for a reach on a penetrating Paul Pierce, who went to the line and sank two freebies. Then Pierce blocked a Sasha Vujacic triple on the next possession, and that was that. A heartbreaking, frustrating, angrifying (new word alert!) 108-102 loss. Lakers down 2-0.
Honestly, the game was too weird to fit neatly into our traditional (and well loved) breakdown, so I'm going to hit on what I saw as some of the game's biggest themes. Click below for that.
Issue 1: The Lakers Offense
- For the vast majority of the game, it just wasn't very good. The Celtics once again were quicker to the ball and frustrated the Lakers, particularly when they tried to get Kobe going. While almost by definition Kobe believes any shot he takes is one that can/should go in, I don't think even he would classify anything he saw during the first three quarters as a bunny, like he did in Game 1. Virtually every shot he had over the first 24 minutes was fading away from the hoop, rather than going towards it. The Celtics continued to place players in between him and the basket, and cut off avenues for penetration. His frustration was evident, particularly in the second and third quarters when he started to force shots and push for open space on the floor. His percentage wasn't a problem, but as he and the Lakers had trouble running the O, the shots became more awkward and the Celtics were able to pressure LA on the other end.
Pau Gasol was effective, especially early, as the Lakers were able to establish a solid low post game (13/3/2 in the first half). Lamar Odom was strong crashing the boards, notching eight points overall, four coming on putbacks off the offensive glass. But for most of the game, the Lakers again got very little production from the bench, forced to play a some very critical minutes because of early Lakers foul trouble. (Did I mention I'd be talking about that?) Through three, the LA bench had contributed a total of seven points. That's it. Derek Fisher wasn't effective, taking and missing both open and contested shots and struggling to stick Rajon Rondo, who didn't score much but finished with 16 assists.
In the fourth, Boston went into their prevent D, trying not to foul and grant the Lakers easy points at the line. That let them gain some momentum, and by the time the Celtics realized that they were in a game, it was hard for them to turn it back on. Credit the Lakers for making a comeback, but I tend to think that if the Lakers had started the fourth down 12 instead of 22, the Celtics wouldn't have given them the space to make the run to begin with. Overall, the Lakers offense didn't look like the one we've seen all year, and they're running out of time to figure it out.
Speaking of running, the Celtics have taken that aspect of LA's game away, both with smart transition D and excellent offensive execution. The Lakers only had 10 fast break points tonight, eight of which came in the final quarter. Tonight particularly they were deep in LA territory with guys like Leon Powe, or taking threes in rhythm, many of which were dropping.
Issue 2: The Lakers Defense
- The Lakers cleaned up the rebounding disparity from Game 1, but that was about the only bright spot. In short, the D was not good. Boston, and particularly Rondo, was able to break them down repeatedly and with relative ease. Part of the reason LA was put into foul trouble (getting there, I swear) was the fact that overall, Boston was the faster, more physical, more aggressive team. That, in combination with home court, will always result in a disparity at the line. Maybe not the one we saw tonight, but that principle holds. The Lakers ran up their personals with too many silly reach in fouls. They might be ticky tack, but as a team they have to resist trying to make plays when they're not in position to do it. Move the feet, not the hands.
Even more disappointing for LA was that Boston essentially controlled the pace of play. The Eastern Conference, slug it out, punch 'em in the mouth Boston Celtics had a 10-0 advantage in fast break points in the second and third quarters, got into space, and created clean looks. Their ball movement was very crisp, explaining their 31 dimes on 36 makes, including the aforementioned 16 from Rondo and eight from Pierce.
Issue 3: The Officiating
- I am not one to point to officiating as a reason a team wins or loses. Generally speaking, I believe that the better team gets the calls, which creates the disparity that ticks everyone off. And no question the Celtics were, for most of the game, the better team. So with that in mind... there's no question the officiating helped put the Lakers behind the eight ball early, and made it tough for them to climb out. Did the Celtics deserve an advantage at the stripe in the first half? Absolutely. Like I said, they were the faster, stronger, more aggressive team, and the Lakers, particularly Kobe, were forced into and/or settled for too many jumpers. But 19-2? And with one of the two for LA coming after a KG technical? No, that's just too wide. And it's hard to separate the calls from what came later. Why was Powe (21 points, including 13 free throws, or three more than the Lakers had as a team) able to find so much space down low? In part because the Lakers were saddled with foul trouble in the front court, and lacked bodies to throw at him (and in part because as a team, they don't a lot of muscle to begin with- the Lakers were often pushed around (literally, on occasion) through the course of the evening). It was not a well officiated game by any stretch, and the Lakers were generally on the wrong side of it.
Put it together, and the Lakers had to absorb some tough calls on a night where they were being outplayed, against a team beating them to the loose balls, and facing a tough challenge on a hostile court. That only added obstacles to the path, and until the fourth quarter rally, LA didn't respond well on either end. Did the Lakers lose because of the officials? No, I don't think they played well enough to make that claim, but they certainly weren't helped by them, either.
There will be plenty more to come on this and other issues, I'm sure.