Lakers' 2008 Finals loss to Boston rekindles bitter memories
The Lakers no longer have to play the diplomatic route anymore. In what will be the 12th Finals featuring the teams, the Lakers and Celtics matchup beginning Thursday will rekindle stories over the rivalry's history, including here at the L.A. Times Lakers blog where I plan to feature each day one of the Celtics-Lakers Finals matchups. That begins tonight where I'm highlighting the Lakers' most recent Finals loss to Boston in 2008, an outcome that remains fresh on the Lakers' minds.
The Lakers' makeup have changed since that loss. Bynum will actually play this series, with the torn cartilage in his right knee not enough to sideline him like the dislocated left knee cap did in the 2008 Finals. The team's defensive toughness improved, particularly with the off-season addition of Ron Artest worth $33 million over five years. And the team has a more consistent and aggressive post presence with Gasol and Odom, though Odom has been more prone to off nights than Gasol.
I plan to capture each series in chronological order, but since motivation from the 2008 Finals will have the most impact, I'll start there first. I detail after the jump why the Lakers fell apart two years ago in six games, an outcome that will surely serve as a teachable moment as the Lakers aim for a second consecutive championship and redeem themselves against Boston.
Game 1: Lakers' 98-88 loss
Raise your hand if you've heard this already. Boston played physical. The Lakers played soft. While the characterization has since taken on a life of its own, the Lakers' 98-88 Game 1 loss to Boston provided plenty of examples on how both teams lived up to their respective reputations.
The Celtics out-rebounded the Lakers, 46-33, held them to 41.6% shooting and limited the Lakers to 15 fourth-quarter points. In a storyline that has mixed interpretations among Celtics and Lakers fans, Boston forward Paul Pierce returned midway through the third quarter a few minutes after being carried off the court in front of a concerned Boston crowd because of an injured knee to lead a Celtics run.
Meanwhile, nobody on the Lakers showed up. That included Kobe Bryant scoring 24 points on a dreadful nine-of-26 clip, capping his worst shooting performance since going nine of 26 from the field in the first game of the Lakers' first-round matchup with Denver. Lakers forward Pau Gasol became outmuscled, mustering only one second-half rebound. And Lakers forward Lamar Odom proved equally ineffective, finishing with 14 points and six rebounds.
"We don't like to be out-rebounded like we were tonight," Gasol told reporters. "There were a lot of loose balls that we didn't get. That's a big difference. We started shooting a lot of jumpers. Hopefully next time out, we won't be as anxious and we'll be more focused and sharper."
Game 2: Lakers' 108-102 lossThe Lakers managed to cut a 24-point deficit to two in the final eight minutes, but the effort proved to happen a little too late. Beyond bounce-back performances from Bryant (30 points, eight assists) and Gasol (17 points, 10 rebounds), the Lakers provided little to feel good about, most notably knowing only three teams have managed to overcome 2-0 deficits to win the NBA Finals. Jackson described Odom to reporters as "confused." Lakers guard Derek Fisher collected nearly as many fouls (five) as points (nine) and the team had only 20 assists for the 41 field goals.
And that was just on the offensive end. Pierce proved to both fan bases he's a dangerous force in the Finals, scoring 28 points. Boston's offense remained sufficient, with 31 assists contributing to 36 baskets. And to the chagrin of Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, Boston reserve forward Leon Powe had 21 points and went nine of 13 from the line in only 15 minutes of playing time.
"I'm more struck by the fact that Leon Powe gets more foul shots than our whole team does in 14 minutes of play," Jackson told reporters regarding the free-throw discrepancy between the Celtics (27 of 38) and Lakers (10 of 10) . "That's ridiculous. I've never seen a game like that in all these years I've coached in the Finals. Unbelievable."
Game 3: Lakers' 87-81 victoryThis time the Lakers managed to overcome three quarters of uninspiring basketball. They outscored Boston, 27-19, in the fourth quarter. Bryant overcame his recent shooting struggles by making 12 of 20, making a 19-footer to give the Lakers an 85-78 cushion with 1:06 remaining in the game and converted on a leaner for an 87-81 lead with 38 seconds left. And Lakers reserve Sasha Vujacic lived up to his nickname as the "Machine" by scoring 20 points.
But Jackson had plenty of reasons to describe the Lakers' Game 3 victory this way: "It was not a beautiful ballgame." Odom remained ineffective with more turnovers (five) and fouls (five) than points (four). Gasol provided little presence beyond a pair of put-backs in the final minute, contributing to his nine points and 12 rebounds. And the Lakers couldn't build a sizable lead, let alone a lead itself, despite poor shooting nights from Pierce (two of 14) and Kevin Garnett (six of 21) as well as a sprained left ankle to Boston guard Rajon Rondo.
Jackson knew who to point to for helping the Lakers avoid a 3-0 deficit and force them to try to become the first team in both Finals and playoff history to win out.
"It's the leadership of Kobe Bryant out there," Jackson told reporters. "He was aggressive right from the start. Obviously, they caught up and went by us, but we stayed aggressive out there and Kobe was very instrumental in that."
Game 4: Lakers' 97-91 lossBeyond the Lakers' toughness (or lack thereof), they fed another stereotype regarding the organization in Game 4: maintaining leads. Despite leading by as many as 24 points and owning a 20-point third-quarter cushion, the Lakers allowed Boston to creep back into the game in numerous ways.
The Lakers were outscored 57-33 in the second half. The Celtics' reserves outscored the Lakers bench, 35-15. And Boston secured this advantage despite limited play from Rondo (sprained left ankle) and an injured Kendrick Perkins (strained left shoulder). But the reasons were not so important as to how embarrassing the outcome. The Lakers allowed the biggest comeback in Finals history since the Elias Sports Bureau kept official stats for the NBA starting in the 1970-71 season.
So how to bounce back from this? Bryant had an idea, and it didn't involve overnight stays at the gym.
Said Bryant to reporters: "A lot of wine, a lot of beer, a couple shots, maybe like 20 of them, digest it, get back to work."
Game 5: Lakers' 103-98 victory
Jackson entered the locker room at halftime and expressed happiness the Lakers only led by three points. "Thank God we don't have a [large] lead because we just don't know what to do with it," Jackson relayed to reporters rather facetiously. That's because the Lakers led by as many as 19 points in the second quarter, only to allow Boston to creep back in similar fashion in Game 4. This time, the Lakers secured a win despite struggling to hold onto a lead, including a 14-point fourth-quarter advantage.
But in one positive development, the Lakers' disappearing act from their post players finally came to an end. Both Odom and Gasol combined for a 14-of-20 effort and played with aggression, a quality that they sorely lacked during the Finals. but proved instrumental in the Lakers preventing Boston from celebrating its 17th championship at Staples Center.
Said Odom to reporters: "We didn't want to see champagne popping."
Game 6: Lakers' 131-92 lossIn the end, the Lakers saving face from a season-ending loss at home came at the expense of a wasted six-hour flight across three time zones. The Celtics' dominating Game 6 victory struck a nerve in Lakerland in every way imaginable.
The Celtics stayed ahead of the championship race (17-14), widened the discrepancy in Finals head-to-head matchups (9-2) and handed the Lakers the most lopsided loss in Finals history since Chicago's 42-point victory against Utah in 1998.
The images were far from pretty. Pierce danced on the Celtics bench during a timeout in the final minutes. The Boston crowd chanted "Where's Kobe?" -- a reference both to his sitting on the bench in the last moments and the fact Pierce won win the Finals MVP over Bryant, the regular-season MVP. And the "Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye" chant began with five minutes left in the game. Surely, these images remain fresh in the Lakers minds as they prepare for Boston again.
"Just upset more than anything," Bryant summed up his emotions to reporters. "But I'm proud of the way that we performed all year. I'm proud of my guys. At the same time, understand that second place just means you're the first loser."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: From left, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic watch the final minutes of the Lakers' one-sided Game 6 loss to the Celtics from the bench. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times