Lakers' 102-89 Game 1 victory over Boston Celtics serves as a statement game
He stood patiently answering question after question about the Lakers' 102-89 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, ranging from the team's execution, to the individual contributions and eventually the opponent, all with the backdrop on how this compared to the Lakers' 2008 NBA Finals loss.
After a seemingly never-ending question comparing and contrasting the current Lakers and Celtics team from the ones that met in the 2008 Finals, Lakers guard Derek Fisher finally let loose, with his frustration visibly showing as he cocked his head back and rolled his eyes.
"I hope we don't have to answer these questions the whole series," Fisher said after scoring nine points on three-of-eight shooting. "It's two years guys. It's like asking me what's different from my 3 year old two years later when they're 5. They're 5. That's the difference. I don't know what to point to other than different personnel."
Fisher, being a savvy veteran with the media, knows he won't get his wish, given the large contingent and its tendency to magnify a legitimate issue 100 times greater than it actually means. I had long mentioned that talking points such as the team's toughness, physicality and inconsistent inside game in the 2008 Finals had more to do with the team's inability to match the Celtics' intensity and execution than it had to do with lacking the three aforementioned qualities.
It's also been two years since that Finals series, and there's been plenty of changes that's happened well before the Lakers met Boston in the 2010 Finals. The Lakers rebounded with a 2009 championship, Andrew Bynum is now making a Finals appearance and Ron Artest joined the team this off-season to shut down the opponents' top scorers. So even if the Lakers' Game 1 win didn't exactly rectify their 2008 Finals loss, it at least demonstrated how much different they are even if they've done so many times already.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant scored 30 points off 10-of-22 shooting, marking the 11th time in 12 games he's scored at least 30 points. Lakers forward Pau Gasol and Bynum largely contributed to the Lakers' 48 points in the paint, 16 unanswered second-chance points and a 42-31 rebounding edge. Though Celtics forward Paul Pierce scored most of his 24 points on six-of-13 shooting against Artest, he had to work for his points, while no one else shot above 50%.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson might have said "it wasn't the prettiest basketball game" because of Boston's ability to slash a 20-point lead to as low as 11. Fisher may have described the contest as a "weird type of game" because the officials' whistle-happy tendencies resulted in a combined 67 free throws, leading to what Fisher believed was a problem -- the "game never really found a flow." And the Lakers may find nothing significant from Jackson's 47-0 all-time record in playoff series when his teams win Game 1.
Said Bryant: "It's not necessarily about having a great start as much as it is trying to win the series."
Below the jump, I detail how the Lakers demonstrated a team effort like this likely will spur them to a Finals victory.
Pau Gasol makes a statementThere's a pretty good reason why Jackson felt most intrigued with Gasol's matchup with Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. Gasol entered the 2010 Finals answering questions all week about his alleged lack of toughness in the 2008 Finals loss, and how he has grown from that experience. Though there's no doubt Kendrick Perkins and Garnett muscled him inside, most of it had to do with him not playing aggressive enough and lacking the strength to compete with Boston's physicality. He has since devoted more time to the weight room and played more aggressively, two skill sets that only complemented his mastery of the triangle offense, quick footwork, solid mid-range game and accurate touch around the basket.
In Game 1, Gasol showed he was a much different player than in 2008. He finished with 23 points off eight-of-14 shooting, grabbed 14 rebounds, eight offensive boards and three blocked shots, a stark contrast to his second-half Game 1 effort in 2008 where he had only one rebound.
"It was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help as much as possible out there," Gasol said. "There was no statements to be made. Our goal is to win the championship, and not just make a statement right now."
Gasol displayed the ingredients on what he needs to provide to ensure a Lakers championship, even after a rough start that included two turnovers by midway through the first quarter. Gasol displayed his nifty footwork in the first quarter when he shifted directions against Garnett in the post. On the next play, he snuck inside the paint for a put-back basket off Bryant's miss, giving the Lakers a 16-10 lead with 5:30 remaining in the quarter.
He took a charge in the paint that would have earned $50 had the league not told Jackson that practice was unacceptable. Said NBA Commissioner David Stern in a pregame news conference: "Actually it's against our rules, and so rather than do anything about it now on the eve of the Finals, we said, 'How about if you cut it out and we'll discuss it later?' "
In the second quarter, Gasol pressured Garnett into missing a contested fade-away jumper, blocked Garnet's turnaround shot and displayed more nifty footwork against Rasheed Wallace. Though Wallace responded to Gasol's spin move with a stuff, Gasol didn't back down and still grabbed the loose ball, leading to Shannon Brown converting on a bank shot that put the Lakers up, 30-26. And with 5:17 left in the third quarter, Gasol easily found Lamar Odom open inside for a 12-foot jumper, giving the Lakers the 93-78 advantage.
"What I see from him," Jackson said, "is just the little actions that represent not backing down type of things, getting hits, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other with the mentality to look at the referee or wonder about the blow and the legitimacy of it. Those are the things he's learned in the last year and a half or two."
Bynum fights through the pain
There's a reason why Gasol credited his success partly to Bynum. Despite playing with torn cartilage in his right knee and wondering what kind of effort he could provide, Bynum scored an efficient 10 points on four-of-six shooting along with six rebounds in 28 minutes, a performance Bynum even acknowledged surpassed his expectations.
"I just tried to be as effective as I can in the minutes I'm given," said Bynum, who missed the 2008 NBA Finals because of a sore left kneecap. "I'm just going out there and playing hard."
But it didn't come easy. He admitted he managed to play through pain partly on adrenaline. He plans to have extra treatment during Friday's practice because the swelling makes the tendon in his knee hurt. And the recent draining of his right knee did little to ease the pain, though Bynum said he's felt the same since initially injuring the knee during Game 6 of the Lakers' first-round series against Oklahoma City.
Bynum's effort clearly complemented Gasol. A screen and roll that Bryant and Bynum ran in the first quarter enabled Gasol to get an open shot at the free-throw line, which gave the Lakers a 10-4 lead. Bynum's improved quickness on defensive rotations helped Gasol hold down the Celtics front line, including forcing Perkins to commit his third foul with 11:47 left in the third quarter and limiting Garnett and Perkins to a combined seven rebounds.
"When he's had the ability to have this game, he's done it," Fisher said of Bynum. "It doesn't surprise us for him to do well. He's really been a trooper in giving everything that he has. We're appreciative of it."
Artest wishes he could enjoy Finals moreTwo fans were surely appreciative of a generous gesture by Artest, which entailed him spending $18,000 for them to sit in courtside seats for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
"It's championship time and I feel the fans deserved to sit courtside," Artest said. "There's 98% of people from L.A. who don't see a Lakers game." Odom added: "Ron is a people person."
Yet, Artest hasn't savored his first Finals experience as much as he would like. He hasn't noticed the electric atmosphere. He hasn't glanced at the championship banners. And he's still coming to grips that he's actually playing for a championship.
"I'm not sure how I should feel, whether I should be excited or emotional," Artest said. "Unfortunately, I wish I could enjoy it more."
When asked if he's changed during the season, he pointed to the instance he appeared on the Jimmy Kimmell Show in only briefs and his numerous dye jobs to his hair. "I'm not going to do that anymore," Artest said. "I try to enjoy it sometimes. But sometimes enjoying it, people have the wrong idea of what I'm trying to do."Instead, he's letting his on-court actions speak for themselves, and three sequences defined the type of toughness that typifies Artest's game.
Moments after the opening tip, Pierce locked arms with Artest, which resulted in both falling to the ground and technical fouls being assessed to each player only 27 seconds into the game. In the third quarter, he swiped the ball from Pierce, which led to a Bryant fast-break dunk. In the fourth quarter, Artest blocked a shot on Boston forward Glen Davis and saved the ball from going out of bounds, leading Jordan Farmar to grab the loose ball and shoot a cross-court pass to Gasol for a transition dunk, giving the Lakers a 91-76 lead with 6:20 remaining.
"You have to sacrifice the body a little bit. The ball was just loose so I grabbed it," Artest said. "Everybody hustled on that possession. We had a fast break; Gasol finished on the fast break. Hopefully we can do that for a remainder of this championship run."
Bryant surely hopes so, which is why he jumped off the bench and gave Artest an emotional hug. "It was a big play for us," Bryant said. "I was happy with the play that he made and I was excited for him. I think he does a great job of us setting the tone defensively with his intensity and with his energy. I was just letting him know it was well appreciated." The Celtics have also noticed as point guard Rajon Rondo observed of Artest: "He's more physical than [Trevor] Ariza."
Bryant continues dominance
The Lakers surely appreciate Bryant's contributions in Game 1, which entailed scoring at least 30 points in 11 of the last 12 games and nearly recording a triple-double for the fourth time in five contests. After remaining relatively quiet in the first half, including two turnovers, Bryant exploded in the third quarter with a 14-point effort on five-of-seven shooting. He opened the third quarter by scoring the first four points -- a 23-footer and a floater. He snuck behind Boston reserve Tony Allen and blocked his shot, leading to Fisher connecting with Bryant on transition off an alley-oop lob for a 75-62 lead with 2:11 remaining. And the balanced offense showed Bryant's strong ability in taking over a game, while quickly shifting gears if there's a better offensive option. The involvement extends to the sideline where he appeared very engaged and vocal with teammates.
"I've been that way," Bryant said. "Just making sure we're all on the same page and executing properly."
Bryant's been noticeably moody during his interactions with reporters this week, speaking in clipped and mumbled sentences, much like his demeanor during the Lakers' 2009 title run. Clearly, Bryant prefers to let his play do the talking.
Said Bryant: "I just responded to the challenge."
An approach the Lakers clearly didn't master in the 2008 Finals. These type of questions may not end for Fisher's liking, but the Lakers' Game 1 performance at least resulted in the picture illustrating a progression.
Photo: Lakers big men Pau Gasol (right) and Lamar Odom force Boston forward Paul Pierce into a difficult shot in the fourth quarter of Game 1 on Thursday night. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles TimesPhoto: Celtics point guard Nate Robinson prevents Lakers center Andrew Bynum from scoring by fouling him in Game 1 on Thursday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest, who finished with 15 points, celebrates after blocking a shot by Celtics power forward Glen Davis in the fourth quarter of Game 1 on Thursday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who led all scorers with 30 points, finishes off a dunk in the third quarter of Game 1 on Thursday night. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times