Lakers have many defensive assignments to consider against Boston
In a ritual of early-season preparation, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and his assistants devote time to watching the last game from the previous season, hoping it helps to indicate which areas they need to focus on the most.
So at the beginning of the 2008-09 season, they relived the Lakers' embarrassing 131-92 Game 6 NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, an outcome many Laker fans might consider too painful to purposely watch a second time. But for Jackson, it wasn't as bad as he had feared.
"By that time it was OK," he said. "You get through it." And in the end, he found, "there's nothing to be learned from that game."
Yes, it seems little could be taken away from the most lopsided loss in Finals history since Chicago's 42-point victory over Utah in 1998, except that the Celtics outperformed the Lakers in every single way. But, taking the series as a whole, it was evident one area of concern was defense.
The Celtics featured Paul Pierce (21.8 points), Ray Allen (20.3 points) and Kevin Garnett (18.2 points) averaging double figures. Boston outrebounded the Lakers in four of the series' six games, including by double-digit margins in Games 1 and 6. And Boston's physical play offensively and defensively further cemented the Lakers' soft label.
That's partly why the Lakers spent most of Tuesday's practice preparing their defense by simulating the Celtics' team-oriented offense.
"This is a team that will try to create mismatches and unbalance your team a little bit and pick away at what they consider the weak areas of territories," Jackson said. "You have to make adjustments during the course of the game, but that doesn't prepare you for how the next game will go or whether they'll change up or go directly. We just have to prepare to ... make adjustments."
This isn't about the Lakers overcoming their alleged softness, a reputation and stigma the Lakers unfairly have carried since that Finals loss. Lakers forward Pau Gasol seems to be a focus of this allegation, with El Spaniard having allowed Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett to muscle him inside throughout the series. Since then, Gasol has devoted more time to weight training and has shown plenty of instances where he's not shying from physical play. A few sequences in the Lakers' 87-86 loss Feb. 18 to Boston showed Celtics forward Rasheed Wallace physically trying to intimidate Gasol. Though no one will ever mistake Gasol for a meathead, he didn't back down from Wallace's physical nature. Nearly a month later, Gasol made a hard foul on Phoenix forward Louis Amundson.Nonetheless, Gasol remains befuddled on why the "toughness" talking point took on a life of its own.
"I don't know," Gasol said. "It is what it is. People got to talk about things and they choose to talk about what they want to. We got to go out there and not really prove ourselves, but we got to go out there and play and fight for our goal and our dream, and that is winning another championship."
Jackson plans for the Lakers' defensive strategy to center on the flexibility to make switches on matchups. "We are really looking at all aspects," he said. Those aspects include how the team guards Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, who gave the Lakers fits in their Game 6 loss two years ago with 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals. This season, Rondo made his first All-Star appearance, earned first-team defensive honors, led the league with 2.3 steals, and his postseason clip of 16.7 points, 10.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals created enough of an impact for him to be considered part of the "Big Four" with Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
It's an assignment Jackson says will include multiple options, including Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown.
The difficulty of defending against the Celtics' backcourt goes beyond Rondo. Despite finishing with a two-of-10 effort Jan. 31 against the Lakers, Allen scored a team-high 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting in the Lakers' 87-86 loss Feb. 18 to the Celtics. And after a look through the game footage, Fisher's contention afterward that Allen's performance stemmed from Allen's talent as a shooter and team defensive breakdowns appeared pretty accurate. Although Fisher must bear some of the blame for those breakdowns, the film shows that it can't be placed solely on him and Brown. Though they often trailed Allen's efficient cutting from screens, rarely did the rest of the team help by adjusting its defensive strategy.
Fisher, who's defended this postseason against the likes of OKC's Russell Westbrook, Utah's Deron Williams and Phoenix's Steve Nash, believes previous experience can only help, although he stresses it doesn't guarantee success.
Lastly, the most definitive matchup entails Ron Artest guarding Pierce. "Ron's been very engaged in these playoffs," Jackson said, citing Artest's role defending the team's top scorer in the Thunder's Kevin Durant, a dual effort in helping the Lakers' backcourt limit Williams, and also defending a secondary option in Phoenix guard Jason Richardson.
If the season history serves as any indication, Artest's defense could provide a huge boost. He held Pierce to an average of 13 points on 40% shooting, far below his East Conference final average of 24.3 points per game on a 51.2% clip. Two sequences in both games illustrated Artest's defensive presence. In the Lakers' 90-89 victory Jan. 31 over Boston, Artest fought through Allen's screen at the top of the key and locked down on Pierce. As he tried going in for a pull-up jumper, Pierce tugged at Artest's jersey and was called for an offensive foul with 27 seconds left, setting up Bryant's eventual game winner. In the Lakers' 87-86 loss Feb. 18 to Boston, Artest forced Pierce to miss a layup with 5.8 seconds remaining, though a delay in the officials accepting the Lakers' timeout ruined Odom's fast-break layup attempt and eventually resulted in Fisher airballing a potential game-winning three-pointer.
Artest downplayed the assignment, though he compared it with a Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight. "It depends what type of fighter you want," Artest said. "Who do I take in that fight? I don't know."
-- Mark Medina