Lakers' 109-96 loss to Boston Celtics shows they need to take many steps before reaching championship level
Nearly seven months have passed since the confetti dropped in Staples Center, the Lakers collected their 16th championship and the Boston Celtics walked away dejected for having fallen short.
At no point in their 109-96 loss to Boston on Sunday did the Lakers display the characteristics of the 2010 championship team that overcame a double-digit Game 7 deficit, won as a team and stood at center court bearing smiles and fighting back tears while holding the Larry O'Brien trophy. The Lakers (33-15) on Sunday wore retro jerseys of the 1971-72 team, but bore little resemblance of that championship squad that reeled off 33 consecutive wins. They appeared disorganized offensively and overwhelmed defensively, and afterward had the same stoic reaction they've offered after other disappointing performances.
"It's not the playoffs yet, we're still playing regular-season games," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, explaining why he's not concerned the Lakers have consistently lost games against marquee opponents, including splits against Denver and Utah and disappointing losses against Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Boston. "You know, we'll get there in time."
Fair enough on the former statement. Demonstrating an understanding that the road to the championship is long, Celtics forward Paul Pierce reminded everyone that "when you win a game here now it's not for the championship." But what about Jackson's latter comment? This isn't to question the validity of his argument, so much as it is to note the increased uncertainty about how the Lakers can reach that point. The Lakers currently trail the league-leading San Antonio Spurs (40-7) by 7 1/2 games in the Western Conference standings, meaning the team continues playing with elements outside their control that would determine home-court advantage.
But that's not the primary concern. The Lakers entered the game against Boston having split its previous six games, showing glimpses of championship-caliber play in marquee wins against Oklahoma City, Utah and Denver but reverting back to poor habits against the Clippers, Dallas and Sacramento. Trying to predict how the Lakers would respond against Boston proved too hard for Jackson. What the Lakers answered was this: the game proved to be a well-fought matchup, but one that featured the Lakers' failing to match the Celtics in pretty much every key area.
For all the progress the Lakers made with a new defensive scheme this month that's led to a third-ranked mark in opponents' shooting percentage, they allowed Boston to shoot 60.3% from the field, 52.9% from three-point range. Pierce dropped 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting and Rajon Rondo distributed 15 of his 16 assists in the second half.
For all the progress the Lakers have made in fostering offensive chemistry, Kobe Bryant proved to be the only dependable option Sunday, scoring 41 points on 16-for-29 shooting. His accuracy helped jump start the offense but his shooting prompted everyone else to remain passive. And for all the renewed focus, the Lakers clearly showed they can't match up with Boston's personnel, a point that doesn't leave Bryant worried, just aware there are many steps they need to take before regaining that championship level.
"Never panic," he said. "What you have to do is get better. Would you like to win these games? Absolutely. But the important thing is to continue to get better so if we're fortunate enough to see them down the road, we're ready when that time comes. Although we'd like to win these games, it's important to get better."
But will they?
Lakers guard Derek Fisher reflected on the 2001-02 championship season, remembering that had Robert Horry not made a game-winning three-pointer in a Game 4 victory over Sacramento in the West finals, the Lakers would've faced a tough task in overcoming a 3-1 series deficit. Fisher brought that up for the sake of arguing it's hard to properly gauge the team's standing, considering top teams in the regular season can fall short in the playoffs and underwhelming teams in the regular season can suddenly go on a surge come playoff time. Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers' 61-21 regular-season record was the NBA's best . . . and they couldn't get out of the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, losing to Boston, which had gone 50-32.
"I don't know what's supposed to dramatically change other than incrementally doing your job on a day-to-day basis over time," Fisher said. "There's not a magic pill or snap of a finger that will change things. I've been on too many successful teams to get bunkered down over the course of the season that happens to everybody."
But should they prove good enough to advance to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season and face Boston, the Lakers showed plenty of areas they would need to sharpen against the Celtics.
The Lakers need to understand how to ride Bryant's hot hand.
The whiteboard in the Celtics' locker room had a list of several areas where Boston needed to excel in order to walk out of Staples Center with a victory. One of those areas emphasized limiting Bryant -- understanding it's nearly impossible to limit him from scoring while emphasizing the need to make him score on difficult shots.
Bryant's 41 points on 29 shots surely illustrated that point with Pierce and Ray Allen sharing defensive assignments, Bryant shooting on 10 consecutive fourth-quarter possessions and the rest of the Lakers offense rarely involved.
Except perhaps for a few of those fourth-quarter attempts, Bryant validated Jackson's contention during his pregame press conference that Bryant has learned when it's necessary to temper his shot selection and when it's necessary to use that skill set to help the Lakers secure a victory.
Against the Celtics, it surely proved warranted.
Despite picking up two early fouls that prompted Jackson to remove Bryant for the final 6:46 of the first quarter, Bryant played with remarkably efficiency, scoring 17 of his 22 first-half points in the second quarter on six-for-eight shooting. Bryant's constant chewing on his jersey early in the game foreshadowed the following late in the game: Bryant hitting a tough turnaround jumper that drew an and-one and reduced the deficit at 89-82 with 6:58 left; Bryant giving Pierce a case of broken ankles before nailing a jumper to cut the Celtics' lead to 91-85 with 5:50 remaining; pump faking against Glen Davis before shooting in the lane to reduce the gap to 91-87 with 5:20 left.
Too bad his teammates didn't appeaer to know how to properly respond to it.
"I didn't think anybody else wanted the ball," Jackson said. "We ran a couple of other things to get guys in the position. But those times I thought he had the best opportunities when other people were moving to the ball. A lot of times it didn't look like we were running anything offensively. I think they backed off. They wanted to let Kobe, he seemed to be the guy having the hot hand and wanted to give him a lot of space instead of moving to our offense and flowing into what we do. He's going to give the ball up if they come up and double or they trap him, he'll try to find some open shooters who need to hit some shots."
But that didn't happen.
Instead the rest of the Lakers shot 20 for 62 (32.2%) and allowed Boston to respond to Bryant's one-man show with balanced offense from Pierce, Allen (21 points on eight-for-12 shooting), Kevin Garnett (18 points on nine-for-12 shooting), Glen Davis (13 points, five for 10), Nate Robinson (11 points, four for seven) and Rondo (10 points, five for nine).
"It's tough because most of the times we find ourselves standing on the weak side and we have to make sure we stay active so when the ball does get to us, we're ready to finish and deliver," Gasol said. "Otherwise we're just cooling off. We have to figure out a way of when Kobe is aggressive and is effective as he was tonight to also get involved somehow."
The issue didn't correlate with Bryant's hot hand disrupting the offense so much as it was his supporting cast not responding to it properly. That doesn't mean the Lakers can't correct it. Remember, they figured out how to elevate themselves when Bryant struggled with a six-for-24 shooting day in Game 7 last June after failing to complement Bryant's hot hand in a 38-point performance in Game 5. But it requires the Lakers'needing to recognize those tendencies on the court and adjusting when need be.
"We were horrible offensively, as far as our spacing is concerned," Lamar Odom said. "Whenever we play games like that, we give Kobe no choice but to try to take over the game. We just didn't get everybody involved like we needed to."
The Lakers need more frontline help to combat the Celtics size
That started with Gasol whose five of 13 clip clearly lacked what the Lakers need during Bryant's early foul trouble, Bynum's limited touches, foul trouble and sore left knee as well as Odom's modest 15 points and five rebounds on five of 13 shooting.
Highlights might focus on Gasol's inadvertent elbow on Garnett that required him to leave the floor at the 6:28 mark of the second quarter to gett stitches on his bloody forehead and wear a conspicuous patch. But don't mistake Gasol's play as physical. Sure, that play prompted Gasol to play more aggressively, as illustrated by his block on Shaquille O'Neal. But everywhere else he remained passive.
When Bryant sat out the final 6:46 of the first quarter because of foul trouble, Gasol didn't score at all. When he had open one-on-one looks, Gasol instead settled for mid-range jumpers over going into the lane, a possible sign he wanted to avoid contact. And with the Lakers-Celtics 2010 NBA Finals matchup revealing that whoever grabbed the most rebounds won the game, he provided very little help in that respect as the Celtics outrebounded the Lakers, 43-30.
"I tried to be aggressive when I had the opportunity to," Gasol said.
The problem doesn't just point to Gasol. The Lakers didn't provide much defensively. It featured Odom fouling Davis at halfcourt that granted him three free throws before halftime. It featured the Lakers getting exposed on the interior. And it featured Bynum showing limitation because of fouls and a sore left knee. The Lakers clearly saw that their size advantage may prove unstoppable against most teams in the NBA, but not against Boston.
"I thought he got shots he wanted to take, but some of them didn't go in," Jackson said. "I thought toward the end, the limitation of our ball movement changed it for him."
Ron Artest can't duplicate his performance against Boston in the playoffs
No one illustrated the dichotomy between the Lakers' Game 7 performance last season against Boston and Sunday's effort against the Celtics better than Ron Artest. After posting 20 points on seven-of-18 shooting and limiting Pierce to a seven-of-18 clip in Game 7, Artest appeared equally as lost on offense (1 of 10) as he did on defense (Pierce scored 32 points on 11 of 18 shooting). Surely, some of those sequences illustrated Pierce's ability to hit contested shot over Artest. But there were plenty that showed Artest simply couldn't keep up with him, most notably when Pierce drove right past him on a single dribble that gave the Celtics a 58-57 lead with 9:33 remaining. It prompted Jackson to yank Artest in favor of Luke Walton, not exactly the option the Lakers would've preferred in Matt Barnes, who's currently rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee. The Lakers also featured a smaller lineup in the fourth quarter with Fisher and Steve Blake playing side-by-side.
"I got F's in elementary school and I still went to college," deadpanned Artest, who said he injured one of his thighs during the first quarter. "I know one of my friends got A's his whole career in elementary school and he didn't go to college."
The Lakers didn't fill in for Artest's mistakes considering Pierce went six of eight in the second half, including when Artest sat out the entire fourth quarter. But this is the sole reason why Artest is with the Lakers. If he can't provide a lock-down role like he did in the 2010 NBA Finals, the Lakers will struggle to find very little use of him considering his offensive struggles.
"He got lost on the court," Jackson said. "They started off with Pierce scoring nine points right off the bat, three three pointers [in the third quarter]. Ron took a couple shots that weren't in the context of what we were trying to do. I thought we'd go in another direction, but it didn't seem to work.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his driving layup challenged by Celtics big men Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins on Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is fouled as he scores on a layup by Boston center Shaquille O'Neal during the game Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol fouls Celtics guard Ray Allen as he drives the baseline during the game Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to catch his balance while center Andrew Bynum attempts to grab an offensive rebound against Boston on Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times