Champions with a Vengeance

(AFP/File/Gabriel Bouys)

NBA Finals Game #6: Los Angeles 92, Boston 131

Series: Boston wins 4-2

A 39-point margin in a championship-clinching game means that one team was relentlessly magnificent and the other quit early and never bothered to revive. Quite frankly, I’m shocked at how thoroughly the Celtics cut the heart out of this Lakers team, but a new champion has been crowned, so let’s stroll on the sunny side to start.

Any coach or player will tell you that defense is a team concept and that the most important component of it is trusting all four of your teammates to make the right rotation or adjustment or decision within the prevailing scheme. The Celtics were blessed to have three perennial all-stars wholeheartedly buy into making defense the priority how often do one, or even two, actually make that commitment? and then piecing together rock-solid character guys like Posey and PJ Brown who know their roles off the bench. Add in a pair of young starters who both are far superior on defense than offense, and you have a team identity based around the most energy-intensive and yet, if you achieve that critical mass of trust and effort, energy-effective style of play. One of the hoariest cliches in all team sports is that defense wins championships. The Celtics epitomized that for the NBA this year. Of all the amazing stats in this series, the two that jump out are from last night’s first half, when the Celts so thoroughly throttled and out-hustled LA that Boston had more steals than the Lakers had field goals, and that LA missed 19 shots, going 8-27, and yet didn’t garner a single offensive rebound.

Kevin Garnett deserves all sorts of credit for this defensive identity he was the linchpin and the physical and emotional tone-setter. But stellar defensive play from KG is not surprising, nor is it surprising from Posey, or PJ, or, except for their youthful errors, Perkins and Rondo. But Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Has either player put together a six-game stretch of defense even remotely as effective as these Finals? (The only answer I’ll accept is Pierce on LeBron two series earlier, and that still doesn’t come *that* close to topping his D vs. LA.) The Celts built their defensive identity on trust and grit, and then dug down for another notch of intensity and telepathy in the postseason. How many people, even among those who picked Boston to win, believed that Pierce and Allen with a big dollop of Posey would be able to shut down Kobe Bryant as a passer *and* a distributor for much of this series? I will never again regard either one as mediocre, never mind soft, on defense until age inevitably takes its toll.

As much as this was a team-wide triumph, Pierce became a superstar in this series. By that I mean that he became whatever was required, like Tim Duncan hitting that trey to beat Phoenix about 8 weeks ago to begin these playoffs. Pierce was a point guard in the best sense of the description: He recognized and reacted to the opposing defense with acute versatility, decision-making and execution. Be it distribution, penetration, long-range shooting, pick-and-roll variation, tempo shifting (calming to catalytic and back to calming), even decoy much more often than not, Pierce chose the right strategic option and then followed through brilliantly. I’d love to be inside his brain for just 24 hours, going over what I’d just done.

Before this postseason, I always considered Allen primarily a catch-and-shoot player; against Detroit and LA, two long, quick teams, he expertly set up his jumper with dribble-drives and vice-versa. And what happened to his bad ankles 48 minutes in pivotal Game Four? Of all the Celtics, he was the most consistent.

Posey has trailblazed one habit and reinforced another in today’s NBA. The innovation is realizing that when your opponent is striving for a continuation basket after being fouled, you can get a free lick in how does that not get adopted by practically every defensive-oriented role player? The reinforcement is being money on the trey from the baseline, Bruce Bowen style. Every contender should have a guy with ice water in his veins for that spot-up corner trey, and yet the muscle and the moxie to drive baseline into the tall timber to foster some crucial hesitation on the close-outs. If I remember, Posey was more of a elbow-beyond-the-arc three point shooter in the past; these baseline treys are perfectly suited for his temperament and skill set. FWIW, I think Ryan Gomes has great potential to be a corner-trey shooter on the Wolves, continuing the franchise’s modest but noble tradition of Sam Mitchell, Malik Sealy, and back to Mitchell (and no, Tod Murphy doesn’t count).

Of all the Big 3, Kevin Garnett elevated his game the least in the Finals. But then KG had the smallest distance to his ceiling, having finished third in the MVP voting and having already achieved MVP status four years ago. I made my feelings known about KG my favorite current NBA player in a three-pointer after Game Four. His shout-out to ‘Sota was meant for many readers of this blog, and you know who you are. As a player with a deserved rep for being amped to the max under pedestrian circumstances, it was a kick watching him trying to channel it all with Michelle Tafoya at the end of the game last night, and funny watching Stuart Scott nervously give him the once over on the awards podium after the game, then decide he didn’t want to risk a live interview. As much as I enjoyed the ‘Sota mention, the words that brought goosebumps were, "I’m certified! I’m certified! What you gonna say now?! We made it Mom!" He took that monkey off his back and tossed it in Kevin McHale’s direction.

I won’t waste much time talking about the Lakers because it isn’t worth much time. I will concede that I overrated them *twice* at the beginning of the series and then after Game Five, when Gasol and Odom showed a pulse in the paint and I thought they were gathering some momentum of the their own that might create some space for Kobe to operate on the perimeter for games six and (if necessary) seven. Speaking of burdens to bear, before this series there were whispers that Odom was flighty and Gasol was soft. After their shocking display of mutual enervation, people aren’t bothering to lower their voices when questioning their desire and grit now. These guys aren’t inexperienced like Perkins or Rondo; Odom is 28 and has been in the league 8 years; Gasol will turn 28 in three weeks and has 6 years in the NBA plus time in Europe. They’re not finished products, necessarily, but both fell into an ideal situation with the other plus Kobe sharing the court. They not only should be flourishing, they should be imposing their remarkable athletic skills on their opponents.

Instead, in an elimination game last night, Odom had *zero field goals* after three quarters. Gasol had four turnovers in the *first quarter,* and, in the signature presaging moment of the night, was flattened by Garnett, who turned around and gently tossed it in the hoop with no whistle while Pau was prone. When KG is the more brutish player down low, it is time to go to your bench.

Will Gasol and Odom recover f
rom this stain? Too soon to tell. But their Finals will be defined by ugly memories of lackluster performances until and unless they ever get a chance to rewrite the crunchtime script.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: The Lakers were a very unlikeable team in this series. I understand the venom emanating from Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy and Jon Barry, because, as one who picked LA to win this series, I felt it myself. They played stupid, selfish, uncaring basketball. Vlad Rad, Vujacic and Farmar were absolutely dreadful they didn’t guard anybody worth a damn, they eschewed the extra pass (Vujacic and Farmar actually bickered over backcourt touches in the NBA Finals!) exercised terrible shot selection, and pretended passion in a manner so blatantly superficial you wanted to get right in their faces and shout WTF?!

On that score, Phil Jackson needed to caffeinate the zen with a little fire and brimstone. Normally I’d be a little shy about dispensing advice to a guy with nine rings, but I can’t imagine anything I’d suggest working less well than whatever it was Jackson was trying to instill in his crew the past six games.

And Kobe Bryant? Let’s brand him the Dirk Nowitzki of 2008 and call it a season.