The Three Pointer: The Lakers Lay an Egg

(AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Game #2, NBA Finals: Los Angeles 102, Boston 108

Series to Date: Boston up 2-0

1. No D in Los Angeles Lakers

After watching the last 2 and a half quarters live and then the entire game on tape, I’ve got to say that for all my babble about the superiority of the Western Conference this season, the Celts lose last night’s game if the opponent was the Cavs, and probably the Pistons too. What a dreadful, dreadful lack of defensive commitment shown by LA, beginning at the top with Kobe Bryant–has an all defensive first-teamer ever mailed it in so thoroughly at that end of the floor in a big game?–and extending down to poor Trevor Ariza, who needed GPS to figure out where Paul Pierce was on the court during his mercifully brief 7:19.

These were supposed to be the old, veteran Celtics, the team whose Big 3 have double-digit years in the league and who bring dinosaurs like PJ and Sam I Am off the pine. These were supposed to be the neo-Showtime Lakers, young and fleet, especially lanky big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom and the go-go backup backcourt of Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar. So why did the Celts have more fast break points, 14-10? Why was Doc Rivers correctly telling his team at halftime that every time they forced a miss they could get layups and open treys if they pushed in transition? Yeah, the Lakers were embarrassed on the boards in Game One and determined not to let it happen again, so they hit their offensive glass hard and likewise posted up frequently in the first half. But how many times did we see whatever Lakers bothered to hustle back in transition necessarily play out of position to staunch that early flow, creating all sorts of chaos and mismatches if indeed the Celts had to wait for a second wave of offense on the controlled break–that is if they didn’t score immediately?

Things didn’t get much better when the tempo slowed and the Celts operated their half-court sets. The Lakers’ pick-and-roll recognition and response was pathetic–if Kevin Garnett had hit half of the wide open midrange jumpers he usually knocks down, Boston would have been up 20 instead of 12 at the break. (And BTW, KG very rarely got those looks against Cleveland or Detroit or even on the road against Atlanta.) Of course Boston often didn’t bother with the pick and roll because Vlad Rad and Ariza were totally stumped by the fact that Paul Pierce could put the ball on the floor–that newfangled dribble move! They must have been reading all the breathless hype about how banged up and incapacitated Pierce was from his 96 second absence in Game One. That’s about as far from "the Truth" as if he’d had to tap out from a figure-4 leg lock from Ric Flair in wrestling. In any case, imagine how badly Radmanovic would have looked if Pierce had two good knees.

Kobe? It was hard to tell who he was guarding half the time, although twice running out to slap palms with Ray Allen on the latter’s uncontested treys provided some clues. A couple of times Kobe was matched up on Leon Powe, and we know how that worked out–well, better than when hapless Luke Walton was forced to try and guard somebody.

You really could go right down the Lakers’ roster. Odom totally allowed the wily vet PJ Brown to get in his head at both ends of the floor. Derek Fisher hasn’t gotten the memo that you see if Rajon Rondo is hitting his jumper before you allow him to become a playmaker, especially if you are much slower than Rondo (who had just 4 shots versus 16 assists). RonyTuriaf was too slow for Powe–and for PJ Brown.

Put bluntly, the Lakers played shockingly bad defense, and that, to me, was the ballgame. Consider that the Celts shot 46% in the Atlanta series, 42.5% versus the Cavs, 45.8% against the Pistons, and even 42.1% in Game One against the Lakers. Last night they were 52.9%, including 9-14, or 64.3%, from beyond the arc, and that’s with KG having an off night at 7-19 FG. Boston’s bench shot 11-16 FG–69%.

If Jackson and his crew are smart, they will change their priorities for the next game. Put Kobe on Pierce and tell him to shut Pierce down. Kobe is capable of it and it would get his mind off trying to do too much at the other end. Pierce will try and get him in foul trouble but the refs will have heat on them for the free throw disparity in Game Two and won’t call the borderline contact. Put Vujacic on Ray Allen and tell him that he is only allowed to shoot as often as he makes Allen miss. On offense, Kobe will be taxed from actually playing some defense, so Los Angles should play more inside-out with ball movement, posting up Gasol and running Odom off screens and forcing KG to decide which one he is guarding. Because if a dinged up Perkins or an ancient PJ Brown can stop Gasol in the low block, the series is pretty much over anyway.

2. Overrated: Referee Bias and Laker 4th Q Comeback

Anyone who cares about pro hoops intimately knows the feeling of believing your team is getting screwed by the refs. The violence you wish to do is totally out of proportion (hopefully) with the way you normally view setbacks and petty grievances and injustices in your non-fan existence. I’ve found myself rooting for the Lakers against the Nuggets and the Jazz, and rooting against them versus the Spurs. I favor the Celtics in this series due to my longstanding observation of KG during his time in Minnesota, and my growing respect throughout these playoffs for their team-wide commitment to defense. But I have affection for the Lakers too, and have found that you really detest the refs when you are not only pulling for someone to win, but equally pulling for the other team to lose, and the whistles therefore double down on your passion.

This long preface is meant to stake my claim as a slight, but certainly not blind, Celtic partisan here. To Laker fans screaming bloody murder about the free throw discrepancy, I understand–but don’t feel–your pain. Remember, I’m the guy who claimed the Lakers’ Game Four win against the Spurs was "tainted" due to the referees. Believe me when I say that the anger will subside and perspective will set in. And the perspective that is required here–as was true in the LA-SA Game Four–is that the refs weren’t the difference here.

Let’s get specific. Early foul trouble on Kobe Bryant was to my eyes (and I played back the tape a lot on my second viewing of the game) comprised of both legitimate and questionable calls. The first foul, when Pierce tried to rub him off on a screen and he reached around to keep contact with Allen, was an understandable call and a legit foul. It also could have been a no-call. The second foul–the arm-shove to Allen before he got the ball–was deemed by Van Gundy and Jackson as a cheap foul, but it looked pretty blatant to me and was in any case unnecessary. Whether or not it was called, it was a stupid move by Kobe and a tribute to Ray Allen, whose defense on Bryant has been something of a revelation this series. The third foul on Bryant was an obvious flop by Paul Pierce–that’s not the way players fall, if they fall at all, when someone runs into them. It was a borderline flop if Kobe had the ball and was going to the hoop: that it was whistled as Kobe was trying to move through a pick (and Pierce is a master at slightly moving to the side on his picks) was a bad call, especially so because it was #3 and sent him to the bench. Ditto the technical on Kobe after the layup seemed like a rabbit-eared move. I’m all for ringing up technicals on blatant protests by players, but it is being enforced so haphazardly–hey, Kendrick Perkins could get a technical every single time he commits a foul, and ditto Gasol–that to whistle Kobe, especially when it looked like a Celtic reached in and raked him during his drive, was bad judgment by the official. Also, there was more than once when Kobe got hammered driving the lane–once
Pierce knocked him so obviously that Kobe changed his hand and scored lefty–and no whistle was called. So, yes, I believe there was a pro-Boston bias on balance to the calls. I think even more than Kobe, Gasol got screwed, but some of this is Gasol’s fault–he’s just not very aggressive by nature down in the paint, and that matters to the refs. Nevertheless, I saw Gasol get fouled as often as I saw Leon Powe get fouled and Powe had 13 free throws to Gasol’s one.

So why don’t I think it swung the outcome of the game in which LA only lost by six points? Because the large lead caused the Celts to lose their focus, as happened at least twice before in the Pistons series. These lapses are a weakness, but thus far not a fatal weakness, with Boston. The smaller the lead, the tighter their focus, and while that was indeed an impressive scramble-back by the Lakers, it was that combination of one team’s desperation and another’s nonchalance that makes for second-rate, sort of novelty basketball. I don’t believe that improbable comeback is any more successful if the refs call a totally balanced game.

The ending of that comeback, by the way, was to my eyes poetic justice. On the Celtic end, Boston put the ball in the hands of the person who is their crunchtime assassin, Paul Pierce. (A reader/commenter briefly convinced me that Kevin Garnett has an equal right to that claim for the Celts, but after reviewing some old crunchtimes for Boston in these playoffs, I reverted back to thinking that when it comes to the team needing a basket, Pierce is going to be their preference about 8 out of 10 times.) Pierce drew the foul and hit the crucial free throws. At the other end of the floor, the Lakers’ and arguably the NBA’s premiere crunchtime assassin never touched the ball because Sasha Vujacic mistakenly continues to believe he’s the second coming of Manu Ginobili and got his ill-advised shot blocked by Pierce. Replays showed Kobe getting open on the weak side just before Vujacic launched. A fitting ending to a horrible game if you are a Lakers fan.

3. Worst Assist Ever Called

Hey, I grew up worshipping the Celtics, who won their first ring with Russell when I was five years old, growing up approximately 7 miles from the old Garden, and even I think all this "Celtic tradition" stuff is getting out of hand. Don’t believe the hype.

And speaking of hype, does everyone recall the play that typified LA’s brain dead, foot cobwebbed, approach to defense last night, when Leon Powe dribbled the length of the court and sank a layup while Gasol, Vlad Rad and others had garlands strewn in his path to the hoop? Perhaps you’ll recall that Powe received the ball beneath the foul line in his own end, and thus had to dribble about 85 of the 94 feet. Well, the player who gave him the ball–it could have been an out-of-bounds pass, or perhaps just a "why don’t you bring it up, Leon?" gesture–was Rajon Rondo. And the official scorer in Boston gave him an assist on the play. Sort of puts those 16 assists Rondo tallied, and the 31 allotted to the Celtics team, in a new, less favorable light.