This was everything you could have wanted from an NBA Finals game. It was physical. It was competitive. And it featured two teams playing different enough styles to engender after-the-fact discourse about who was playing the “right way”.
Tonight, the “right way” was the path taken by the Boston Celtics, and not only because they beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 92-86, in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. They were tougher, they played together and they prioritized defense, despite shooting 56 percent themselves.
“We scrapped, we got them in the half court for the most part, and that’s the type of game we like,” Paul Pierce said. “It would be tough for us to beat them if they go out and score 120 points.”
Defense certainly wasn’t a priority for the Lakers, who allowed 46 points in the paint in an 87 possession game — meaning Boston scored in the paint on 26 percent of their offensive possessions — and gave up three offensive rebounds when trailing in the final four minutes.
Not to mention multiple instances when a Boston player either had a straight line to the hoop or when they waltzed in, unhindered, with back cuts. Or allowing Boston to score in nine of its first ten possessions of the second half.
“Defensively, we weren’t very good at all,” Bryant said. “Last game it was the fourth quarter, this game it was the third quarter. We didn’t get any stops. They got layup after layup after layup, and you can’t survive a team that shoots 56 percent.”
[pullquoteright]“Defensively, we weren’t very good at all,” Bryant said. “Last game it was the fourth quarter, this game it was the third quarter. We didn’t get any stops. They got layup after layup after layup, and you can’t survive a team that shoots 56 percent.”[/pullquoteright]
The Lakers still had their opportunities, in part because of the extra chances afforded to them by 16 offensive rebounds and Boston managed just 19 points in the final quarter. But the greatest share for the window remaining open was due to Bryant going supernova in the third quarter, scoring the Lakers’ first 19 points of the half. Bryant hit jumpers from every angle, often over multiple defenders, and is deserving of every superlative.
And yet, good as Bryant was, his offense may have sunk the team.
“As long as we were going to keep scoring the way we were scoring, we were going to be good,” Doc Rivers said.
Against possibly the best team-defense in the league, using isolation plays nearly every time down the floor is a recipe for failure. While Bryant defied Hoops 101 for longer than nearly any other individual is capable, passing stagnated and his teammates, many who were already struggling, fell off.
Credit must be awarded the Boston defense for disrupting its opponents’ system, but it was abundantly clear that the Lakers were fine running set after set to get Bryant the ball. Even after timeouts, when coaches generally try to draw something up to generate ball movement, Lakers coach Phil Jackson would return to Bryant.
“He was in a nice rhythm,” Kevin Garnett said. “I thought for the most part we pretty much controlled everybody else, but in that scenario you put your hand up and play the best D that you can.”
It’s difficult to deflect criticism off Pau Gasol — 12 points, 12 rebounds, 12 shots — just because Bryant took over the team, but after being such a huge part of victories in Games 1 and 3, he was no longer an offensive priority.
Gasol was also thoroughly dominated by Garnett, a subject even Bryant couldn’t skirt.
“He’s been consistent for us, for awhile, so he can afford to have a bad game,” Bryant said.
Opposite Bryant’s production was Boston’s team (21 assists on 40 field goals) offense, led by a resurgent Pierce (27 points) and rounded out with 48 points from the combo of Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Jackson wasn’t upset about giving up 92 points — 105 points per 100 possessions — but with assists on more than half their buckets and 17 percent better shooting, the Celtics were clearly doing something right.
What made this game nearly perfect, though, aside from chest-to-chest physicality being plentiful, was that the outcome came down to a pair of sequences.
The first came with 43 seconds remaining and the Lakers down five. Ron Artest missed a pair of free throws, but Bryant swooped in from the top of the key and appeared to have the offensive rebound … until Pierce took hold and snatched the ball away with force.
[pullquoteleft]“What the hell is the big deal? I don’t see it as a big deal. If I have to say something to them, then we don’t deserve to be champions. We’re down 3-2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that.”[/pullquoteleft]
Then, after the ensuing timeout with the Lakers in full-court press, the inbounds pass went to a streaking Pierce down the sideline. He managed to make the catch and tip-toe inside the sideline before sending a line drive pass to Rondo, who then made an equally impressive catch-and-finish.
“I was just showing off my Randy Moss and my Tom Brady in one play, that’s all,” Pierce said.
Bad games, statistics and numbers aside, those are the types of plays that should decide the NBA championship. And whether or not Bryant’s offense needs to re-adapt to his team in Game 5, those are the plays he’ll need from his team to avoid a repeat of 2008.
“Just man up and play,” Bryant said.
“What the hell is the big deal? I don’t see it as a big deal. If I have to say something to them, then we don’t deserve to be champions. We’re down 3-2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that.”