Lakers Make a Breakthrough and Send the Celtics a Message

December 27, 2008

Pat Riley best described the Lakers’ worldview by stating that there are only two states of being, “winning and misery.” In other words, the standard is either championships or abject failure.

The Celtics also share in this ideal. For these franchises, the “R” word -- rebuilding -- does not exist. It’s this philosophy that separates these two teams from the rest of the league’s traditional peasantry.

Because of this mentality, the Lakers’ Finals loss to the Celtics constituted a painful debacle worse than any sub-.500 lottery finish. Not only did they lose again to their hated rival, but they lost in a manner that screamed of gutlessness and timidity. To make matters worse, the problem was system-wide.

First, Phil Jackson and his staff were thoroughly outcoached throughout the series. One of Jackson’s biggest flaws was the horrific mismanagement of his rotation. For extended minutes he consistently utilized a one-star, four-scrub lineup, which often got the team into trouble. Part of the problem was that the one star on the floor frequently was the Lakers’ most deferential player -- Lamar Odom. Hence, Odom sometimes would pass up looks, only to let marginal players like Ronny Turiaf and Luke Walton jack up 17-foot bricks.

Meanwhile, the players themselves were out-toughed to a man, as they failed to compete with the requisite mental toughness needed to win a title.

MVP Kobe Bryant for the first time looked as ordinary as he did during the 2004 Finals against Detroit, when he was exhausted from his troubles in Colorado. In only one game, Game 3, did Kobe prove to be the best player on the floor. Although he also had some strong quarters in Games 2 and 5, for the most part Kobe was unable to impose his will on the series. Bryant gave far too much respect to the Celtics’ defense, and was content to merely launch from deep. What was missing was a consistent willingness on his part to get in the paint in order to draw fouls or command double-teams.

The Laker bigs were equally guilty in the failure.

Simply put, Kevin Garnett, P.J. Brown, and Kendrick Perkins bullied the Laker big men. For six games, not one message-sending foul was offered in retaliation. An example of this was seen in Game 2, when Leon Powe conducted his own personal layup line, while bigs like Turiaf played frightened, matador defense.

Pau Gasol, in particular, appeared terrified by the Boston frontcourt. That intimidation hurt the Lakers offensively more than anything, especially when the Lakers tried to run their offense through Gasol on the block. Gasol would find himself single-covered by no-name Kendrick Perkins, and rather than making an aggressive post move, Gasol would deliberately dribble into traffic so that he would be forced to give up the rock and avoid shooting. It was a classic example of a player whose confidence had been shaken.

Now flash forward to this year.

The Lakers started off strong, as they were bolstered by Andrew Bynum’s return. For two weeks, they appeared to be the NBA’s best team.

Then the defense fell apart, and the Lakers found themselves scraping by several mediocre teams. In retrospect, they seemed plagued by some of the same symptoms that crippled the franchise’s underachieving 1985-86 squad: 1) getting by on talent alone, 2) not playing consistently hard, and 3) becoming lazy on the interior due to an assumption that the new guy would fix everything (In 1985-86: Maurice Lucas; Today: Bynum).

Last week, the team finally held a clear-the-air meeting. The meeting seemed to bring some focus back, and led to two road wins.

All the while, Boston seemed stronger than ever. Although their bench was somewhat depleted from the losses of Brown and James Posey, starter Rajon Rondo was in the midst of a career year. Furthermore, KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen had become that much more familiar with each other after a year. As a result, Boston had stormed to an NBA-best 27-2 record, including a 19-game win streak.

With all that buildup, yesterday produced a showdown worthy of the hype.

In the first quarter, Kobe set the Laker tone. On offense, he was aggressive, but in a more intelligent manner than last year’s ineffective high-volume outside shooter. This time he wisely called for the ball several times in the low post. Those touches led to high percentage mid-range looks for Bryant, resulting in several buckets.

Bryant’s aggression was seen again on another first quarter play when he split a double-team at the top of the key, and then slashed to the rim for a layup.

Boston also came out strong, as Ray Allen and Paul Pierce hit several early shots. At the end of one, the Celtics led 24-23. Although the Lakers appeared to be matching the C’s physicality, they made no hard “statement” fouls.

Instead, their statement came in a different manner with 9:19 remaining in the second quarter.

After a missed shot and scramble for the loose ball, a quick-thinking Kobe Bryant tapped the ball into the frontcourt for Trevor Ariza. Ariza raced to save it, and while falling out of bounds, found a trailing Sasha Vujacic under the basket. Vujacic made the layup, got fouled, and converted the three-point play. The sequence was a signature play, and demonstrated the Lakers’ willingness to scrap with their rival.

The quarter also revealed that Phil Jackson had learned a lesson from last year’s Finals, as he changed his first-half rotation. Jackson left Kobe in for the entire first half, and by doing so, gave the Lakers second unit a decided advantage. Kobe finished the half with 16 points, shooting 8-13.

Perhaps the only drawback for the Lakers was the first-half defense of their big men. Both Gasol and Bynum were late on their rotations, and at other times, fell asleep and lost track of their men. Because of this sloppiness, Boston scored 27 first-half points in the paint. At half, LA led 51-45.

In the third quarter, Paul Pierce found his groove, and things began to tighten. The Celtics’ D also buckled down, leading to several fast break opportunities against the Lakers’ suddenly-poor transition defense. Those transition points allowed Boston to storm back and take a 64-62 lead.

Jackson countered by going to his bench. Again, the Zen Master improved upon last year’s errors, as he made sure to have 2 quality options (Odom-Gasol or Odom-Bynum) on the floor with the second unit. The bench responded with two game-changing threes from Odom, and the Lakers led 71-67 at the end of three.

In the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol and LA finally exorcised their Celtic demons.

For most of the game, Gasol had reverted to the same estrogen-laced pattern of scared basketball that he displayed in last year’s Finals. In fact, it seemed like Celtic grit would get the best of him once more, especially after KG used the old Rick Mahorn “pull-out-the-chair” defensive trick to generate a Gasol turnover and fast-break lob on the other end.

However, the Celtic defense was forced to change their approach after Kobe nailed a clutch J on the ensuing possession. That basket prompted Coach Doc Rivers to double Bryant down the stretch. In turn, Bryant looked for the open man, and each time, that man was Gasol.

First, Kobe found Gasol for a 15-footer, which gave LA an 83-81 lead. On the next trip, the Lakers ran a high screen-roll, leading to another Kobe double-team. That left Gasol open for a running hook, and an 85-81 lead. Finally, on the next possession, Gasol took another Kobe feed and then aggressively sliced through the lane for a left-handed finish, plus the foul.

Those crunch-time buckets energized Gasol defensively, as he later made two clutch blocks off closeouts at the three-point line. One of those blocks led to an exclamation point Ariza reverse dunk.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Lakers had triumphed, 92-83.

KG and Pierce played well in defeat, tallying 22 and 20 respectively. For LA, Kobe led the way with 27, while Pau poured in 20.

Both teams held their opponents to under 47% shooting. While Boston had 40-35 edge on the glass, the Lakers had a significant 9-3 advantage in blocked shots. The officials apparently let both teams play, as the Lakers and Celtics shot only 15 and 8 free throws respectively.


#1 Bynum Makes a Difference

Yes, he is still trying to reach last year’s form. And yes, he tends to play somewhat poorly against Perkins. But, Bynum’s presence on the interior made a difference, as he grabbed 7 boards, blocked two shots, and altered several more. Doc Rivers noted the difference, stating that “Bynum was in the right place. He was long and they made us miss shots.”

Furthermore, as Magic Johnson (the only competent studio analyst on yesterday’s broadcast) astutely pointed out, Bynum puts the rest of the squad back at their natural positions. This particularly helps Gasol, as he is a true 4.

#2 Boston’s Bench is Significantly Weaker Than Last Year

Everyone knew that the loss of James Posey would be big, and it proved true yesterday at crunch time when Rivers had to mandatorily double Kobe on three successive trips. Last year, Posey often handled that assignment straight-up.

But, another overlooked loss is P.J. Brown, as he provided some length for Beantown’s second unit frontline. Now the Celtics offer bruisers Powe and Big Baby Davis, but no real shotblocking on the interior. In a series, that lack of an inside deterrent certainly will be exploited when both are playing the 4 and 5 simultaneously.

#3 In a Finals Rematch, It’s Anyone’s Title

Bob Ryan, a long-time Boston journalist steeped in the traditional myopic bias of the Beantown media, absurdly claimed that last year’s Finals were a 6-game sweep.

In order to silence such critics, the Lakers needed to prevail on their home court. That is how true revenge-minded, championship-caliber teams conduct themselves.

The verdict? Test passed.

Indeed, yesterday LA showed some of the fight needed to win a title, as they made a valid response to the Celtics’ charge at crunch time. LA essentially gave Boston a taste of its own medicine by outplaying them in the clutch.

It was a step in the right direction, and a clear progression away from the 24-point collapse in Game 4 last year. With play like yesterday, there won’t be any 6 game sweeps come June.

#4 Jackson’s Rotation Was Better, But His Under-Utilization of Odom is Sinful

The smartest thing Jackson did substitution-wise was to keep two legitimate scoring threats on the floor with the second unit. It led to a nice run to end the third quarter, and gave LA momentum.

However, there is no justification for him yanking Odom for Luke Walton in crunch time.

At the start of the year, Jackson removed Odom from the starting lineup because Vladimir Radmanovic’s stroke spaced the floor for the Lakers’ two big men. Because the initial rationale for removing Odom was to utilize Vlad’s outside shot, there is now no justification for keeping Odom on the pine anymore, given that mediocre-shooting Luke Walton has since replaced Radmanovic.

Quite frankly, there is nothing Walton does better than Odom. Not one thing. Odom is a vastly superior defender, and a better one-on-one offensive player either facing up or on the block. The one asset Walton does have -- his ability to handle and pass the ball -- Odom does equally well, if not better.

When Phil made the move, he stated that Lamar would have a 6th man role. By definition however, a 6th man, such as Michael Cooper or John Havlicek, finishes the game come winning time. Yesterday Jackson inserted the lesser-talented Walton to finish the game, despite Odom playing a brilliant third quarter. Walton ended up playing 27 minutes to Odom’s 24 -- a gross mismanagement of personnel.

#5 The Win was a Breakthrough for the Laker Psyche

The Celtics are a veteran, tough-minded team that will shrug off this loss. The young Lakers however, needed this win.

During last year’s Finals, many of the Lakers seemed to have a child-like fragileness to their psyche, as the Celtics clearly had the mental toughness edge. After suffering a humiliating loss in Game 6, a collapse in Game 4, and a summer full of talk, a Lakers win would prove, at least to themselves, that they indeed were championship-caliber.

Now that the Lakers have won, what impact will the victory really have? Will it be a blip on the radar screen of a long, 82-game season? Or, in Pat Riley terminology, will it be a “breakthrough” in the team’s development -- a part of its natural evolution toward becoming elite?

My gut feeling is the latter.

Kobe, Lamar, & Co., have endured the necessary rites of passage on the road to NBA maturity. Those trials consisted of 3 consecutive years of playoff heartbreak. Yesterday, they showed some resolve in trying to put an end to that misery. It was a boost to the team’s psyche, and presumably a stepping stone to something bigger.

For a moment at least, America’s most arrogant fan base may be having second thoughts about a repeat Beantown victory parade.

As for Lakers fans, prayers and thanks go up to the basketball gods. They now may actually have a team, they hope, that is capable of defeating their Finals nemesis.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald

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