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Lakers-Celtics Instant Analysis

12.25.08 at 7:31 pm ET
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For the game recap of the Celtics‘ 92-83 loss to the Lakers, click here.

***

We are live from every blogger’s cliche, literally my mother’s basement in New Jersey, where Game 7 of the NBA Finals just concluded with a stirring victory for the Lakers over the Celtics… and wait, what’s that you say? The playoffs are over?

Huh. I could have swore I saw confetti coming down from the rafters of the Staples Center. And wasn’t that Kobe Bryant playing 43 minutes? I think I even saw Phil Jackson call a timeout while game was being played. That couldn’t have been a regular season game.

For the Lakers, it wasn’t. Clearly. They needed this one, and to their credit they went out and got it. In the last three minutes, Pau Gasol played like the guy everyone wants him to be all the time. Bryant was ridiculous the whole game, forcing when he needed to force and deferring when he needed to defer. And the Laker bench outplayed the Celtics second unit. They went all out in this one, and if they had lost it would have been devastating, but they didn’t. No we’ll see if they build on it or fall back into the bad habits that hurt them last week.

For the Celtics, the winning streak is over, which means we all have to come up with new questions for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but more importantly, the Celtics finally got a chance to test themselves against a team that is in their universe. They answered some questions–can Rajon Rondo operate when the other team won’t guard him?–and left open a few more, such as, is their bench good enough?

Those, and a few more observations while resisting the urge to watch the Yankeeography marathon on the YES Network.

1. The Bench

For everyone who doesn’t watch the Celtics regularly, like say national broadcast announcers, the bench is clearly the team’s weak link. Let’s be honest, Leon Powe, Big Baby Davis, Eddie House and Tony Allen do not  exactly strike fear in the heart of the casual NBA follower. Those who do follow the C’s regularly know that the bench bailed them out early in the season and has had good nights and bad nights, and sometimes both in the same night.

The bench didn’t lose this game, and it’s not even fair to say that they were outplayed by the Lakers reserves because they were often operating against some combination of Laker starters, but the LA run at the start of the second quarter set the tone for the rest of the game and it came at their expense.

Everyone knows what they need. A big man with length, as Jeff Van Gundy said, would be nice and Dikembe Mutombo is obviously available. (Quick digression: the Rockets trade of Steve Francis did more than ironically move Stevie Franchise back to the Grizzlies. It also opened up a roster spot to bring Mutombo back).

What about a guy who can play the 3 or the 4 like James Posey as Mark Jackson suggested. Well, sure, that would be nice. Anybody know any of those guys that are available, and no, Antoine Walker doesn’t count.  Robert Horry is, but that seems unlikely for a number of reasons.

To quote the worst sports cliche ever, the bench is what it is. It wasn’t as bad as Van Gundy and Jackson made it out to be, but it lacks someone who can change the game on a regular basis.

2. Kevin Garnett Buries Some Ghosts

If the game was important to any member of the Celtics, it was Kevin Garnett. KG did not play well in LA during the Finals, like, at all, so it was good for his psyche to play as well as he did (22 points, 11-for-14 shooting, nine rebounds). With about five minutes to go, I thought he made what was going to be the decisive plays of the game.

First by knocking down a jumper to tie the game at 79-79. Then with his awesomely old-school defensive move on Gasol, where he leaned on him and then backed up right quick causing Pau to stumble and lose the ball, and finally by capping it off with yet another alley-oop dunk. (Van Gundy was beside himself at this point that the Lakers hadn’t scouted that better. Love it when Van Gundy gets in subtle shots at Phil Jackson like that).

But, it turned out that Gasol trumped him by taking over the next key sequence when he scored seven straight points off feeds from Bryant. In his typical humble way, Kobe said on the post-game that the Celtics weren’t going to let him beat them, and he was right. KG doubled off Gasol every time and the rotation either never got there or was a step slow. Which leads us to…

3. The Defense Rests

There have been little signs the last few weeks. Little cracks in the foundation that would have been unsettling if the Celtics weren’t blowing people out and dropping 30 dimes every night, but the defense has not been as nasty lately. How many open jump shots did the Lakers get in the first half with no hands in their face? How many hustle rebounds did they get? How many times did they drive by someone and the help was late?

The Lakers got his game, in part, because they made more plays. They created more opportunities for themselves. That tends to happen when teams play at home, but the Celtics had best mind the little things on this West Coast trip or they might come back with more than one loss.

4. The Box and No One

It finally happened. Somebody finally realized that if you don’t have anyone who can guard Rajon Rondo (and I’m not sure that somebody actually exists) then you’re better off just not guarding him. The Lakers pulled out the same defense they used in the Finals against Rondo, which is leave him alone and let Kobe roam around.

This worked incredibly well in the playoffs when the Cavs used it and when LA used it in close games. It took Rondo about a quarter and a half to get himself straight (Doc Rivers could be seen yelling “dribble, dribble” at his guard), but once he did, he realized he could still get to the basket and make plays.

The best way for him to beat the defense is to make five straight jump shots, but until that day happens, driving until you hit a brick wall is probably the best option. Rondo wound up with a dozen assists and wasn’t a liability as much as last spring. That’s progress, but it’s amazing that every team doesn’t do this.

Six more quick hitters…

5. Pierce played 38 minutes, so this is a tough one to criticize Rivers on, but was anyone else surprised when he came out in the third quarter?

6. Steve Javie might be on the short list of NBA refs the coach of a visiting team wants to see, if not mascots, so does that make Derek Richardson the opposite? Let’s just say that there were a couple of head-scratchers out there. I say that at the risk of inviting the woe-is-us we don’t ever get any calls crowd to the party, and there was plenty of circumstantial evidence to back that up (15 free throws for the Lakers to eight, 24 fouls to 17), but facts is facts and the Lakers were far more aggressive than the Celtics.

7. Call me a Grinch if you like, but does anyone else think it’s weird that a part owner of the Lakers is doing analysis and interviewing the star player at halftime? And before you bring up Bill Russell “interviewing” Kevin Garnett, Russ doesn’t have any economic connection to the Celtics anymore, and hasn’t for years.

8. Andrew Bynum wasn’t an obvious difference maker, but he blocked two shots and altered several others. That just wasn’t there last spring.

9. Weird night for Ray Allen. His shot was flat and he seemed ticked off all game.

10. Didn’t think it was possible for ABC to top its 10-minute Will Smith interview from last year, but Kevin James and Adam Sandler? Tough call there, but it’s so quintessential LA that the hottest ticket in town is actually a guest appearance for a movie plug.

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