Maybe the Lakers should just stay on the road.
In the third game of their season-long seven-game road trip, the Lakers again scored a win, this time against an elite team, the type of victory that has eluded them all season. It wasn't a perfect measuring stick given Boston's health issues only exacerbated by foul trouble, but, if I might borrow wisdom from the wisest of late 1970's American summer camp cinema- Meatballs- "It just doesn't matter." The Lakers still went into the TD Banknorth Garden and owned the second half of a game they needed to win. That it doesn't "mean" anything in terms of determining a playoff favorite is irrelevant. Had the Lakers lost, the same would be true.
Thursday's game may not be great for determining the NBA's next champion, but it was excellent for providing a little perspective. All in all, it was a top-shelf performance, the type fans (and perhaps the Lakers themselves) have been looking for all season. Here's how it broke down...
1. Second-Half Defense. Even with a rally to end the second quarter, the Lakers still allowed Boston to shoot over 51 percent from the field in the first half. In the third quarter, though, with Ray Allen on the bench with foul trouble (followed later by Von Wafer), Nate Robinson in the locker room with injury, the Lakers did a great job in the halfcourt of clamping down on Boston's remaining scorers, forcing the Celtics into low-percentage looks, including a host of Rajon Rondo jumpers. Once Allen went to the bench at the 6:41 mark, the Lakers allowed only three field goals the rest of the quarter, all jumpers. The Celtics scored only 15 points overall, and combined with the best offensive quarter of the game for the Lakers made for quite a positive frame for the visitors.
"Hey you, reading about this game on your computer. Now that me and my guys have beaten an elite team on the road, do you feel any better?"
2. Opening the Third Quarter. L.A. carried serious momentum into the half, cutting a 15-point deficit to eight over the last four minutes of the second quarter. Instead of allowing Boston to regain control coming out of the break, the Lakers continued their push. Derek Fisher drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut Boston's lead to five. Kobe Bryant came right back, probing against Allen before splitting a double team off the pick and roll -- it seemed Boston was preparing for Bryant to pass, given his first-half tendencies, and finishing at the rim, drawing the and-one in the process. In 38 seconds, the Lakers had six points. On their next trip, the Bryant again worked his way inside to score, followed by a Pau Gasol jumper at the 10:18 mark giving the Lakers a 55-53 lead.
From there, the Lakers continued establishing control over the game. But it was those first two minutes of the third swinging the balance of the game in their favor.
3. Kobe Bryant. A lingering criticism of the first matchup at Staples Center was Bryant's shot selection. Efficient as he was early, Kobe dominated touches and shots. As the Lakers struggled in the second half, Bryant took even firmer control of the offense, at one point hoisting on over 10 straight trips.
Tonight, Bryant was clearly determined to get his teammates touches. He spent most of the first half working through double teams, coming off the pick and roll, penetrating to draw the defense, and then kicking to the open man. He found Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the two-man game, hit shooters on the perimeter, and did a great job distributing the ball. The results weren't necessarily there -- the Lakers missed a lot of shots in the first half -- but the intention was. That he took three shots in the first half isn't really the point, but rather his determination not force shots and get Boston moving in transition.
Having set up the Celtics early, Kobe was able to exploit cracks in Boston's defense early in the third. Not surprisingly, he was more aggressive looking for his own shot over the final 24 minutes, and did so with good efficiency, hitting eight of 14 for 20 points. Once Allen was out of the game, Bryant made a point of attacking Wafer because he's Kobe Bryant, and Von Wafer was guarding him. He'd finish with 23.
4. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Together, they combined for 36 points on 14-for-23 from the floor, 19 rebounds, and two blocks. Gasol continued his run of aggressive play, taking shots when they were available, attacking Kevin Garnett in the paint, and posting a far more influential game than when Boston visited Staples. He even took a bite out of Lamar Odom's forehead in the third quarter, sending L.O. to the bench for medical attention. It was, presumably, unintentional, but who's to say Gasol hasn't evolved from Black Swan to Black Cannibal?
5. Rebounding. In nine of the last 10 times the Lakers and Celtics have played, the team winning the rebounding battle won the game. Tonight, the Lakers were plus-11 on the boards (47-36). They won the game. All hail predictive statistics!
1. Early Odom. The Lakers struggled early in part because Odom was a bit of a train wreck. It's rarely a bad thing for Odom to be assertive looking for his shot, but Thursday night he too often went too far, forcing shots in traffic and helping Boston to easy opportunities the other way. L.O. usually doesn't fall into these sorts of patterns, but tonight he did in the first half, and it hurt.
2. First-Quarter Defense (bleeding into the second). The Lakers allowed 27 points on over 52 percent shooting, allowed Rondo too much freedom to roam, allowing him to both finish at the basket and create for others, and were a little squishy in their closeouts. Fortunately, they tightened things up over the final 30 minutes of the game, but opening returns were shaky.
3. Early Turnovers. Five in the first quarter, with miscues coming in the post and off the dribble, sometimes off pressure from the Celtics, sometimes off carelessness. Even some of the simple plays weren't, as demonstrated by a Ron Artest pass from the wing to Gasol that skipped through Pau's hands and to the scorer's table. If there's a reason the Lakers looked lethargic early, this is it.
4. Lack of Offensive Variety. Not a dig at his performance (referenced above), but rather the way he was deployed for much of the game. Kobe did his job in countless pick and roll sets, or probing from the perimeter to draw the defense before finding an open teammate. The problem were the countless pick and roll sets and plays with Kobe initiating the offense from the top of the shot clock. Over seven games against elite defensive teams, it's not a recipe for success. As it was against the C's the first time around, the Lakers need to do more running Kobe off the ball, allowing him to come off screens to catch on the run, whether to shoot or attack his defender off the dribble. It happened periodically- not nearly enough- but almost always with a great deal of success.
When Kobe catches after good off-ball action, he's absurdly unguardable, able both to move the ball effectively and also get nearly any shot he wants, particularly when he receives the ball near either elbow. For his teammates, it's often an issue simply of not giving up the ball to him so early in the clock, something the coaching staff repeatedly stresses to mixed effect. For the coaches, it's a matter of continuing to insist on variety, and pushing the matchups and movements able to make it possible.
I'm hardly campaigning the Lakers ditch the Kobe-initiated pick and roll. It's often ludicrously effective. But for the Lakers to be successful against Boston-esque defense over a full series, it can't be the only play in the playbook. They need more variety than what was shown Thursday night.