Commentary

Celtics missing something at end

Errant shots costly against Lakers, but both teams show they still can contend

Updated: March 12, 2012, 12:15 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

LOS ANGELES -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers loves to tell reporters that the NBA is "a make/miss league." Much like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's favorite phrase -- "It is what it is" -- it's an inarguable truth in a game in which the team that scores more points wins.

So if you're looking to boil down the Los Angeles Lakers' 97-94 triumph over the Celtics on Sunday at the Staples Center, here it is: Los Angeles made its final four shots and scored the game's final eight points, while Boston missed its last six attempts.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesPaul Pierce said the Celtics' failure to make stops was their biggest problem down the stretch.

"Losing is no fun, especially in a game when you have a lead, and we gave it up at the end," Rivers said. "We got great shots. It's a make/miss league. We didn't make, and they did."

It's a simple as that. Well, sort of.

The Celtics rallied out of the 15-point, first-half hole they dug themselves and actually pulled ahead early in the second half. Boston was up five with less than three minutes to go in the game after a beautifully executed play out of a timeout led to a Ray Allen 3-pointer from the top of the arc and a 94-89 lead.

Then in the shadow of all these palm trees, the Celtics went cold. Ice-cold.

Kevin Garnett, who after hitting his first five shots of the game hadn't missed in 12 straight attempts spanning three games, missed four times in the final quarter, including a 12-foot fadeaway with 1:52 to go.

Brandon Bass hauled in that miss and fed Allen for a clean look. Despite having three triples in the game, Allen misfired. He'd miss again on the next possession, unable to steer in a 10-foot jumper.

• Even as the Lakers rallied ahead by riding Kobe Bryant (who sandwiched a pair of jumpers -- including a go-ahead, 14-foot pull-up off a Pau Gasol screen with 41.7 seconds to go -- around an alley-oop feed to Andrew Bynum), the Celtics still had a chance to retake the lead coming out of a timeout. Rivers scribbled up another quality set, and Bass got a 15-foot look from his sweet spot -- a shot he knocked down all day -- and it wouldn't fall. "We were just a stop or a shot away from winning it," Bass said.

• Bynum muscled in a hook shot with 15.5 seconds to go, forcing Boston to look for a 3-pointer to force overtime. The Lakers did a good job preventing Boston's shooters from getting open, instead forcing both Paul Pierce (blocked by Bryant) and Rajon Rondo to misfire on desperation triples.

"The problem was we couldn't get any defense. We didn't get any stops," Pierce said. "Kobe made some tough shots, then they went down to Bynum.

"I thought we had great looks, though. Brandon had the wide-open shot there at the top; Ray did, too. It's one of those games that could have gone either way, but I like the shots that we got down the stretch."

So what can the Celtics take from this game? Winner of six of its previous seven, Boston is sure to be frustrated by the lack of late-game execution. The ability to come up with big plays in crunch time has been one of the hallmarks during the Big Three era. Yet this is the second time in less than a month that the Celtics led the Lakers with less than three minutes to play in regulation and lost the game (dropping an 88-87 overtime decision at TD Garden last month).

But here's the silver lining: Boston showed it can still go toe-to-toe with one of the league's giants (literally and figuratively). Oh sure, you can make the case that the Lakers are hardly the brass of the West anymore -- a notion that Rivers won't argue -- but the quality of play Sunday was playoff-caliber. The Celtics, faced with a tough travel situation against one of the league's elite frontcourts while playing without centers Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Wilcox, showed they can still compete.

If the Celtics can iron out some of the wrinkles over the next month-plus, Rivers continues to warn the rest of the league not to sleep on the old dogs on either coast.

Rivers was asked by a Los Angeles reporter whether he thought this might be the last game featuring each team's respective Big Three. He playfully quipped, "Especially because it sounds like the Lakers are going to trade Gasol," referring to a recent report of an imminent deal.

But then he cautioned against assuming that either core would be altered before the next meeting.

"I think both teams know that they've been inconsistent all year," Rivers said. "I think both teams also know that if they are both healthy going into the playoffs, with the experience they have, anything is possible -- as Kevin would say."

Before the game, Rivers elaborated on that point.

"I'm going to say this, and I guarantee the Lakers feel the same way: We know there are favorites in the East, and we know there are favorites in the West -- and there should be," he said. "We haven't deserved to be one, and neither have [the Lakers]. But when the playoffs start, and if both teams are healthy, you just never know."

The Celtics just need those shots to start falling again in crunch time. After all, it's a make/miss league.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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