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Some questioned Phil Jackson's decision to cancel practice the day after the Lakers' disastrous defeat in Game 4. People had a hard time understanding how a team that's down 3-1 in a series and gave up a 24-point lead in a second-half collapse could afford to take a day off just two days before its potential elimination game. But though Jackson has not been able to make his team play on all cylinders in this series, he understands that before he makes the necessary moves to give the Lakers a chance to return to Boston, he must first heal their wounds.
I'd expect a quote like this one, from Leonardo da Vinci, to be similar to the message Jackson delivered on Friday:
"Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art."
The Lakers have to make adjustments to survive Game 5, but the Celtics have been beating them with desire and intensity and fight (defense and rebounding) more so than with strategy and made shots. Boston's confidence and toughness allowed it to withstand the firsthand onslaught by L.A and helped it make all the key shots late in the contest. Because the Celtics are only one game away from the title, L.A. can do little to shake Boston's mind-set, so focusing on its own is the proper course to take.
The hero for Boston was James Posey, who came off the bench to hit four of eight 3-point shots and score 18 points in just 25 minutes. It was just the fifth time this postseason he has scored in double figures, and it was the first time he scored that many points since a win in Charlotte on April 5. Nevertheless, every time he squared up to shoot the ball in the second half, every basketball fan who was watching must have expected the clutch performer to hit the shot.
Jackson must address how and why Posey was able to perform so well. His defenders, largely Lamar Odom or Vlad Radmanovic, voluntarily left him standing open behind the line and instead protected players who were already well guarded or were less of a scoring threat. Or Posey simply beat people down the floor in transition. Or his man never found him in the half-court set at all. These disastrous mistakes should not be repeated. Simply put, had the Lakers defended with more discipline in Game 4, this series would be tied. Boston's best defensive strength is its ability to force the opponent to take the poorest percentage shot possible, rarely leaving a deadly shooter open while covering a nonthreat.
But no matter how smartly the Lakers defend, it's clear they need a better shooting performance. The Lakers took one more free throw than Boston (29, as compared with the Celtics' 28) but made two fewer (21 to the Celtics' 23). They shot one less 3-pointer (21 to 22) but hit two fewer (6 to 8). On those shots alone, the Celtics were up eight points and won by six. As we've noted throughout the playoffs, when the margin of error for a team is so minuscule, every little mistake counts more than it would in different circumstances.
Shot selection is always a factor when both teams need to enjoy a better shooting night. L.A. may play more relaxed, knowing its chances of winning this series is so low. But if the Lakers do so and allow players to break off the offense and launch some shots, they'll be doomed. Jackson watched Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar shoot a combined 2-for-15 in Game 4, and I'd expect him to shorten their leash if poor shooting continues. If either player gets hot, however, he'll trust them to keep shooting. It's a fine line to walk, to be sure, as players who know their playing time will get cut if they miss shots tend to do just that. But being down 3-1 to the best team in the NBA during the regular season is the finest line of all.
Jackson won't be the only one keeping the leash; Kobe will, too. After taking just 19 shots in 43 minutes Thursday night (he averaged 20.6 in 38 minutes per game during the season) and seeing his team die in the second half, Kobe is likely to assume far more of the offensive load in what could be the final game of his MVP season. The Celtics will double-team and crowd him as they have done, but they still should be prepared for an onslaught of shots and drives.
The Lakers' bench, including Jackson, has its own challenge. Boston has returned from halftime to crush the Lakers in each game. The Celtics are up 116-73 in this series in the third quarters, and they've been up by no less than an eight-point difference with respect to third-quarter point totals. The point difference between these two teams after 16 quarters is merely one point per quarter in Boston's favor (16 total points). Whatever Jackson is doing (or not doing) at halftime needs to be addressed and changed.
Boston has been the tougher and more conditioned team throughout this series. Patient and trusting of one another, the Celtics have survived comebacks by L.A. and mounted a successful one of their own. To defeat a team as talented as L.A. two straight games on the road seems impossible, but it is clearly in their sights now. The Celtics' collective discipline should help them play a good game, as they may forget for a moment that they still have two home games to take care of business just in case. L.A., however, is a proud franchise with some terrific players who simply have been outplayed by better ones. Winning Game 5 should be their only focus, and losing two of three at home should be their driving force. Claiming a title is almost impossible now, so this game is the Lakers' last shot at good feelings until the fall, when their chase will begin again.
Thorpe's Prediction: Lakers win Game 5
Now that all the emotional highs and lows from Game 4 have subsided, both coaching staffs are looking to harness the success of their teams' dominant halves from that game. The Lakers came out in the first half with their most aggressive attack of the Finals -- seven of their first eight possessions resulted in dunks, layups or fouls at the basket.
This first-half assault on the rim by L.A. slowly turned into blown finishes, contested jump shots, bad shots and turnovers, as the Celtics' defense finally arrived in the second half, and its offense started to make shots it had missed in the first half.
The key for Boston to close out this series will be a more consistent defensive effort, and the Lakers will have to come up with an inspired defensive effort of their own in Game 5 if they want to live to see a Game 6.
Offensively, the Lakers were successful early in Game 4 when they pushed the ball up the sideline, then looked for Pau Gasol and Odom to run down the middle. The Celtics' attention in transition has been focused on finding Kobe Bryant and getting to Derek Fisher, Radmanovic and Vujacic flaring wide behind the arc.
Though the masses anointed the Triangle Offense as a virtually unstoppable one before this series, the best way for the Lakers to avoid Boston's suffocating half-court defense is to make this a 94-foot game at every opportunity. With L.A. expected to push at a frenetic pace in Game 5, Boston's big men must run harder down the middle of the floor to protect the basket. The first two steps a player takes are the most important in transition defense, and if the Celtics crash the offensive glass, their 4s and 5s could get left behind. But L.A. can't run if it can't guard.
In Game 4, the Lakers succeeded in the half court running pick-and-roll action, as Pau Gasol screened for Kobe Bryant. Boston did a decent job of tracking Gasol after the screen. But the Celtics left the high-post area vacant for Lamar Odom to flash and make the high-low pass to Gasol as Boston rotated late and stepped up the lane.The Celtics did a better job of rotating to this action as Game 4 progressed. Even more importantly, they began banging both Gasol and Odom -- causing both players to flash less aggressively and less often. Expect Boston to pound the Lakers' bigs with body shots, hips and elbows without any fear of retaliation or retribution.
Expect the Celtics to work to take away Odom's high-post flash, but that should make them susceptible to Kobe Bryant's ability to skip over the rotation and find 3-point shooters -- as he did when he drove the lane, jumped and fired back across to the opposite corner to Trevor Ariza. These are the plays the great players make, and no defense exists for such moves.
Which brings the conversation to Kobe Bryant and whether he will trust his teammates in Game 5 as he did in the first half of Game 4. Or, will he go back to the deep jump shots early in the shot clock, as he did during the Celtics' historic comeback? A missed two-point jump shot straddling the 3-point line (the worst shot in basketball), a long missed jumper with Pierce in his face, and a forced driving miss into the post, all with more than 12 seconds left on the shot clock, helped bury the Lakers' offense in Game 4. Boston is more than happy to have Kobe abandon the "Good Ship Triangle" and try to win it by himself.
Almost every offensive move Doc Rivers made in Game 4 turned to gold -- from inserting Eddie House early in the game for Rajon Rondo to going small with James Posey at the power forward. The Lakers' soft inside play did not allow them to exploit their size advantage on offense, and Boston was able to stretch the Lakers' defense by putting four 3-point shooters around Kevin Garnett.
All that being said, if Posey and House don't knock down their shots, L.A. very likely will survive the historic comeback. In Game 5, look for Boston to go back to its more conventional lineup to start. But with Kendrick Perkins' shoulder a question and the Lakers' doubling off Rondo, Doc Rivers will not hesitate to call on his now-trusted bench and this smaller lineup.
The Lakers must punish Boston inside if the Celtics try to go small in Game 5, but Gasol and Odom seem unable or unwilling to dominate around the basket for more than an occasional possession. With no physical toughness coming from any of their forwards, the Lakers may counter the Celtics by going more quickly with Farmar and Fisher and putting Kobe at the 3. Kobe's stepping up a weight class would set up the classic duel at the small forward between Bryant and Paul Pierce.
The Celtics, and maybe more importantly Kevin Garnett, have finally figured out that their best offense runs through KG in the post. The Lakers have had no answer for this other than a double-team and a poor rotation, so look for a steady diet of KG in the post in Game 5 with cuts and spot- ups on the opposite side to take advantage of Garnett's passing ability and the Lakers' slow defensive recovery.
L.A. gave Garnett too much room in Game 4, so look for the Lakers to trap more quickly, hedge harder and fly at the shooters -- none of which they were able to do on crucial possessions in Thursday night's debacle.
Boston has to feel good about its offensive attack for Game 5, with Ray Allen fully back in form and everyone who steps on the floor making contributions. Although they stood around early and overpenetrated to help the Lakers race to their lead, the shots they made in the second half of Game 4 were the same ones they missed in the first half. The Celtics know their defense can keep them around until the offense catches up, and Boston doesn't respect L.A.'s ability to defend for an entire game.
The Celtics have absolutely no doubt that they are the better team, and they know they have the security of having the last two games of the series at home. With their defense swarming and all cylinders firing on offense, they very easily could close this out in Game 5.
And it would be very easy to conclude that the Lakers are too devastated from their Game 4 collapse to rebound and send this series back to Boston. We saw this happen to the Suns against the Spurs in the first round. However, don't forget that the Lakers are the team that beat Denver, Utah and San Antonio on its way to the Finals. Nobody called L.A. soft then.
Although the Lakers wear that label now, they do not want to wear that tag for the next five months. Expect an inspired defensive effort that will lead to a faster pace, better offense and the chance to lose the series in Boston.
Moreau's Prediction: Lakers win Game 5
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.