Admit it: In the 3rd quarter, you felt this game slipping away. You started thinking about the 2-0 deficit, letting it roll around in your head, anticipating it, accepting it and getting ready to watch Game 3 knowing the entire season would be on the line.
It was only 63-61, Los Angeles, but I certainly felt that way around the 6:52 mark of the 3rd quarter. The Lakers had roared back from a 14-point deficit and taken the lead, and given how much a couple of Celtic blunders had aided in that LA comeback, I was worried. You can’t spot a great team like LA five points on botched outlet passes and get away with it. Not on the road, not in the NBA Finals.
But what worried me most was this: Boston had nowhere to go on offense. Ray Allen already had 27 points, but you knew that well was going to dry up. Garnett was on the bench, again, with foul trouble, so going to KG in the high post wasn’t an option. Paul Pierce had very little. Rondo was trying, but he has trouble finishing over the Laker bigs.
The playbook wasn’t working. I kept thinking: How are they going to score enough points to stay within striking distance?
I still don’t how Boston hung in during that 3rd quarter, when they just had nothing. And I know that LA helped, with turnovers and bad shot selection, as the team’s offense crumbled with Kobe Bryant on the bench for the last 6:18 of the quarter. And the 4th quarter was so dramatic, with so many big plays, that people will focus on that when they talk about this game.
But for me, the back half of that 3rd quarter stands out as a living example of what people mean when they use the (admittedly over-used) cliché that “championship teams find a way.”
Just look at some of these baskets:
(7:43, 3rd): Rajon Rondo makes a three-pointer. The shot clock is running down, and Pierce, trying to create something, drives and throws a wild kick-out to Rondo on the right wing. Rajon, who shot 21 percent from three this season, somehow nails this one. It is a nice prelude to the jumper he’ll hit later to give Boston a 95-90 lead with about a minute to go, perhaps the biggest jumper of his life. (61-59, Boston)
(6:07): Pierce, stymied as a driver and cold from outside, sneaks to an open spot under the hoop, takes a nice high-low from Sheed, and lays the ball in. (63-63)
(5:09): Repeat, only Pierce misses the initial lay-up and hits the put-back. And in a 58-second span, Paul Pierce makes his only baskets of the night. And they were huge, huge baskets. (66-65, LA)
(4:39): Ray Allen makes his record-setting 8th three-pointer, and it’s a nice representation of what I’m getting at here. Rondo snared a defense rebound and pushed hard in transition, trying to make something happen. He drew the defense and dished to Davis under the rim. And as so often happens with Big Baby, an opposing big (Gasol) stuffed him on a lay-up try. But Davis fought to recover the ball and kicked out to Ray for a scramble three. (68-66, Boston).
(3:03): Maybe my favorite play of the whole game, and the slowest-ever example of transition points. Pierce darts down and steals the ball from Gasol in the post and takes it coast-to-coast the other way. Except “coast-to-coast” in this case means that Pierce zigs and zags his way up the court, changing directions at least three times, as everyone jogs back in a very casual transition scene. This does not resemble a fast-break in any way, except that by pushing forward all the time, Pierce prevents the defense from getting set.
As he reaches the three-point line, Pierce changes direction one last time, zagging left and past Shannon Brown. A Laker big comes over to help, and Pierce dishes to Davis for a bucket, plus the foul on Gasol. (70-68, Boston)
This is pure improvisational basketball. By this point, the Celtics’ set offense has fallen apart completely. There is no playbook, no screen/rolls with KG, no curl plays for Ray Allen. The Celtics are a ragged bunch, taking anything they can get.
(2:26): Another example. Rondo weasels his way into the lane and launches a floater with 8 on the shot clock. It misses, but Rondo grabs the offensive board, makes a couple of his fancy behind-the-back fakes and finally wraps a pass to Sheed along the left baseline.
And Sheed takes a horrible shot, with a more or less fresh shot clock. Maybe horrible is a bit much, since he banked it in and the play-by-play has it listed as a 13-footer and not a 20-footer. But at the time I wanted him to reset instead of taking a rushed shot against a decent contest.
But it was as if Sheed understood in that moment that, Hey, we’re struggling here, and this may be the best we can do, so I’m just launching. It went in. (72-70, Boston).
And that’s it for Boston’s scoring in the 3rd. This was far from spectacular offense. Starting with that Rondo three at the 7:43 mark, Boston was just 6-of-19 from the floor to end the 3rd quarter. They did not make a single foul shot in that stretch. But notice that number of attempts—19. That’s a lot for a 7:43 span, and they managed that many because Boston grabbed four offensive boards—two from Rondo and one each from Davis and Pierce.
They also did enough defensively to avoid falling apart, despite the fact that LA attempted 8 free throws in the last 7:43 of the 3rd. (And, by the way, LA earned those 41 foul shots tonight. There were a few dicey calls, both ways, with one really bad call on Davis when he blocked Bynum cleanly. But other than that, Boston fouled because LA’s size forced them to). Other than those 8 foul shots, LA turned it over three times and hit just 2-of-6 from the field over the last 7:30 of the quarter.
Again: I don’t mean to over-emphasize this stretch of the 3rd quarter at the expense of all the huge plays in the 4th quarter—Nate Robinson’s play, Rondo’s block on Fisher, a quiet series of points from Perk, etc. But to me, the end of the 3rd quarter epitomizes what championship teams do when things are falling apart around them—they find a way to score enough points and keep themselves alive, so that they can win when the offense rights itself.
It was ugly, but that’s what Boston managed to do. And so we head back to Boston 1-1. Wow.
* Apologies for the lack of video. For some reason, my DVR stopped recording in the 2nd quarter. I’d like to blame Time-Warner, one of the holy trinity of companies all New Yorkers hate, but I think I probably landed on wrong button on the remote at some point when I was jumping around on the couch.