Moving the ball and finding the open man. It’s one of the most important principles of offensive basketball. It also is one of the things that the Boston Celtics defense is terrific at denying. By limiting passing lanes and rotating with great precision to shut down any gaps nearly instantly the Celtics D has been a force to be reckoned with throughout this postseason. In Game 5, that kind of defense was on full display with the Celtics limiting Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers to just 12 assists.
Now, at first that number may not look very impressive to you. The Celtics held the Magic to 10 assists in two games in the Eastern Conference Finals, so what’s the big deal about holding the Lakers to 12? Well, the Lakers, unlike the Magic, actually have an offense predicated on sharing the basketball. The Lakers are good, not great at distributing the ball generally, ranking 15th in the league during the regular season, averaging 21.1 per game.
That number has taken a slight dip during this postseason, as the defense has tightened up with the Lakers average falling to 20.2 assists per game. Still, the Lakers are a team whose offense is at their best when they keep the ball moving, so a number like 12 assists for the Lakers last night is nothing to sneeze at.
In fact, a quick look through Basketball-Reference tells us that ever since Pau Gasol arrived in LA two years ago, LA has only had two games with fewer than 12 assists, regular season and postseason included. They lost both of those to the Thunder and Rockets respectively, by double digit margins.
So what was the issue last night? Was Kobe Bryant’s hot hand, scoring 23 consecutive points for his team, in some ways backfire since it stopped other Lakers from getting involved? Or was it the suffocating Boston defense? Kobe Bryant gave a lot of credit to the C’s postgame.
“They do a great job defensively. We’re normally good at moving the ball,” Bryant said. “We missed a lot of shots. We shot 30 something percent. That’s a testament to their defense, as well. So there’s some adjustments we have to make for the next game.”
Kobe’s right about some of that. The Lakers did miss some open jumpers early on, but the other Lakers did contribute early when Bryant’s shots were limited (only 4 in 1st quarter). Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum got out to hot starts, scoring 15 points collectively after 12 minutes. Both failed to score again. In fact, the entire Lakers team besides Kobe Bryant took just 34 shots in the final 36 minutes. Kobe took 23.
Paul Pierce was a proud camper when asked about the lack of assists, pointing out how the Celtics defense was able to key in:
“I was happy with our defensive effort. We scrapped, we got them in the half court for the most part, and that’s the type of game we like. We like to look up and see the score in the 80s and 90s for the most part. You don’t want to get into a running game because that’s what they thrive in. They’re one of the best offensive teams in the league and they’ve done it all year long. It would be tough for us to beat them if they go out and score 120 points.”
Paul is giving the Lakers a lot of credit here. The truth is though, the Lakers aren’t a strong offensive team, especially against a team that plays strong half court defense like the Celtics. LA took advantage of a run and gun style in the last two rounds, since playing that way was the only way either the Jazz or Suns could hang with the Lakers and inflated their offensive numbers.
The fact of the matter is this Phil Jackson coached squad was hardly above average offensively during the regular season. They also are one of the worst 3 point shooting teams in the league. Combine that with an injured starting center and you got a half court offense that becomes short on options very quickly. The Celtics knew this and turned LA into a very predictable offensive team last night.
Make no mistake though, the Lakers play and pass the ball much better in LA (23.4 assists/game at home) so the Celtics will have to step up their effort even more to bring back the Larry O’Brien trophy to Boston.