The fourth win in this series will be the single toughest win of the New Big Three era. Despite never having lost a series with its starting line-up intact, this team has not exactly been a juggernaut when it comes to closing out series on the road. Over the last three seasons, the Celtics are 1-7 in potential close-out games on the road, including losses this season in Miami (Game 4) and Orlando (Game 5).
You think back to Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, and you have a tendency to conclude this team will never, ever miss an opportunity to win a title when they are this close—that they will play with a super-intensity no team in the NBA can match and simply out-work the Lakers. Game 6 of the 2008 Finals was one of the few games I can remember in which the cliché was true—one of the teams on the court was not going to lose, under any circumstances.
But that game was at home, when the combination of a good start, a hungry team and a blood-thirsty crowd can unnerve a team already unsure of itself. One of those elements will be missing on Tuesday.
The Celtics will have to play a tremendous game to win again in Los Angeles, and such a game means playing better offensively and on the boards than they did in Game 5. That sound ridiculous, given Boston shot an insane 56 percent on Sunday, becoming only the 9th team to hit the 56 percent mark against Los Angeles since the arrival of Pau Gasol, according to Basketball-Reference data for the regular season and the playoffs.
Because despite that 56 percent shooting, Boston’s two most prominent flaws almost cost them a game they absolutely should have won.
That 56 percent shooting is anomalous. The Celtics won’t match it again. But 17 turnovers, including 11 in the first half? That isn’t anomalous, not for this team. The Celtics that showed up Sunday night were a team that, for whatever reason, did not value every possession. And we have seen that before.
Kendrick Perkins leading the fast break—in Game 5 of the Finals!—when he hasn’t done so all season (3:14, 1st)? There hasn’t been a more predictable offensive foul not involving Tony Allen in the last three seasons. Rajon Rondo inexplicably pausing mid-dribble while streaking alone down the left side of the floor in transition, drawing a carry call (5:00, 2nd)? Ray Allen and KG miscommunicating on a simple entry pass a couple of minutes later, resulting in Allen bouncing the pass right to Los Angeles?
Or how about the possession at 8:34 of the 3rd, when Ray Allen overthrew Rondo on a very difficult outlet pass after a steal. Rondo sprinted to recover the ball along the left baseline (a great effort), dribbled under the hoop to the right baseline and, instead of resetting, inexplicably tried to switch directions (with a behind-the-back dribble!) and walk the baseline tightrope back toward the hoop. He fell over, and out of bounds.
Rondo especially looked over-excited in Game 5, which is understandable. He missed easy reads he has made the entire season. Just watch the last 2:00 of the 1st half. With 1:30 left, Rondo engaged in a solo fast break, driving right at Kobe Bryant under the rim and attempting a wild lay-in. The refs whistled him for warding off Bryant with his right hand. Yes, Rajon has made shots in this situation before, and his aggression is generally a good thing, but you’ve got to think twice before attacking an All-Defense-level guard like this.
Two possessions later, Rondo brought the ball up the middle in transition and drew the defense. Paul Pierce was waving his right arm, wide open on the right wing. I’ve watched this Boston team so many times that my eyes by instinct moved over to Pierce, expecting the ball to be in his hands any second. It didn’t get there, and Rondo missed a wild shot in the paint.
And then there was the final possession of the half, a debacle for a team that has too many end-of-quarter debacles, which is a strange thing, since Doc’s end-of-game play-calling has gotten so good. Rondo brought the ball up the left side in transition with Ray Allen trailing right behind them. Rajon dribbled under the three-point arc and drew the defense in, and again my eyes instinctively turned to Ray, expecting Rondo to throw that patented two-handed pitch-back to Allen for an open three. But Rajon hesitated for some reason, and by the time he handed the ball to Ray near the left corner, the defense had recovered.
They have got to clean this stuff up. Yes, the Lakers are one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers, but think about this: Boston shot 60 percent and played NBA defense as well as you will ever see it played, and they still won by just six points at home. Part of that is Kobe Bryant, who is terrifying in every way at this point, but it is also the result of mental errors that are bad even by the standards of a turnover-prone team.
And we’ve seen a bunch of them in this series, including a series of botched outlet passes so bad they were almost shocking.
We know Boston will bring its all-world defense to Los Angeles this week. As great as that defense is, it alone will not be enough to bring home the title. They will need to score efficiently again, but they’ll likely have to do it without the benefit of red-hot shooting.