Pace: 86 possessions (slow-ish)
Offensive Efficiency: 78 points/100 possessions (calamitous)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.4 points allowed/100 possessions (elite)
Thumbnail: The Lakers defense destroyed Boston’s offense, and when the game was in the balance, LA rebounded a third of its own misses in out-working and out-playing the Celtics to force Game 7 on Thursday. The status of Kendrick Perkins for that game is unclear after he left tonight’s game in the first quarter with a right knee injury, the exact nature of which is unclear as I write this.
Recap: Above all else, the story of this game is the fact that the Lakers’ defense just annihilated Boston’s half court offense with a combination of hard work and sound strategy—strategy that Boston can counter in Game 7 if they are up to it. But if there’s one concern that has dogged this team all season, even during this playoff run, it is the question of whether Boston’s offense—which ranked just 15th in points per possession this season—could produce in the half court against an elite defense.
They couldn’t tonight, and before you start ranting about missed lay-ups (there were a few) and dunks (there were two—hi, Shelden), give some credit to Phil Jackson and the guys in blue and gold.
The Lakers did a lot of things well tonight defensively, but two stood out:
1) They played screen/rolls involving Paul Pierce and Ray Allen as the ball-handler very aggressively. The LA big guys jumped out to cut off Pierce and Allen, taking away the mid-range shot and daring them to turn the corner. And until the mid-point of the 3rd quarter when Pierce began driving, they couldn’t do it. Instead, the Lakers managed to string both guys out toward the sidelines, where defenders would pressure them into a tough pass back out toward the top of the arc.
Check the 6:00 minute mark of the 1st for a great example. Pierce and KG set up for a screen/roll at the top of the key, but Pierce drives way from the pick and toward the left sideline. Gasol acts as if this is a normal screen/roll and leaves KG to trap Pierce near the corner. Pierce has one option: Kick the ball out to KG, who has to slide all the way out beyond the three-point arc to make himself a target.
Kobe sees it coming, jumps the passing lane and steals the ball, leading to a Laker score in transition.
2) They totally disregarded Rondo, and the Celtics could not make them pay for it. Watch the 2nd and 3rd quarters of this game. When the C’s flashed a player (Pierce or KG) to a spot on the block for an entry pass, Kobe would stop his pursuit of Rondo and step into the passing lane. When the C’s would post up Paul Pierce on Luke Walton and clear Rondo to the other side of the floor (see 1:02, 2nd), Kobe would let Rondo go and lurk behind Pierce, waiting to pounce.
For whatever reason, the Celtics could not punish LA for their disregard of Rondo tonight. It’s not as if this is a new strategy against Rondo, though LA used an exaggerated version of this defense tonight.
How does Boston adjust? In a late-night, distressed attempt to play armchair Doc, I’ll suggest one thing: Involve Rondo more, not less. Use him as a screener for Pierce to create switches, as the C’s did at the 47.7 mark of the 2nd quarter, when Kobe switched onto Pierce after a Rondo brush screen, and Pierce nailed an easy jumper over Kobe.
Run more Rondo/KG screen/rolls to work the KG pick-and-pop. Encourage Rondo to cut back door (2:34, 3rd). Urge him to drive at Kobe in delayed transition, when Kobe is back-pedaling and the Lakers don’t have a second line of defense ready under the basket (2:02, 3rd).
It seemed that tonight, with the few exceptions listed above, Rondo was either standing around, forcing bad shots or taking jumpers the Lakers want him to take. Rajon—and the team—can do better, and they seemed to do better in the 3rd, when Rondo shot 4-of-7 after going just 1-of-8 in the first half.
With Rondo lost in the 1st half and the Pierce screen/rolls failing, the Celtics offense basically ceased to function late in the 1st quarter and throughout the 2nd quarter. Glen Davis took a jump shot off the dribble (9:48, 2nd). The C’s isolated for Tony Allen in the post, and it did not go well (3:09, 1st). Nate Robinson tried a crazy alley-oop for Tony Allen; the pass hit the top of the backboard (10:23, 2nd). Rarely will you see an offense so out of sorts at this level, with these stakes.
We’re going bullets the rest of the way, because I’m cranky:
• The Celtics defense was a step behind tonight, and some of the credit (most of the credit?) for that should go to the Lakers. LA was less predictable on offense, determined to work the ball to Gasol in the post and at the elbow, action that kept Boston guessing and improved LA’s spacing. Ron Artest was taking what amounted to practice three-pointers in the first half, and the Celtics, though they’re happy to have Artest shoot, don’t want him taking set shots from the corners.
• LA also did a good job putting Kobe in better positions to succeed. They understand Boston is crowding him and taking away his right hand, so tonight you saw Kobe use a dribble hand-off/screen from Gasol at the left elbow to get space and a head start on a drive.
And when the Lakers posted Kobe, they did a better job at clearing his side of the floor, making it harder for Boston to double-team him. Kobe was able to drive from the post to the rim without meeting a help defender until he got to the rim—in other words, too late. (See possessions at the 7:05 and 4:29 marks of the 3rd, when Kobe drove from the post and drew fouls on KG and then Big Baby at the rim).
Boston will have to be ready for this stuff and adjust accordingly.
• Of course, no adjustment can make up for the possible absence of Kendrick Perkins in Game 7. It probably is not a coincidence that Gasol looked more comfortable tonight. Perk has been the most effective Boston defender against Pau since the day Gasol got to Los Angeles. Without him, Boston struggles to push Gasol away from his favorite spots (though Big Baby had some success at this). And without Perk, foul trouble means Shelden Williams, which in very limited minutes in this series has meant missed dunks, bad passing and shaky hands.
As I write this, Perk’s status for Thursday is unclear. Get well, Perk.
• Two things need to change now (when else?) for Boston to win Thursday. The most important one: They must protect the defensive glass. Late in the second quarter, the Lakers had rebounded 9 of their 21 misses—an offensive rebounding rate of 43 percent.
To put that in perspective: The Grizzlies led the league with an offensive rebounding rate of 31 percent this season.
A lot of this comes down to effort and making the correct snap decisions. Pau Gasol simply outfought Sheed for one offensive board (1:02, 1st). And just before halftime, the entire team neglected to box out Lamar Odom, allowing Odom to tip in a Kobe miss. Ditto with Pau Gasol tip-in of a Vujacic miss in transition at the 7:01 mark of the 2nd.
Watch the tape of those two offensive boards and you see just how much this is a team thing. On that Gasol tip, for instance, Big Baby boxes out Odom on the left block while KG boxes out Artest on the right block. The two sides are covered, but the middle is wide open. As Gasol trails the play, three Celtics float around the weak side, watching the Vujacic miss. Gasol trots by two of them on the perimeter (Ray and Rondo) on his way into the paint. One of two things need to happen: Either Rondo, the closest guy to Gasol, needs to jump into his path near the foul line, or KG needs to shift off of Artest (a lesser threat) and onto Gasol early.
This one probably falls on Rondo, but it’s a team-wide failure of effort and decision-making—and a great play by Pau.
And that Odom tip? That’s just a missed box out by KG. Watch the tape.
Can’t happen on Thursday.
• Oh, the second thing: Rajon Rondo needs to make some damn foul shots.
• The bench had zero points on 0-of-8 shooting through three quarters.
That’s all I have the energy for right now. We’ll have much more tomorrow, obviously.