2010 NBA Finals Game 7: Lakers 83, Celtics 79

First and foremost, it was a great season for the Celtics.  Given their miserable 50-32 (27-27 in last 54) regular season, this amazing run came from out of nowhere.  The Celtics came within a few minutes of knocking off the three best teams in the league in consecutive series.  Without Kendrick Perkins, the Lakers ate the Celtics alive in this one, with a 23-8 offensive rebounding edge.   This allowed them to of course overcome a 13 point deficit – the Celtics offense atrophied down the stretch for reasons I am still not fully able to reconcile.  Anyway … some ruminations:

The Eerie Parralel, Part One – This game played almost identically to the 1998 Eastern Conference Final Game 7 between the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.  The Pacers, if you remember, outshot the Bulls, hung with them for a long time.  Both teams looked exhausted and in a true ordeal of a gae, the Bulls overcame some horrendous shooting by their star (Jordan 9 for 25) with sheer will, offensive rebounding, and a lot of trips to the foul line at the end.  Kobe survived a 6 for 25 nightmare to put up a 23 and 15, piecing together a tough resourceful game on a night when the legs weren’t there.  Just like the 1998 game, this Game 7 featured sheer palpable intensity and exhaustion.  Both teams had nothing left to give.  I think of the look on Muhammad Ali’s face when he won the Thrilla in Manilla.

The Eerie Parralel, Part Two – The Game 7 between Houston and New York in 1994, notably the OJ series.  The parallel here of course was John Starks’ 2 for 18.  Ray Allen’s 3 for 14 was not as bad, but once again a key shooter having the lid on the basket.  For an undermanned Celtics side, who actually executed really well – so many open looks to have misgivings about.

The Artest for Ariza Swap – On a day that the Lakers absolutely needed Artest to not just be a role player, but a creator and two way star of his own, Artest delivered hitting the dagger 3 and being outstanding throughout.  Ariza could never have done this.

The Officiating – In the first quarter, the referees called the game very very liberally.  The physical, intense style was encouraged.  They let them play.  As the game went on, the whistles got tighter, when by the 4th the Celtics watched the Lakers take something like 15 of their 37 attempts.  It did not feel like there was an aggressiveness gap either, as Pierce was not getting calls driving to the cup – and Kobe got one 3 shot foul on a play when Ray Allen did not touch him.  The Celtics were not robbed – but they were fighting a lot of forces down the stretch.

A Classic? – It took Game 7 to have the one true knee knocker in this series.  One of the great Game 7s for sure, though it’s intensity and drama were the touchstones, not the art.  The game definitely had the feel of two exhausted sides who just willed out one more performance.  Heart everywhere.

What’s Next – Well the NBA draft next Thursday.  For the Lakers, they are the favorites to repeat next year as of now, and if they do land Chris Bosh, they might be on “70 win” watch.  Maybe.  The Celtics have a lot of uncertainty, but the East is open enough that it is hard to envision Boston slipping too much.  Realistically Danny Ainge has a chance to take the first steps towards a post Big 3 reality, rebuild on the fly a little.  We’ll see what happens.

2010 NBA Finals Game 6: Lakers 89, Celtics 67

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I missed the entire fourth quarter.  After the scintillating 2008 Game 4, and being in the stands in 2002 against New Jersey – I like to think I have a decent sense of what is “possible”.  I was getting annoyed in the third quarter as the Lakers lead was hovering in the 15-20 range … the Celtics were showing no signs of life offensively, but were a run away from making it interesting.  Fortunately that ended with a thud in and I could sleep easy.

Really the Lakers just wanted this game more – there is no real mystery.  The hustle stats show.  The Lakers outrebounded Boston 52-39 overall but an almost incomprehensible 30-13 in the first half when the game was basically decided.  The 12 steals, 8 blocks … floor burns, everything was tilting the Lakers way.  In a lot of ways the yammering I did for Game 1 apply just as truly here.  Aside from a potentially fatal injury to Kendrick Perkins, there is little about what transpired in Game 6 that could not be addressed by simply hard work and just making shots.

The Lakers played a great defensive game – that is self evident.  However, the Celtics shot 33%!  When a shooting percentage gets that low, defense cannot be alone an explanatory variable.  It is hard to remember so many missed dunks, layups, anything.  There was a veritable cornucopia of offensive suck – and only Ray Allen was exempt from the wagging finger of shame in this regard.  In particular, Rondo have his most useless game of the series.  Entering the finals, we expected that he’d have to be the Celtics best player for this whole thing to work – and really besides Game 2 that has simply not been the case.  That they are so close to the ring despite that is a kind of miracle.

So after all of this, there is a Game 7.  I think at this point the Lakers are the favorite, but they have been so all series.  Note the Lakers have the two routs in this series, while all of Boston’s wins have been nervous.  In a way the best thing for the Celtics (besides winning) was getting creamed.  The team’s attention will be refocused, the players were allowed to rest … and to be fair, the defense only allowed 61 points over the remaining three quarters.  The answers are there in front of them.  Now if Kendrick Perkins cannot go tomorrow – that does hurt their defense and their ability to be physical.  It hurts it a lot – and asking Admiral Akbar to pick up the slack is a bit too much.  Ultimately in a series that has had everything, a final plot twist was necessary.  I am both looking forward to and dreading Thursday night at the same time.

2010 NBA Finals Game 5: Celtics 92, Lakers 86

After a miserable, entertainment free 50-32 regular season, the Celtics have improbably played their last game at home this year and go to Los Angeles with a chance to win the NBA title.  I am still in disbelief – on the other hand I am scared of how the team has set me up for a crushing heartbreak.  But that is for another time.  So, what do we make of Game 5?

  1. The first time they all clicked: After Game 1 and Game 4 (where frankly nobody went off) and Game 2 (Allen/Rondo only), the Celtics top four guys had each had serious struggles.  But tonight, led by Paul Pierce’s 27 and Kevin Garnett’s 18, the old guys carried the day, even with a more muted bench contribution. (not a bad contribution but more limited in the way one’d expect)
  2. Great defense? Kobe on paper put up a Herculean 38 points on 13-27 shooting, but trust me, THIS was hard.  Ray Allen, Tony Allen whomever did a very good job on making Kobe take tough shots.  Dude is tough, as his dazzling 19 point third quarter showed up.  As Doc Rivers said, they had to play through it, and the Celtics in the third ended up extending their lead during Kobe’s hot streak.
  3. Bynum’s Impact: Bynum was healthy and played 31 minutes, but only got one rebound.  Without him being a serious threat, this is the 2008 Lakers basically, albeit not THAT soft.  Really, the Lakers need to supporting cast to start delivering again.
  4. Hustle and English: I thought Baby’s drooling would be the image of the series.  It might have been replaced by a sensational block by Tony Allen on Pau Gasol, and then a gorgeous over the shoulder English-ridden layup by Rajon Rondo when the Celtics had to break a late press with just 2 seconds left on the half court clock.

Ultimately, in the Celtics last home game of the season, the fans carried them home – despite almost blowing a 12 point lead (on the foul line mostly!).  Now, got to find one more win this week.

2010 NBA Finals Game 3: Lakers 91, Celtics 84

It’s funny how the game works sometimes.  In a lot of ways, I could write the same set of random thoughts as I did for Game 2, and just switch the team names and some of the players around.  The Lakers got off to a bad start, but then caught fire.  The Celtics offense looked suddenly very very constipated, and the Lakers blew the game open.  I guess one can take pride in the Celtics character – especially in the key 4th quarter early when Tony Allen was single handedly turning Bryant into a nonfactor.

In a lot of ways, that was most vexing.  Kobe was 10-29, made a key jumper but otherwise accomplished precious little in the 4th, despite Mark Jackson’s bleatings of his greatness.  The Celtics defense was good, and until the middle of the 4th was positively outstanding.  But at the end, there needed to be stops, and there needed to be execution, and ultimately there was neither.  Part of me takes heart that this game was in the balance while they shot so poorly, including Ray Allen putting up a ghastly counterpoint to his amazing Game 2.   But, the Celtics got so much done on defense, with especially inspiring work by Tony Allen (whoulda thunk that he was the Allen to play down the stretch, and I wished he was the Allen that was out there late) and Big Baby – and an inspired effort from Garnett.

Ultimately this series cannot be won unless Pierce starts contributing more heavily – and he struggled again with the Artest defense.  Also, when Derek Fisher is allowed to be hero, while their best weapons were kept under wraps – that reflects on Rondo.  Indeed today he was back to his useful but innocuous Game 1 form, and not the transformational Game 2 kind.  Perhaps the short turnaround and the resulting lack of legs to run had something to do with it.  I just don’t know.

Hard not to be left talking to oneself.

2010 NBA Finals Game 2: Celtics 103, Lakers 94

Now there is something to build on.  After the collective egg laid in Game 1, the Celtics had a lot of ‘splainin to do.  The lack of defensive energy – and energy generally – was something that should have been easy to fix.  Obviously, just like in Game 1, perspective is in order.  For two teams who have continually shown they can win in the other guys’ house, the idea of losing home court advantage in and of itself is somewhat meaningless.  That said, the odds of either team winning 3 in a row is low – and so this is a huge help as a matter of sheer probability.  But what a laundry list of positives from the effort.

Ray Allen’s Magic - the 7 three pointers nailed in a positively scorching first half were key as the Celtics had to overcome Garnett’s foul troubles and Pierce’s scoring ones.  As the Celtics defended with much more zeal than Game 1, they still needed a source of offense, and Allen delivered.  The Lakers defense was astonishingly bad at times, but you still gotta make the shots – you try hitting 8 of 11 three balls without anybody guarding you.

Paul Pierce’s Spirit – is it possible to have a great 2 for 11 game?  The 10 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists do not indicate anything here.  Pierce’s offense was positively bereft, but the captain brought a legitimate defensive intensity that was noticeable.  His man to man defense on Ron Artest was terrific and his role as part of the team forcing Kobe to work for his 21 points on 20 shots was invaluable.

The Bench – the Lakers depth was supposed to be an edge in this series, but the Celtics bench outclassed the Lakers in a game where the serious foul trouble struck again.  In particular the 6 minute stretch in the fourth where Nate Robinson, Glen Davis and Tony Allen provided an absolutely critical rest period for the thoroughly exhausted Rondo and Ray Allen.  When the varsity checked back in, nothing changed negatively on the scoreboard.  Add the production of Rasheed Wallace, and the work of Shelden Williams when he was exhumed, and everybody had a hand in this.  The bull in a china shop that is Glen Davis is a force of nature.

Rondo’s Excellence – after a deceptively impact free 13 point 8 assist game in Game 1, Rondo got his second triple double of the postseason (18, 12 and 10).  His rebounding was crucial as part of a teamwide 16 rebound turnaround from the Game 1 disaster.  And then in the fourth, he took over as the scoring option and closed the show.  His steel-nerved 18 footer and his poke steal of Kobe Bryant late were the most symbolic plays, but really from pushing tempo, getting Ray Allen all those looks, the rebounding, the scoring at the end – he was everything, like he had to be.

Resourcefulness – as always this team rises when they look their worst.  It happened again tonight, in a game where so much went wrong.  Serious foul trouble, Kevin Garnett laying another egg, Paul Pierce struggling offensively, their own sloppiness at the end of the first half letting a 13 point lead drip to 6, and then expiring altogether in the second half, the Lakers 14 blocked shots and Andrew Bynum’s best playoff performance.  There were a lot of reasons to lose this game, and the Celtics somehow – when it looked like the Lakers were going to take this to the finish line – made the plays at the end.

How satisfying is this?  So satisfying that another horridly officiated game did not ruin my mood – the 112 fouls called in 2 games almost made this like a whistle blowing competition interrupted by some basketball here and there – the Celtics are alive.

2010 NBA Finals Game 1: Lakers 102 Celtics 89

As always Adam has some good thoughts about the game.  When watching a game like that, the mind wanders as to who is to blame – was it the Lakers efficacy or the Celtics lack of the same?  What was most striking was the Lakers defense and sheer effort – an intensity level the Celtics just did not bring.  Really, the game is sometimes that simple.  The Celtics, as it showed in the rebounding stats (Gasol out offensive rebounding the entire Celtics team??!!), the fast break points (12-5) and the points in the paint (48-30).  It was a physical mauling.  The good news is it is just one game but there are some systemic concerns.

Garnett’s Docileness – Garnett was held to 7-16, which is not good but not awful.  But only 4 rebounds and getting eaten alive by Pau Gasol.  Combine this with a very poor offensive showing in the previous round against Rashard Lewis and one worries about whether he has just been fried or not.

Rondo’s Health - Rondo also put a decent line up (13-6-8) but was not explosive or transformative.  Having Kobe guard him may have seemed like a factor but it wasn’t.  As Rivers pointed out, Rondo has seen this sort of defense before.  But Rondo seemed to lack jump.  Is this his various ailments coming together?

Kobe’s Amazingness – Adam observes that Kobe has taken the conch from LeBron for now.  A lot of experts have made this assertion too – but LeBron’s performance the last two years belie this.  Since LeBron does not have a Top 10 player like Gasol as a post teammate, it is hard to make a fair comparison.  But suffice to say Kobe has had a marvelous playoff.  The Celtics let him get to the bucket pretty easily, far easier than they did at any point of the 2008 series.

Ultimately, it is but one game – and so perspective is in order.  The problems mostly were in the energy and effort categories – which is easily fixable as disturbing as it was.  One expects a much better performance in Game 2.  One does not expect any less “Kobe is a transformational epic movie hero” hooey from Van Gundy and Jackson – unless you are talking Lawrence of Arabia.

The 2010 NBA Finals: Celtics v Lakers

After all of those games, here we are.  The Celtics play the Lakers for the 12th time for the NBA Championship, and the second time in the last three years – in what might be one of the more covertly improbably recent NBA Finals pairings.  Improbable?  Consider: The Celtics finished the season ranked 10th, while the Lakers were 7th.  The Lakers survived a scare from a very underrated Oklahoma City team in the first round while the Celtics stunned the two best teams in the league this season.  Both teams deserve to be here – but both teams needed postseason revivals (the two teams were a combined 61-47 in the year 2010) to do so.

It is tempting to look at their 2008 meeting for guidance.  If one recalls (and boy do I), the Celtics won in 6 over Los Angeles in a series where they conceivably could have won all six games.  The Celtics physicality and defensive mindset utterly emasculated the Lakers, and thus dozens of ESPN experts were proven wrong.  The 131-92 drubbing in Game 6 is a favorite memory:

And the Celtics epic Game 4 comeback is for the ages:

That said, it is two years later.  The Celtics then were Pierce-Garnett-Allen with Rondo being a wild card.  Now Rondo is clearly their best player and Garnett is a wild card.  The Lakers were soft in that year without Andrew Bynum healthy.  With him (and who knows at this point if he will be healthy) they are a very good defensive team and capable of dominating with sheer numbers of size.  The Lakers have home court this time.  Ultimately, I look at these as the keys:

  1. Rondoooooooo – speedy point guards have given Derek Fisher fits the last few years. They do not come any speedier than Rondo.  The Lakers might put Kobe on him and roam off of him, but Rondo has learned how to work with that.  If he is healthy, he will be a handful – and with the Celtics fragility, he HAS to be.  It seems that defending Rondo AND Ray Allen will give the Lakers issues, if the Celts bring it.
  2. The Lakers muscle – Gasol, Odom ans Bynum give a size trio the Celtics cannot match.  Perkins and Davis bring physicality and Garnett brings great defensive instinct, and Wallace brings some manboobs, but the Celtics could get crushed on the boards here.  They need to neutralize to give themselves a chance.
  3. Pierce vs Artest – Artest blanketed Pierce in the two regular season meetings.  Pierce was outstanding in 2008, and is coming off of a revival of sorts against Orlando.  Pierce needs to be a true 1A performer here.
  4. Kobe – he has been otherworldly the last two series.  However, the Celtics are not an indifferent defensive team – especially not in the postseason where they are winning the defensive efficiency stats.  Can the Celtics manage him like they did in 2008.
  5. The 2-3-2 format.  With the change in format, it basically forces Boston to win twice in LA.  Otherwise the chore could depend on winning 3 in a row – which is hard for either to team to do under any condition.

Really, this shapes to be a potentially classic Final – two teams trying to squeeze out a title in a year with a ton of adversity.  Maybe some of my reverse jinx comes out here, but Lakers in 6.