Four Things We Learned From Lakers-Celtics
BOSTON -- I missed all the fun of being in Los Angeles on Christmas, but I had to be in attendance for the NBA Finals rematch between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden on Thursday night. The game surely lived up to the hype -- especially since there wasn't much hype, with the NBA taking a decided backseat this week to the Super Bowl and scandals involving Michael Phelps and Barry Bonds.
But the Lakers eeked out a 110-109 overtime victory, which ended with some controversy over whether Derek Fisher bumped newly named all-star Ray Allen before or during his final desperation heave as time expired. The loss snapped Boston's 12-game winning streak and was the second time this season that the Lakers ended a Celtics double-digit winning streak (they broke the Celtics' franchise-record string of 19 wins in a row in December). And, it was obvious from the post-game chest bumps and hugs near center court that this game meant a whole lot to the Lakers, who where humiliated by 39 points on this floor eight months ago in Game 6.
If these teams were to meet up again in June, I don't think many people outside of Northeast Ohio (Cleveland fans) and South Texas (San Antonio fans) would be disappointed. These teams really go at each other -- hard. There were a few other things that I noticed about both teams after examining them pretty closely over the entire 53 minutes. Here is what I came up with:
1. No Team Defends Kobe Bryant Better Than the Celtics
I have to give myself a pat on the back, because in my chat yesterday, somebody asked me how many points Kobe Bryant would score against the Celtics and I said he would get around 28 points on about 26 or 27 shot attempts. I came close: Bryant finished with 26 points on 10-for-29 shooting, and he would've had 28 points if he hadn't missed two free throws. But after scoring 97 points in his previous two games against the New York Knicks (who don't even try to act like they play defense) and the lousy Toronto Raptors, Bryant confronted a different monster altogether in the Celtics.
The Celtics threw different perimeter defenders on Bryant -- Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen -- who started the game 4-of-8, but missed 9 of his next 12 shots. He got hot for a second in the fourth quarter, hitting three three-pointers. Bryant appeared somewhat gassed late in the game, possibly from playing back-to-back nights and traveling through customs early in the morning. But the Celtics' scheme against him, which includes making him a perimeter shooter, closing out the lanes and contesting each of his jumpers, has worked well the past two seasons. In 10 combined games against the Celtics (four in the regular season and six in the NBA Finals), Bryant is shooting just 39.7 percent (91-for-229) and he has shot better than 50 percent only twice -- in Game 3 of the NBA Finals (12 of 20) and on Christmas (13 of 23).
2. The Celtics Will Need Another Quality Big Man if They Are Going to Repeat
I know the Celtics have been rumored to be interested in Stephon Marbury, but Boston's most pressing need became obvious when Kevin Garnett fouled out with 4 minutes, 22 seconds left in the game. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers had two choices -- Glen "Big Baby" Davis and his huge body, or Leon Powe and his post game. Rivers went with Davis, although Powe played pretty solidly with 10 points and eight rebounds. But Davis, who missed his first six shots, didn't realize that he was wide open because the Lakers wanted him to shoot, and he kept shooting. Davis hit a huge jumper to give the Celtics a 109-108 lead, but got greedy and came back for more -- then Pau Gasol swatted his next attempt.
Davis is a decent player, but he seemed ill-prepared to handle the situation last night. Davis is a sensitive player who is really hard on himself, which could easily be spotted as he trudged out of the locker room, glum-faced after the game. Celtics Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has to find some way to get Joe Smith in a Celtics uniform before the trade deadline. Garnett plays at such a highly intense level that it's nearly impossible to keep that up for an entire 82-game season. The Celtics need a veteran coming off the bench to spell him from time to time. Smith would be the perfect piece for Boston, especially given his past relationship with Garnett in Minnesota. And if anybody has earned a shot at a ring, Smith is the guy. He's worked hard for a long time and finally won a playoff series for the first time in his career last season. He could be this year's P.J. Brown for Boston.
3. The Lakers Can't Be Punk'd Anymore
The common refrain after the NBA Finals was that the Lakers were too soft and the Celtics roughed them up for six games. Well, the Lakers can't be bullied by Boston this season. The Lakers were lacking their best interior defender on Thursday with Andrew Bynum forced to miss the next eight to 12 weeks with a torn MCL. Bynum provided some force and a physical presence, and was expected to be a difference maker should these teams meet again. He certainly was in December, when he altered several Celtics shots and blocked two others. The Lakers were overwhelmed by the Celtics' intensity last June, but you could tell from the way Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom ignored the constant trash talk from Garnett and others -- and how they were willing to mix it up for loose balls and rebounds -- that they aren't afraid anymore. That was clear on Christmas and again on Thursday, even without Bynum. If these teams meet again, the Celtics will have to back up the tough talk with more inspired play.
4. The Rivalry Is Alive -- At Least With the Fans
At the conclusion of the game, a Lakers fan walked up the aisle, lifting Kobe Bryant's 24 jersey up and down, and taunting Celtics fans along the way. This one guy, wearing a Celtics' T-shirt with Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen's character in the movie "He Got Game") on it, stopped the guy in his tracks and shoved him. He told the Lakers fan that he didn't appreciate him disrespecting the Celtics' house like that (of course, he used more coarse language). The Lakers fan looked at the dude, and shoved him right back. Next thing you know, they are shoving each other, back and forth, until a friend of the Lakers fan, dressed in all black and wearing a black Red Sox cap, told the Celtics fan that he was from Boston and if he pushed his friend again there were going to be problems (of course, he used much more coarse language). The dude in the Red Sox cap and the Shuttlesworth T-shirt guy continued to shout at each other, so I decided to take a different route to the media room. Flailing arms aren't always on target, you know.
After the game, Garnett was asked if he'd like to play the Lakers again. "Hell yeah," he said. "We're the champs, right?"
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