Celtics-Lakers: A Dagger to the Heart of Los Angeles
You get out of sports what you put into them. The more you invest your time, money and emotions into a team, the better your experience when they win, and the more it hurts when they lose.
As good as I'm feeling right now in my "BEAT LA" shirt, I bet it hurts something awful to be in purple and gold right now.
For two and a half quarters, not only were the Lakers back in the series and en route to evening it up, but they looked like what all the experts thought and all the LA fans hoped they would.
Then, when you realized at intervals along the way that Kobe still hadn't hit a shot and the lead kept building, you felt even better.
As a Celtic fan, the only solace was home court advantage, because the Lakers looked far superior with Lamar Odom finally awake and Kobe sharing the wealth, and the Celtics continued to find no offensive continuity to counter.
In the back of my mind, I was already conceding Game 5. All the bad road playoff vibes were fully alive, and then you figured that as soon as Kobe started scoring, it was going to get even worse on this night and throughout the remainder of the series.
But then one of the real truths of this season and this series came to life: the Celtics are truly a great team. They may not have any truly great players right now, no guys who are playing at the top of their games and can transcend and take over on their own for multiple nights.
However, they have enough good players, enough role players with incredible timing, and a strong commitment to team defense to stifle the high scoring Lakers.
Those factors make Boston incredibly enjoyable to watch, and a team that's earning its place among Celtic lore with their fans.
The 2004 NBA Finals were so much fun because not only did the hated Lakers take a beating, but the Pistons—my second most hated team, so this is saying a lot—were so much fun to watch.
That's because they were a team. They had five guys who did five things well, and had bench guys who stepped up in their roles too. They were also well-coached. Everyone got behind them, and no matter how good the Lakers looked on paper and how bright their stars, the better team won.
That was the only NBA Finals in my lifetime where a team with no true superstars won. You can go back to the Bird/Magic/Dr. J/Isiah teams of the '80s, or look at Jordan, or go to the big men runs from Olajuwon, Duncan and Shaq.
Every one of those other title teams were superstar-driven and got key performances from individual players (ESPN today ranked Dwyane Wade's work in 2006 as the greatest individual performance in NBA Finals history). It's one of the biggest reasons people like the Lakers this year.
And it's not that the Celtics don't have superstars, they do, especially Garnett - but they don't need these guys to turn in those defining, massive individual performances (even if they're capable at very select times, like Pierce vs. LeBron).
They just need to play together. As a team. As one. Ubuntu! You laugh...but it's true, and it works. Like a charm.
How did Boston come back from 24 down at one point, 18 down at the half and 20 down in the third quarter? Team defense. Not a lights-out performance from one guy on the other end, or a boatload of incredible plays (though there were a few), but simply a refocused effort on team defense.
When Lamar Odom stopped shooting layups and dunks, and the C's pulled it together, it was only a matter of time.
The ABC crew tonight said that Paul Pierce was putting together the best individual defensive job on Kobe Bryant they'd seen. While Pierce was key, including a huge block on Mamba at one point, it's the entire Boston unit that deserves credit.
Ray Allen—who played all 48 minutes—has also done very well on Bryant in this series, including tonight. Kobe's shots are highly contested shots, and when he does share the ball, the options are limited. Outside of Odom early, no one played the role of Sasha Vujacic tonight, and without that kind of help, it was only a matter of time.
Let's also note that P.J. Brown straight dunked on Kobe at the end of the third quarter. Respect your elders.
If you've followed Boston all year, you know that this isn't a team that gets blown out. They got beat by 10+ only three times all year. Despite their nine losses in these playoffs, only one in Cleveland was a blowout.
Rajon Rondo is banged up and ineffective with Kobe "guarding" him. Enter Eddie House. A true shooter, he hadn't played much and thus hadn't hit much so far in the Finals.
He missed a decent look at a game-tying shot in Game 3 with 2:00 to play that represented Boston's last best chance on Tuesday night. He's straight jackin' again tonight, but rattled home a couple threes, and hit the shot that finally gave Boston the lead.
Due to his nature, when he went up with the ball one four-letter word started out of my mouth, but left it with "YEAH!"
Paul Pierce gets the interviews and has 20 points on a solid night shooting and passing, and of course defensively. He spun in a highlight-reel layup. He's my boy and continues to be the face of the Celtics.
But here's a great question: if it was over tonight, is Ray Allen the Finals MVP?
He's been the most consistent Celtic on both ends of the floor throughout these four games, the only Celtic who played well in Game 3 and in the first half of this one. And down the stretch, he reminded you that he, too, can drive to the hole, and he, too, can still hit the reverse layup to go with his deadly three-point shooting.
He's looked and played five years younger against Detroit and LA than he did against Atlanta and Cleveland.
Let's especially mention that the game effectively ended with a simple equation: Ray Allen + Sasha Vujacic + no help = layup. Has there ever been worse defense on a game-deciding play in recent NBA Finals memory?
Let's not forget Kevin Garnett, with another solid double-double (16 and 11) and who finally started playing in the paint instead of shooting that 20-footer in the second half. He played his part by sticking one in Pau Gasol's face to put the Celtics up five.
He's thriving on this team, because again, it's not about one guy, which means Garnett doesn't have to be that one guy, because he's not built that way. But he can do what he does, make a difference, and still get the wins.
But the biggest star of the night has to be James Posey. He had 18 points in 25 minutes, four three-pointers. Two came in the fourth quarter, with one especially backbreaking one when the Lakers had trimmed the lead down to two again. Everyone contributes.
Even without Rondo—and have we even mentioned yet that Kendrick Perkins left the game with injury?—the Celtics have enough pieces together to get it done. All of them had a hand, with defense leading the way and Posey and Ray Ray putting the final thrust in the dagger.
The Lakers' wound is really both the result of Boston's team play and in part self-inflicted. None of them could answer the Celtic runs in the second half, none of them could rise above once Boston tied it up, and their defense all night and really all series just hasn't been on the championship level. In lots of ways, they're the anti-Boston. That's incredibly appropriate.
And this one hurts even more because it's in LA. All the celebrities in the world couldn't save them tonight, and in one and a half quarters the Lakers went from "we can win this whole thing" to that far off look into the distance, trying to figure out how it went wrong. Stuff like this isn't supposed to happen on your own floor in the NBA Finals against your hated rivals.
And now there's no more room for it to go wrong for the Lakers. And what's more, even if they do win on Sunday, they have to go back to Boston for Games 6 and 7. Hope is fleeting in LA right now.
Does this team have what it takes? They have Phil Jackson, but that didn't help them tonight, and even Phil - for all the work he's done with this team and the impressive way they ran through the playoffs up to this point - has been outcoached by Doc Rivers. Read it again, it might actually be true.
They've also got The Mamba, who I wager has had just about enough of trusting his teammates as they've been unable to deliver (outside of Vujacic on Tuesday). So on the brink of golf season, do you really think Kobe Bryant is going to be at his Laker teammate best on Sunday night?
There's part of me and every Celtic fan who wants to see this team win it in Boston, of course. We don't talk about stuff like that, but it's true. But here's the thing - I think this thing is over Sunday night. I think Kobe goes into me-mode and the Celtics will once more be equal to the task. And I think the Lakers self-destruct. The Lakers are young and have a great superstar, but they don't have trust right now and they don't play together, and now they're trying to figure out how they blew a 24 point lead with little optimism to build on going forward. The Celtics are a great basketball team on the verge of the first championship for the vast majority of the roster and the coaching staff, rewarding the faith and patience of their fans for the last two decades. This close to the promised land, I don't see these Lakers keeping these Celtics on the outside looking in.
One more to glory.
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