Paul Pierce screamed, “We ain’t coming back to L.A.”
Rajon Rondo danced his way to a triple-double.
Ray Allen set an NBA Finals record from distance.
Heading back to Boston in a scenario that most Los Angeles faithful dread, the Lakers went from being a favorite to secure a 16th NBA title to being in dire need of a road win. The C’s decisive 103-94 victory at Staples Center Sunday pushed the Lakers into a corner, making Game Three a must win.
Sounds a lot like 2008, right?
Boston spent the majority of the interim between Games One and Two hearing the media dismantle the team for its age, lack of speed, and passive play. Now it’s the Lakers' turn, as they were the ones looking slow, non-aggressive, and inactive on their home court.
In order for the Lakers to reclaim home court advantage in the NBA Finals, there are four areas head coach Phil Jackson needs to emphasize in practice if they want to make Pierce a liar.
Problem No. 1 – Keeping a Body On Ray Allen
Obviously, Game Two displayed this in full force, as Allen lit up the Lakers for 32 points on 8-of-11 shooting from three-point range. But the main reason for all of his points was the distance between him and defender.
Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and many other Lakers defenders tried to shoot the gap and go for the steal on nearly every play, which gave Allen all the separation he needed. He already has one of the quickest releases in the game, so without a hand in his face, Allen can make Game Three another exhibition in long distance shooting.
Allowing Allen, the NBA Finals’ all-time best three-point shooter, at over 50 percent, to be wide open and see the ball go through time after time is a recipe for disaster.
That’s a guarantee.
This problem can be strategically fixed. First, the Lakers have to get to Allen’s body. No cheating, no roaming. Just play one-on-one, no matter who guards him. Stay with him through the screens, and rotate quickly to stop Allen from getting in rhythm.
I’m sure Phil Jackson would agree that any shot not taken by Ray Allen is a step up.
The second solution is to go at him on offense. In Game One, Allen played 17 less minutes than in Game Two due to foul trouble. If the Lakers can drive at him and make him reach or block, they can get him off his rhythm with long trips to the bench.
Allen will get his numbers, but the key is to keep him from catching fire.
Problem No. 2 – Finishing Strong
When LeBron James fizzled out in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, many people jumped back onto the “Kobe Bryant is the best closer in the game” train.
That train was not in the station Sunday, as he and the Lakers closed abysmally.
With 5:20 left in the game, Bryant hit a jumper to give the purple and gold a 90-87 edge. From that point on, the Lakers turned the ball over three times, committed eight fouls and missed eight shots.
That kind of production, or lack thereof, not only allowed Boston to finish on a 16-4 run, but also lowered the pressure on their defense in the waning minutes.
Not a good idea.
This offensive self-destruction can be traced directly to the Lakers not exploiting their biggest strength: interior size. In Sunday’s fourth quarter, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom had four total shot attempts, only two of which were within 15 feet. In their victory in Game One, they had double the attempts, and seven were inside that range.
As the cliché goes, know where your bread is buttered. While Bynum and Gasol had stellar Game Twos, they barely had any touches when the Lakers needed a hoop. The two giants, who went a combined 20-of-25 from the free throw-line, only attempted two in the fourth.
And those were Pau’s when the game was already out of hand.
The solution is simple: Get the bigs the ball often.
The Celtics were in foul trouble the entire period, yet Los Angeles didn’t step on the gas to get them out of the game. Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, and Glen Davis had critical plays down the stretch that would have never happened if the Lakers had taken advantage of the tightly whistled game.
Problem No. 3 – Working with the Referees
Games One and Two had some questionable calls, and fans from both sides started blaming the referees for their respective losses. But the refs have set the tone for the Finals, and now the teams must adjust.
The series is going to have a lot of whistles, but that is no excuse for poor play from either team.
First, let’s dispel the rumor that one team is getting a radically better end of the stick. The Celtics have committed 57 fouls to the Lakers’ 55 and the Lakers have shot only 10 more free throws.
Yes, some of these might be hometown calls, but there is no evidence to fault the referees for an unfair game. Good execution beats out bad calls every day of the week, and if the players let the refs get to them, they can become frustrated and make poor decisions.
See Rasheed Wallace in Game One and Ron Artest in Game Two.
So how do the Lakers use that to their advantage?
Learn how and when to flop. Don’t go for unnecessary steals and reaches, but instead play your man and get in his body. Make sure you know where to go with the ball on offense, and don’t leave your feet to pass or fall for pump fakes.
Basically, the fundamentals. Make coach John Wooden proud.
Problem No. 4 – Control the crowd
Everyone knows the TD Garden can get rowdy when the C’s are firing at all cylinders.
If the Lakers let Ray Allen shoot like he did in Game Two, it’s going to be ear shattering.
While there is no way to limit every Boston run, the Lakers need to squash these streaks as quickly as possible to keep the crowd at bay. It may be easier said than done, but the Lakers have all the tools to do it.
It starts with Phil Jackson. He’s known for his conservative use of timeouts and tendency to let his players put out the fire.
His policies may have to bend a little.
If Allen, Pierce, or anyone else hits two big threes in a row, there has to be a break in the action to quiet the crowd. Role players get a significant boost when their home fans are going berserk, and since the Lakers have enough problems on their hands dealing with the Big Four, they can’t afford people like Tony Allen or Rasheed Wallace to light it up as well.
Jackson might be right that his guys can stop the bleeding, but he needs to make sure it isn’t too late.
Then the onus falls on the players. The defense needs to step up and contain big, momentum swinging shots. Get Ray Allen to pass up the three, and give up a 15-footer to someone else. Hold Garnett to the ground so he can’t throw down a jam.
The same goes for the offense. Rondo can’t swat Fisher in the closing minutes. Kobe can’t get called for a charge with Glen Davis sliding in front of him. Artest can’t get a technical foul for jawing at the refs.
Dunks, threes, blocks, and offensive fouls are the top momentum changers in the NBA. If you exchange those for short jumpers, free throws, and better offensive possessions, the crowd has less to cheer for.
Obviously, there are other areas where the Lakers need to step up in order to swipe at least one game in Boston. Their hustle, offensive rebounds, and bench play, which were originally pegged as key to the series, all starkly declined between Games One and Two.
But those just come down to execution on the floor and the Lakers giving it their all. Effort isn’t an area that Jackson can teach to his crew. It simply comes down to their leaders, Bryant and Gasol, setting the pace early and often.
Stealing a game in Boston will not be a cakewalk, and Game Three is an absolute must win for the Lakers. History shows that the team who wins Game Three in the NBA Finals wins the series a vast majority of the time.
However, a single victory at the Garden restores home-court advantage for the Lakers. And since only two teams has ever won all three middle games since the switch to a 2-3-2 format in the Finals (the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat), the Lakers have reasons to be optimistic about their title hopes.
That being said, there’s still a lot of work left to do starting Tuesday, and addressing the problems above will increase the Lakers’ chances of defending the title.