For the first time since last year's Lakers-Rockets series, the Lakers came into Game Six of the NBA Finals facing elimination.
The previous game saw the Celtics dominate the Lakers in every area but the relatively close six-point final score differential, but behind the cerebral play of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers paused the Celtics' hopes of raising an 18th championship banner and forced a decisive Game Seven.
The following are the biggest changes the Lakers either forced or benefited from to force the NBA's first NBA Finals Game Seven in half a decade.
Think this is a negative? Think again.
All is forgiven when Fisher’s hitting a clutch three-point shot or when he’s scoring an incredible layup over three Celtics defenders, but people seem to forget that Fisher's highlight, career-defining moments come with hefty price tags.
Sometimes those prices are more than what the Lakers can afford.
Fisher may be an excellent locker room presence, an upstanding role model, and a physical player, but he’s as likely to turn the ball over as he is to make an assist, as likely to throw up enough bricks to produce a chimney as he is to find a good shot, and his defense remains more inept than Windows Firewall.
With Fisher picking up two quick fouls in the first quarter, he was forced into a role he’s more suited for, that of a bench player—and his absence created more shots for Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, and Pau Gasol.
Ask yourself: If you’re the Lakers, what would you rather have, more shots for Bryant, Gasol, and Artest, all of whom have been franchise players, or more for Fisher, easily one of the most inconsistent point guards to ever make it to the NBA Finals?
Until yesterday, the ongoing theme of the Finals had been the Lakers’ lackluster game plan in the first quarter.
Kobe would take anywhere from four to six shots, remain passive throughout most of the first half, and when the Celtics made their eventual runs later in the game, the Lakers would turn to Kobe, but he would be completely out of rhythm.
By the time Kobe finally established any rhythm, it would take too many shots to get there and his teammates would be reduced to spectators.
Not this time.
Kobe took eight shots in the first quarter of yesterday’s game, scoring 11 points in that span, and finally opened things up for the Lakers as a whole.
With Kobe’s rhythm firmly established, the Lakers were able to spread the ball around masterfully as the game went on. They allocated 14 shots to Pau Gasol, 11 shots to Ron Artest, and nine to Lamar Odom, combining for 34 shots, as opposed to the 27 shots the three combined for in their Game Five loss.
Kobe has proven to be a much, much better decision-maker when he’s satisfied with his own scoring output, and for better or worse, Kobe’s decision making has determined the Lakers' fate for years, and that hasn't changed.
Of all the numerous advantages the Lakers have over most NBA teams—length, size, talent, and coaching—nobody really thinks of the Lakers’ home-court crowd, and why should they?
Los Angeles is home to movie stars, trophy wives, and fans who have been spoiled with seven Finals appearances in the last 10 years.
By comparison, the team most closely mirroring Lakers success in that span is the San Antonio Spurs with four Finals appearances. From there, the next teams in line are Detroit, Boston, and New Jersey, each with two Finals appearances.
Lakers fans have become so accustomed to success and been so spoiled by it they’re hardly any louder than your average frat party—even in playoff games.
Well, the movie stars got an earful yesterday.
Every play in the Lakers' favor was met with raucous approval. The crowd finally started to relax only after the Lakers built their lead to an insurmountable 27 points in the third quarter.
The Lakers bench seemed to thrive off the home-court environment the most, outscoring the Celtic bench to an unprecedented 24-0 rout.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the crowd at Staples won’t be any less rowdy during the first Finals Game Seven in the 11-year-old building’s already grand history.
Though the Lakers' 17 total assists in Game Six wasn’t groundbreaking, it didn’t have to be. It was a much better performance than the putrid 12 total assists the team saw in Game Five.
Even though the stat sheet only showed a five-assist differential between the games, there’s no question that the Lakers were much better at spreading the ball. Not only were the Lakers able to involve their bench, but they were finally able to get Pau Gasol going.
The large number of touches Pau Gasol received enabled him to both score and be an offensive catalyst.
Gasol's precision passing in the game, which resulted in his postseason-high nine assists, forced the Celtics to abandon their double-teaming defensive schemes as Gasol took advantage of Kevin Garnett’s single coverage all night long.
Coming into Game Six, the Lakers hadn’t faced an elimination game in over a year.
Maybe they had forgotten what it felt like. Maybe they just needed the push.
Maybe they had forgotten they actually were capable of losing. If you were watching Game Five, you know that anyone would be hard pressed to argue that conclusion.
In Game Five, the Lakers looked like a team of sub-par role players incapable of doing anything but watching their leader go to work. They looked like...the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Glad that’s over.
The Lakers weren’t able to bounce back with a dominant performance because they did any singular thing particularly well. They shot only 41 percent from the floor, scored only 89 points, and the 17 assists they posted were three under their postseason average.
Sure, the Celtics shot only 33 percent, but they also missed a ton of easy looks at the basket. Yes, the Lakers beat out the Celtics by a 13-rebound margin, but many of those rebounds weren’t grabbed cleanly.
So, what exactly was the biggest difference for the Lakers?
They fought tooth-and-nail for virtually every rebound they collected, they were an inch quicker than the Celtics to various loose balls, they got into the Celtics’ heads with their physical play, and they fed off Kobe Bryant’s excellent decision making and the suddenly bloodthirsty crowd at Staples.
The Lakers fought like their legacies depended on the series’ outcome, and, well, they did and still do.
Going into Game Seven, all of the aforementioned themes (including the harsh but truthful No. 1) will determine whether the Lakers claim a second consecutive NBA Championship title or whether the Celtics deface the Staples Center by claiming the NBA title on the Lakers’ centerpiece logo.