It sure wasn’t pretty, but championships are earned more through sweat and willpower than anything aesthetic. When everything was said and done, the Los Angeles Lakers emerged from the Boston Celtics’ defensive furnace as champions, grinding out an 83-79 victory in the decisive seventh game of the series.
How the Lakers won was a surprise, coming back from a 13-point second half deficit to silence many of the conventional criticisms heaped on the Lakers.
The Lakers won with defense. Despite their offensive firepower, and despite their penchant of losing focus far too often, the Lakers were exceptional defensively throughout the season, especially in Game Seven.
The Lakers continued their tactics of sagging off of Rajon Rondo and essentially playing five-on-four vs. the Celtics. This neutralized most of Boston’s screen/rolls, plus the various curls for Ray Allen. Even when Rondo didn’t have the ball, Kobe Bryant simply sagged into passing lanes, disrupting Boston’s offensive rhythm.
When the Celtics did gain an edge, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Kobe Bryant provided outstanding help defense plugging up the paint, and doing so without committing fouls.
And in the second half, Boston’s go-to play was a simple wing isolation for Paul Pierce. Ron Artest dominated that matchup, forcing Pierce into shooting 1-7 with an assist, and three turnovers in the second half, with the made shot being a three-pointer on a broken play.
The Lakers suffocated the Celtics on defense, which gave them time until their offense could come around.
The Lakers did not play soft. Not only did the Lakers play alert, physical defense, but they demolished the Celtics on the glass, grabbing a monstrous 23 (23!) offensive rebounds. With their tsunami of second shot attempts, the Lakers were able to hang close until the end.
The Lakers won despite a nightmarish game from Kobe Bryant. Throughout the duration of the Finals, Boston concentrated its entire defense on preventing Kobe Bryant from getting to the rim. Kobe isolations were overplayed to one side of the court where a big defender was waiting. Guards would pinch off the wings, and screens/rolls would feature the big defender showing out on Bryant.
The Lakers helped defeat that strategy in Game Four by having Kobe work off the ball to create open space and in Game Six by having Kobe get into his moves quickly before the Celtics could load their help.
However, in Game Seven, Kobe spent too much time dribbling the ball and not engaging his offensive moves quickly. As a result, Boston’s alert and coordinated defense forced Kobe into all manners of horrible looks.
With Bryant’s overdribbling forcing him into terrible shots, he finished a horrendous 6-24 from the floor with two assists and four turnovers and was a non-factor until the Celtics made mistakes down the stretch.
Indeed, the offensive heroes for the Lakers were Gasol, Odom, Fisher, and Artest. Never again should the Lakers supporting cast be questioned as unworthy of a championship.
Still, truly great players find ways to win games. Bryant got to the line nine times in the final quarter, making eight free throws. He grabbed 15 rebounds, including 11 on the defensive end. And his help defense was terrific the entire game.
Ron Artest was the hero. The Celtics turned their help defense towards helping off of Artest. While he struggled from downtown—1-6 until late in the game—he was a powerful cutter who was active on the offensive glass and the boards. On one possession, he flat out wrestled the ball away from Glen Davis.
Defensively, he effectively neutered Pierce and was a terror in the passing lanes, collecting five steals.
And with a minute to go and the Lakers up three, he sank a gigantic three-pointer from the right wing that made him the toast of Hollywood.
Lamar Odom was the X-factor. His help defense was exceptional, he swallowed up Glen Davis on iso situations in the second half, and he was active around the rim. The Lakers didn’t miss a beat when Andrew Bynum went to the bench, while Glen Davis was a defensive liability the second half.
Derek Fisher was not washed up. While his defense was subpar, he hit big shots time and again, including the tying three early in the fourth. While Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar contributed little, Fisher was the best offensive point guard for the Lakers.
The players responded to Phil Jackson. While Doc Rivers gets an A+ for rhetoric, his cries for unselfishness and ball movement fell on deaf ears for the final two games of the series. Meanwhile, the Lakers were able to keep their composure despite a miserable offensive first three quarters. Jackson instills in his players a grace under pressure, which allows them to play well with their backs against the wall. He doesn’t need to use rhetoric to fire his team up.
The Lakers’ regular season wasn’t meaningless. No doubt the team was better equipped to maintain its composure at home, as opposed to in Boston, where they may have wilted up and thrown in the towel. By having a stronger regular season than Boston, they were assured of playing in a friendly arena with the season on the line.
As for the Celtics, their second half can only be described as a choke job. Ray Allen continued his nightmare of a series—3-14 FG, 2-7 3FG. Aside from the first two games, Allen failed when his team has needed him to step up.
Paul Pierce stubbornly tried to isolate Ron Artest on the elbow, a losing battle. Despite Rivers’ pleas for movement, Pierce took it upon himself to pound away and attack Artest one-on-one, pounding away the Celtics’ chances of winning in the process.
Rajon Rondo’s inability to shoot crippled Boston’s offensive schemes. Once again, Rondo also elected to play slow basketball as opposed to attacking before the Lakers length could set up.
Rasheed Wallace had one of the best games of his postseason career, posting up on the left mid-post and banking in jumper after jumper. In fact, Wallace may have posted up more times in Game Seven than in his entire post-2004 playoff career.
Kevin Garnett had an efficient game, but he didn’t do anything in the final quarter offensively except lay in cookies. With KG’s ability to score in the post and pass over double teams, Boston needed to run the offense through him instead of Pierce, but KG’s always been timid under the spotlight.
However, Wallace and Kevin Garnett are essentially jump shooters in the post and weren’t able to earn any trips to the line, mustering one free throw attempt between them. Also, the duo was destroyed on the boards. Their total of 11 rebounds was seven short of Pau Gasol’s total.
Kevin Garnett only grabbed a pathetic three rebounds. I guess anything is possible.
Where else did the Celtics choke? The entire regular season.
Boston hadn’t learned over the regular season how to put away teams, a scenario that bit them in the playoffs. The Celtics were known as a team that would blow fourth quarter leads on the way to a mediocre second half of the season, an illness that was never entirely cured, as evidenced by Game Seven.
And by taking the regular season for granted, the Celtics forfeited any semblance of having a Game Seven on their home court.
So the Celtics can now stew over how they choked away a championship.
While the Lakers can take pride in their heart, guts, and grace garnering NBA glory.