It wasn't that long ago (2 weeks to be exact) when the Lakers were talking about how special of an opportunity to show the Boston Celtics how far they've come since the 2008 NBA Finals. Well, they did. But for one game. After beating the Celtics to a resounding 102-89 win in Game 1, the Lakers never made that one important adjustment that Boston unquestionably raised since Game 2.
At this point of the season and at this stage of the Finals, all the Xs and Os in the world mean nothing if the Lakers don't come out on Tuesday wanting to punish the Celtics with more heart and more grit than ever before. In fact, this is what the Finals has become. A battle of wills. So far, the Celtics are winning.
But as good as Boston played the past 2 games, they have proven that they are at their weakest in the second half because they too aren't immune to losing their focus and their intensity. If the Lakers didn't lose theirs in Game 4 when they were leading for much of the second half, we would all be talking about something else right now.
Game 5 was also there for the taking even after Boston shot 56% for the game and 66% in the first half because their bench didn't give the same effort they did in the second half of Game 4. But as we all saw, the Lakers just can't seem to go above and beyond to take advantage of even the smallest opportunities the Celtics have been giving them in 4 of the last 5 games.
Paul Pierce finally had the breakout game everyone was waiting for after being in the shadows of Ron Artest's defense. That will never happen again. Rajon Rondo may have had his second best scoring night (18 points), but he's never come close to duplicating his triple-double performance in Game 2 that Boston absolutely needed on top of Ray Allen's historic night to beat the Lakers. Kevin Garnett has shown that he plays better at home than on the road, but he's never scored more than 19 points since putting up 25 points in Game 3. A game they lost.
As for Allen? He's never been much of factor since Game 2 where he scored 32 points on 8 three-pointers. Since then, he's scored a total of 38 points on 28.5% shooting, including 0-16 from behind the arc the last 3 games. To be honest, they're going to need Allen to shoot significantly better for them to have any hope of beating the Lakers at Staples Center. And as for their bench? They are about as inconsistent as the Laker bench, but they certainly play with more determination when called upon. More times than not. That gets the job the done.
The Celtics are 1-7 on closeout games on the road the past 3 years. In the Eastern Finals this season, they failed to eliminate Orlando twice by losing at home then the following game on the road. In fact, they lost to the Magic last season after leading 3-2 in the Eastern Semis. History seems to have a knack of thwarting things for Boston, and I have a feeling it isn't quite done yet.
But for the Lakers to do what a lot of people are now thinking they can't, they also have to approach these last 2 games with a different mindset. They have to forget about the last 2 games and just concentrate on Tuesday and Thursday one game at a time. One thing about any 7-game series is the team that always bring the same look on offense and on defense will always find it difficult to win games.
Let's face it. The Celtics have been able to zone in on Kobe Bryant because the rest of his teammates would rather watch him than stand with him. Their offense in Game 1 had a different dimension that Boston couldn't solve. The pick-and-roll with Kobe and Pau Gasol was a devastating weapon on offense because you have 2 of the Lakers' best players together on one play which puts a tremendous pressure on the Celtic defense to stop each time. Let's not forget that the Celtic bigs don't like moving around too much on defense because they lack the mobility and length to bother either Bryant or Gasol on that play.
But for reasons only Phil Jackson knows, the Lakers have abandoned it.
The Lakers seem to be amored with moving the ball on offense. Against the Celtic defense, that strategy is sound until the Lakers are down big. Then, the offense become stagnant because quite frankly the Laker offense is at its best when the ball is in the hands of Kobe. The Triangle may be a genuine system, but it isn't always effective as it is against any team. So it certainly wouldn't be such a bad idea to tweak it a little.
If the Lakers are hoping for any player outside Kobe and Pau to be more productive on offense, then they have to get them as many open looks as possible. But, that can only happen if the defense leaves them. So, who better to distract them other than the Lakers' most dangerous scorers working together? When you think about it the possibilities on offense are endless!
Despite their "milk-carton" (as Bryant pointed out after Game 5) defense in Game 4 and 5, the Lakers have done an incredible job on Allen. Kudos to Derek Fisher for that. In fact, Allen should be the only Celtic the Lakers shouldn't allow to shoot and live with what they get with the rest. Boston has done all they could to try to get Allen the look he needs without sacrificing Pierce and Garnett on offense. That means that the Celtics will still try to run pick-and-rolls with Pierce and get KG the ball in the post.
I like how the Lakers switch on the P&Rs with Pierce because that forces him to shoot the jumper instead of driving it in for a possible and-one. The problem there is what to do when they get the ball to Garnett against Artest on the post. Well whoever ends up with Pierce must not be too concerned with protecting the basket or getting beat off of the dribble but rather invite him to shoot a contested jumper without opening up a lane to the hoop. This is where all the hustle and precise rotation on defense come into play. Everyone but the one defending Allen must be ready to help and recover under control because Pierce is confident in his free-throws, so he'll try to take it inside or take the jumper before he forces a pass to a teammate.
As for KG, Kobe and Ron should double him early and make him get rid of the ball. If they do this often enough, it will frustrate KG into forcing difficult shots over Pau or Lamar. But that depends entirely if they allow the Celtics to cut to the basket openly. Otherwise, Garnett will keep looking for his guys to make a B-line to the rim to get them the ball. This is also where Pau needs to be a little more creative on defense.
KG is now bodying up Pau to set him up for either his fall-away jumper, up-and-over move or drive to the basket when the coast is clear inside. Gasol should mix it up by forcing him to spin away from his shooting hand and backing away on another possession to entice him to face up and shoot a jumper early in the shot clock. Pau is still the more mobile of the two and KG knows it. That's why he has no other weapon against him besides bodying him up to give him the necessary separation for his attack. But the most important thing for Pau to remember is to challenge everything Garnett puts up without fouling. That means he cannot go for the pump fakes KG does from time to time.
It also wouldn't be such a bad idea to put Andrew Bynum on Garnett at times just to throw a different defender at him. With Andrew on him, KG is forced to take either tough fall-away jumpers or drive around the bigger body of Bynum. But with his bum knee, it isn't quite so easy against Andrew.
Playing at home for the rest of the Finals, Lamar Odom has run out of excuses. If he ever wants to win the trust of his teammates back, he has to have one heck of a Game 6 followed by another solid Game 7. He has to continue to look to attack whoever is guarding him and help defend the paint by becoming that second defender off of post-plays and anything that gets near the rim. He must always look to rebound and push the ball ahead for an instant fast-break. With his speed and ball-handling skills, none of the Celtic bigs will be able to bother him. That would then force the Celtic guards to go to him leaving the wing players open to go directly to the rim. But above all, he has to be willing to get down and dirty in the trench to help the team win.
Artest is also on the same boat as Lamar. He can't stay too complacent by just making Pierce his agenda. He has to help on the boards, go after loose balls, and be an aggressive help defender. Instead of looking to make his contributions on offense with three-pointers, why can't he just post-up or drive the ball right in Pierce's face. He should know better than anybody that there's no way Pierce can stop him from scoring without fouling. But by attacking Paul in that manner, he is also putting an additional pressure on the Celtic D of helping out without freeing up either Bynum or Gasol under the basket and Bryant around the perimeter.
With all his warrior-like mettle, Fisher must still look to do more on the court and on the sideline. He has to get this team ready and focused each quarter and each timeout. He has to look for his shots more and must absolutely need to hit those wide-open shots. Other than Kobe, the Celtics know that Fish is the next player to go on a shooting bonanza on any given game. Need I remind what happened the last time Fish had that kind of game?
But with all the possible strategy and personal attitude adjustments necessary to win these last 2 games, this series is still dictated by what goes on in the paint. The team that scored more inside and rebounded more has won every single game except in Game 3 when the Lakers won but surrendered 50 points in the paint to their 38. So these are the areas the Lakers must keep an eye on the entire game on Tuesday and on Thursday.
This is it Laker fans. Training camp, pre-season games, regular season games, and the last 3 playoff series have all come to this one game to preserve their promising repeat season. It can't end on our floor without our beloved Lakers soaked in champagne and taking turns holding the Larry O'Brien. The Celtics put together their best games of the series to win the last two. Now, it's up to the Lakers to do the same and return the favor.
Can they do it? Absolutely! Champions should never be counted out, but especially in their home turf.
But they have to be a totally different team that's dedicated to win these next 2 games or as Kobe put it: "Just man up and play." And that's exactly what they have to do. They have to band together and play for one another for their championship. They have to rise above it all and take matters into their hands because whatever they do or don't do on Tuesday will matter.