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June 7, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Raining threes

by Bradford Doolittle

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Boston 103, at L.A. Lakers 94 (Series tied 1-1)

Pace: 95.5 possessions

Offensive Ratings: Celtics 107.3, Lakers 98.9

What an incredibly tough basketball team. The Celtics rebounded from a rough outing in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, beating the Lakers 103-94 behind their trademark defense and a record-setting performance from Ray Allen. The series is now even at one game apiece and Boston is in position to win its 18th championship if it can hold serve in the next three games, all on the Celtics’ home floor.

Allen scored 27 of his game-high 32 points in the first half, during which he tied the Finals record for three-pointers in a game by going 7-of-8 from behind the arc. The Lakers tried again to clog up the middle of the lane and overplay to the strong side of the court on defense, a strategy which held down the Boston offense in Game 1 because no one--including Allen--emerged as an outside threat. On Sunday, the Lakers had no answer for Allen once he heated up. Not even Kobe Bryant could contain Allen, who showed why he's an overlooked member of the impending free-agent class. His fifth trey came when Shannon Brown got caught out of position helping on defense--evidence of how slow the Lakers were to adjust to Allen's on-slaught--and pushed Boston's lead to a game-high 14 points.

The Lakers stayed within hailing distance, largely due to Boston's foul trouble. Kevin Garnett played only six minutes in the first half because of three fouls, while fellow bigs Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace all picked up three fouls apiece. The Lakers went 19-of-25 from the line in the half and when the Lakers finised the second quarter with a floursh, L.A. trailed by just six points despite shooting 36 percent from the field and hitting only one three-pointer. Bryant capped the late surge with a steal and a three, which seemed to be an evil portent for Boston's second half. Overall, Boston was Boston 9-of-28 on two-point shots but 8-of-11 on threes; L.A. was 13-of-30 and 1-of-9 before the half. Encouraging was the fact that the Celtics had outrebounded the Lakers after getting pummeled on the glass in Game 1, though the Lakers still held a 6-0 lead on second chance points.

Garnett's second foul was disappointing for a couple of obvious reasons. First, it was fairly evident that Doc Rivers' early priority was to get K.G. involved on the offensive end, not only to make Gasol work on that end of the floor, but also (hopefully) to get the emotional Garnett off to an active, energetic start. Instead, he found himself on the bench, with a prime seat for watching Allen's heroics. Second, the foul itself was just silly--Garnett was caught wrestling for position on the blocks with Gasol before the Lakers had even moved the ball past halfcourt.

Garnett's slippage has become a key issue in this series, but that he's not the player he was in the 2008 Finals should come as no surprise to anybody. From a statistical standpoint, all of Garnett's athleticism-based categories have sagged ever since he injured his knee during the first half of last season. Most people that watch the game on a regular basis recognize that even this aged, diminished version of Kevin Garnett is still a highly productive, valuable member of the Celtics' squad. However, when I watched Game 1 at a Celtics watch party at a bar called the Hidden Shamrock in Chicago, it was apparent to me that the rank-and-file Boston hoops fan sees Garnett as being unfocused, uninterested or some other negative intangible rather than being what he is: a lesser version of his former self. "Gah-nett," as they called him, is working as hard as ever; he just doesn't have the same tools. He finished with six points on five shots and four rebounds in 23:43 on the floor on Sunday and also did little to slow down Gasol, who had 25 points on just 10 shots, adding eight boards, three assists and six of the Lakers' 14 blocked shots. More than a quarter of Boston's missed from the floor were blocks by the Lakers.

The biggest difference between this series and the one two years ago, as best I can tell, is the flip-flop in the Garnett-Gasol matchup. However, as Kevin pointed out in his Game 1 recap, Bynum is on hand to help out on the interior after missing the 2008 matchup, and that makes it that much more difficult for the Celtics to help Garnett when Gasol catches the ball in the post. Bynum looked nothing like a guy struggling with a knee problem on Sunday, scoring 21 points and blocking seven shots. He and Gasol combined for six offensive boards and 25 free-throw attempts.

(An aside: Did everyone get an earful of Jeff Van Gundy's celebration of the Four Factors towards the end of the first quarter? They should have halted the game temporarily and let JVG give a short lecture. Great stuff from an excellent broadcaster and coach.)

The Lakers' ball movement has been consistent and relentless so far in the series. Why settle for one entry pass when two will get you a dunk at the rim? That's happened time and again in the two games at the Staples Center--a Laker who is already in solid scoring position suddenly spies a long-armed big man rolling right to the cup. After a nice bit of interior passing, down goes the flush. L.A. has done a superb job of moving without the ball on the weakside of the court, taking advantage of Boston defense when it rotates to an entry pass on the strong side of the court. The Celtics never solved this on Sunday, but they did a much better job of closing down L.A.'s permeter players. The Lakers were 5-of-22 on threes; Bryant, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest were a combined 11-of-38 from the field. Fisher and Artest by themselves were 3-of-18.

In Game 1, I thought the Celtics really perked up when Rasheed Wallace was on the floor, to the extent that I was advocating more minutes for the veteran, though his du jour game may be a bit up and down. He played well again on Monday, with seven points and seven boards in 18 minutes. He's been much more effective than Garnett in the series, to be frank. In Game 2, the Celtics were +15 with Wallace on the floor; with K.G. out there, Boston outscored the Lakers by only one point. Van Gundy pointed out that it was far from a no-brainer that Garnett would be with the unit finishing the game for Boston. He was, but if he can't be more productive than he was in the two games at the Staples Center, Rivers may have no choice but to sit him down the stretch in Boston.

Phil Jackson finally communicated to his squad that it wasn't a good idea to leave Allen open when he's in rhythm and the sharpshooter’s looks mostly dried up in the second half. However, that opened up the floor for Rajon Rondo, who had a fantastic game and kept the Lakers at bay even though L.A. actually led for much of the second half. Boston's transition game made a huge difference in the game, as the Celtics were able to get clean, early looks throughout the contest. When the Lakers were sucessful, they were able to keep Boston in a halfcourt game. The official NBA tally was an 11-4 edge on fastbreak points for the Celtics. According to Synergy, the Celtics averaged 1.5 points on 16 plays in the transition game.

Bryant was called for five fouls in the contest in 34:18, which probably cost him a good six or seven minutes of court time. He also committed seven turnovers and shot just three free throws, while going 8-of-20 from the field. The game was tied entering the fourth quarter but instead of Bryant taking over, it was Rondo, who was all over the floor. Rondo had 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the game. In the second half, he had 13 points and six boards, four of them on the offensive end. He scored 10 of his points in the final period. Boston also got sparks in the final quarter from Davis, who was working hard despite looking like a little kid at times against all the tall timber in the Lakers’ frontline, and Nate Robinson, who scored seven points in six minutes. Rivers has shown a knack of knowing just when to insert Robinson and how long to leave him on the floor.

It really was a great game. L.A. led 90-87 after Bryant hit a fadeaway jumper with 5:21 to play and looked like a guy ready to take over the contest. Instead, Boston held the Lakers without a point for the next 4:28, turning the three-point deficit into a 98-90 lead. By the time Bryant broke the spell with a three-point bomb in the final minute, it was really too late. The Celtics hit 8-of-8 from the line down the stretch to seal it.

So just like that, and thanks to the 2-3-2 format of the Finals, the Celtics have seized homecourt advantage and can take the title without having to make another cross-country flight. After getting outscored 32-21 by Allen, his shooting guard counterpart, Bryant will be primed for a big performance in Game 3. The Celtics, meanwhile, will try to figure out a way to get Garnett more involved. He's been outscored 48-22 by Gasol so far in the series and allowed the big Spaniard to go 15-of-24 from the field. (No, Garnett hasn't been in there for all those points, but he's still the guy assigned to keep an lid on Gasol.) Also, you might notice that Paul Pierce's name hasn't been mentioned in this recap and indeed he wasn't a factor in Game 2; he and Artest largely nullified each other. Pierce will probably be more aggressive before the home fans, so the Lakers will need a sterling defensive effort to keep the Celtics from gathering even more momentum in Tuesday's Game 3.

Data from My Synergy Sports was used to compile this report..

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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