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June 9, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Lakers Win with Defense

by Kevin Pelton

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L.A. Lakers 91, at Boston 84 (L.A. Lakers lead series 2-1)
Pace: 81.7
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 112.1, Boston 102.3

On Sunday, I happened across a documentary on NBA TV going behind the scenes during the Los Angeles Lakers' regular season. At one point, when Kobe Bryant missed the regular-season matchup between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics at the Staples Center, cameras captured him and former teammate Rick Fox watching the game in the training room. Fox asked Bryant (and I'm paraphrasing), "Will you guys have to play a different style to repeat?" Bryant answered with the usual platitudes about having to work harder the second time around, which disappointed me because I was hoping he would reference the team's shift to relying more on its defense.

That defensive bias has largely disappeared during the postseason, but it was on full display during Tuesday's Game Three win at the TD Garden. I'm confident the 2008 Lakers would not have won a grind-it-out half-court affair like Tuesday's, and I'm not entirely sure last year's team would have done so either. On a night where the Lakers went long stretches without scoring, it was their interior defense and control of the glass that carried them to a 91-84 victory.

Granted, the final Offensive Ratings were similar to what the teams posted in Game One, and the low point totals can largely be attributed to an extraordinarily slow pace. But I think the shooting numbers paint a more accurate picture of the game. Boston shot just 43.8 percent from the field and 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Celtics were as efficient as they were on offense--and they still barely scored a point per possession--largely because they took atypically good care of the basketball, committing 10 turnovers in the game and just four in the first three quarters (hat tip to NBA.com's John Schuhmann for that tidbit).

Boston only had one reliable option on offense, however, that being Kevin Garnett. Rising from the ashes of his poor performance in the two games in Los Angeles, Garnett sought to use his quickness against Pau Gasol by facing up and driving. The result was an effort that reminded that even if he is no longer what he was even two years ago, Garnett can still be very good--25 points on 11-of-16 shooting.

Paul Pierce wasn't in the game until the final quarter, and it's hard to entirely blame that on foul trouble when Pierce missed all five of his first-quarter attempts before leaving with his second personal. Rajon Rondo's stat line wasn't at all bad (11 points on 5-of-10 shooting, eight assists and no turnovers), but he was rarely impactful on the game.

And then there's Ray Allen, who followed his red-hot Game Two with a nightmarish Game Three. Allen missed all 13 shots he attempted, including eight tries beyond the three-point line. Derek Fisher did a better job of following Allen around screens (drawing a couple of offensive fouls in the process, one on a screen and one from Allen trying to get free), but Allen had looks--including his last miss with 54 seconds left to play and the Celtics trailing by four. Even without resorting to the gambler's fallacy, we can imagine the last two games as some sort of cosmic reminder of the vagaries of small sample sizes.

So if Boston had such a hard time scoring, then how was this a two-possession game in the final minute? Good question. It certainly seemed like the Lakers were on the verge of pulling away early in the third quarter. That they did not can partially be attributed to the game's leading scorer. Yes, Kobe Bryant scored 29 points, but it took him 29 attempts from the field and eight free throw tries to get there. Bryant missed 19 shots, and his shot selection was questionable much of the night.

Bryant seemed to expect the difficult long jumpers he hit in the Western Conference Finals to keep going down, but those were always low-percentage shots and Tuesday demonstrated why. In the fourth quarter, it didn't appear to be overconfidence so much as the Lakers' sputtering offense that led to those tough shots. Unable to get the ball inside and regularly playing against the shot clock, the Lakers were forced into long desperation jumpers.

The turning point came when Phil Jackson started calling one-two pick-and-rolls involving Fisher and Bryant. The Celtics' reluctance to switch these plays, with either guard handling the ball, allowed the Lakers to get better shot attempts. Granted, Fisher runners aren't exactly ideal attempts for the Lakers, but he made several enormous shots in the fourth quarter, including a pair of improbable forays to the basket, the biggest his one-on-three score in the early offense after Allen's miss that turned into a three-point play.

The Lakers also got a bounceback game from Lamar Odom, who came off the bench to score 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting. It was with Odom and fellow reserve Luke Walton--who got a chance to play small forward early and often, capably stepping in when Ron Artest suffered early foul trouble--on the floor that the Lakers went on an 11-4 run during the first quarter to erase an early deficit and open up a lead. Odom finished the game a +14, while Walton was +13. This was despite the fact that the Celtics' second unit was productive in its own right, with Glen Davis scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting and Tony Allen contributing strong minutes in place of Pierce.

If there's one thing we've learned in this series, it's not to read too much into what happened the last game. Game-to-game momentum is generally a myth, and it has been dramatically repudiated in this series, from Ray Allen's ups and downs to very different outings for Bryant and Rondo. What seems more consistent over the long run, however, is the Lakers' ability to win games with their defense. We might look back on that as the biggest difference between this series and the 2008 NBA Finals.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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

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Wooden's Century (06/08)
<< Previous Column
Playoff Prospectus (06/07)
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Playoff Prospectus (06/11)
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Contained (06/10)

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