at Boston 96, L.A. Lakers 89 (Series tied 2-2)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 112.2, L.A. Lakers 104.5
Through the first three quarters of Game Four, the Boston Celtics had offered little indication that it would prove their best offensive outing of the NBA Finals so far. While the Celtics trailed the Los Angeles Lakers by just two points, they had shot 39.1 percent from the field and scored at a rate of 92.3 points per 100 possessions.
There was little warning that Boston would come out for the final period with a lineup of four reserves and Ray Allen and score on their first nine possessions. Given the slow-paced, half-court nature of the game and this series, that meant the Lakers were more than seven minutes without getting a fourth-quarter stop. Points weren't coming two at a time either; three-pointers and three-point plays meant the Celtics scored 21 points on those nine possessions, good for a 233.3 Offensive Rating in the span.
The performance by the Boston bench was every bit the equal of anything we saw from the Eddie House-James Posey-Leon Powe-P.J. Brown group in the 2008 NBA Finals or even the Phoenix Suns in this postseason, to name a more recent example. With a must-win Finals game on the line, the Celtics' second unit responded brilliantly.
The heroes were Boston's energy players, who combined their hustle plays with big-time production. Glen Davis was tremendously effective in the two-man game with Allen and finding space in the paint, scoring nine of his 18 paints in the fourth quarter. Nate Robinson was a spark off the bench, nailing a pair of important early three-pointers in the first half (before getting overzealous with his shot selection) and effectively running the show in the fourth quarter, making wise decisions with the notable and unfortunate exception of the technical he picked up for taunting. (That the Celtics had momentum on their side can be taken from the fact that the Lakers blew both technical free throws they got in the fourth quarter, leaving valuable points on the table.)
Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace weren't as productive, but they deserve credit for their work at the other end of the floor, where Allen has been matched up with Kobe Bryant and Wallace has been Boston's best matchup for Pau Gasol. Ray Allen also played a key role in the fourth quarter, initiating a lot of Boston's offense and setting the tone for the team's ball movement. Having Ray Allen, Robinson and Wallace in the game together kept the floor well-spaced.
The Lakers were effective on offense themselves in the fourth quarter, scoring 27 points to keep the game close enough to maintain hope of a comeback. Los Angeles simply couldn't get the stops to make up the ground it conceded early in the period. Fatigue might have been a factor. With the game so close and Andrew Bynum banged up, Phil Jackson was unable to rest either Bryant or Gasol after halftime, while Lamar Odom played nearly 22 minutes and Ron Artest more than 20.
Bryant and Gasol were both effective as scorers, combining for 54 points on 43 shooting possessions, but turnovers were an issue--especially for Bryant, who coughed the ball up seven times. Gasol had four, and both players had costly miscues down the stretch, Gasol's giveaway in the backcourt after a Lakers steal and Rajon Rondo's interception of an errant Bryant pass turning into a layup that all but sealed the game. The Lakers had 16 turnovers as a team, their highest total of the series and a big difference from Game Three.
The other area where Los Angeles struggled was on the glass, a major turnaround from the early part of this series. The Celtics doubled the Lakers up in terms of offensive rebounds and had twice as many second-chance points as well, rebounding 38.1 percent of their own misses. Add in a 15-2 advantage in terms of fast-break points and Boston got far more easy buckets than the Lakers, relieving pressure on the half-court offense.
The rebounding is another issue that can be traced, at least in part, to Bynum's absence. The cartilage tear in his right knee has deteriorated to the point the Lakers weren't even certain he would be available for the game. Bynum did indeed start, but Odom replaced him in the lineup at the beginning of the third quarter. Bynum came on for a brief 1:50 cameo and looked badly limited. We'll see how much good two days off will do, but the Lakers have to prepare for the possibility that they may not have Bynum at all the rest of the series and they certainly cannot count on him for extended minutes or the kind of contributions he offered in the first three games.
The Lakers are totally different defensively without Bynum's size in the paint. Davis in particular has thrived against the smaller Gasol-Odom frontcourt. According to Haralabos Voulgaris on Twitter, Davis has gone from 0.6 points per possession in this series with Bynum on the floor (granted, that's a very small sample size) to 0.91 when he's been out. Odom also doesn't present the same kind of problems on the offensive glass.
As much as they miss Bynum's unique skills, the Lakers also are very thin up front, so his injury creates a second major problem because the team has no one they trust to back up Gasol and Odom. Neither DJ Mbenga nor Josh Powell has played a minute in this series, but Phil Jackson will have to use one of them to get Gasol a breather if Bynum is unable to go. Resting Odom is a little easier because the Lakers could go with a smaller frontcourt like Ron Artest and Luke Walton. One of the oddities of Game Four, in fact, was that Walton saw no action after his effective Game Three outing. When Artest rested, Jackson went with a three-guard lineup.
For the Celtics, the bench's play helped overshadow the fact that this was another middling performance for the Big Four, which combined to score 54 points on 58 shooting possessions. Doc Rivers called Paul Pierce's number early, putting Pierce in a series of high pick-and-rolls, and was rewarded with 10 first-quarter points and 19 for the game on 7-of-12 shooting. The sacrifice was that Kevin Garnett got few of the face-up opportunities of which he made such good use in Game Three, leaving Garnett generating his offense primarily with mid-range jumpers. Rondo was also uneven, shooting 5-of-15 from the field and missing both of his free throw attempts.
Boston has been getting good looks from this group, as ABC's crew mentioned and Rivers discussed during his in-game interview. At some point, though, as they continue to struggle we may have to simply admit that the Lakers' defense is doing a good job of making the Celtics play to their weaknesses and this isn't simply a matter of bad fortune. Boston is going to struggle to score in the half-court in this series, even without Bynum on the floor. However, the Celtics' own defense is good enough to ensure they'll rarely be out of games, and all it takes is a few breaks--like Allen's hot shooting in Game Two or the performance of the bench in Game Four--for them to come away with a victory.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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