at Boston 92, L.A. Lakers 86 (Boston leads series 3-2)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 110.5, L.A. Lakers 102.5
Sunday's Game Five of the NBA Finals featured a flashback to the 2008 Finals matchup between these two teams, and it was not a pleasant one for the Los Angeles Lakers in general or Pau Gasol in particular. Kevin Garnett, heretofore inconsistent at the offensive end and relatively quiet on defense, reminded us why he was Defensive Player of the Year just two short seasons ago before knee injuries robbed him of much of his athleticism.
You wouldn't know that from a handful of plays in Game Five, most notably Garnett's above-the-rim rejection of Gasol's attempt in the paint. Garnett's versatile defensive stat line--nine defensive rebounds, five steals and two blocks--is a tribute to his work at that end of the floor, as was Gasol's poor efficiency--12 points, just two of them in the first half, on 5-of-12 shooting. Gasol did enough dirty work, most notably seven offensive rebounds, to avoid the same baseless criticism of his softness he took in 2008, but Garnett's domination of the matchup harkened back to that series.
It didn't help Gasol that the Lakers seemed determined, almost from start to finish, to largely play one-on-one rather than involving the post in the triangle. In the early going, it was Derek Fisher who was surprisingly aggressive, and while he was able to get to the foul line and hit one off-balance jumper, the strategy wasn't a sustainable one. The result was the Lakers shooting 10-of-34 (29.4 percent) on two-pointers in the first half.
One solution would have been returning to the base triangle offense. Instead, with the Celtics threatening to pull away early in the third quarter, Kobe Bryant took it upon himself to single-handedly keep the Lakers in the game, scoring 23 consecutive points for the Lakers, including their first 19 of the third quarter. It wasn't until Gasol's three-point play at the 2:16 mark of the period that another Laker player scored after halftime.
Again, the issue was sustainability. With Boston starting to send a second man at Bryant to take the ball out of his hands, he was limited to nine points and two field goals in the fourth quarter, making both of his two-point attempts but missing all four tries from beyond the three-point line. Even for someone as phenomenally skilled as Bryant, maintaining his third-quarter heroics, which included long triples and an unreal one-handed redirect of an errant alley-oop lob, was not possible.
In this scenario, it is difficult to blame Bryant for trying to take over. What the Lakers were doing wasn't working, and with Gasol contained by Garnett, Fisher and Ron Artest struggling to make shots and Andrew Bynum a non-factor after the first quarter because of his knee, the team had few other offensive options. To win this series, however, the Lakers can't rely on Bryant creating for himself. They have to get back to the fundamentals of the triangle offense and ball and player movement that have been nonexistent since this series shifted to the TD Garden. Over the last three games, the Lakers have totaled just 38 assists, good for 39.2 percent of their field goals. While the Lakers have been less reliant on assists this season, all three games are still among their four lowest postseason outings in terms of assisted field goal percentage.
The Celtics had their share of brilliant plays in Game Five as well, capped by the one that essentially finished the game off--an inbound pass caught on the sideline by Paul Pierce, who threw back to a streaking Rajon Rondo from his tiptoes. For Rondo to even catch the pass, thrown behind him, was a feat in itself, but he followed it by throwing in a reverse layup high off the side of the backboard with an incredible degree of difficulty.
Rondo's spate of turnovers in the second and third quarters (seven in all) was in part responsible for leaving the Lakers in the game. Still, he more than redeemed himself with several huge plays in the final period--not only the layup but also a tip follow that only one or two other point guards in the league could have made. That came on the heels of a runout layup on a Ray Allen steal that helped stem the tide of an L.A. run.
By contrast to the Lakers, Boston had no shortage of offensive options. Garnett was also a major factor as a scorer, coming up with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and the unit of Allen and four reserves again clicked during the second quarter, helping the Celtics build their lead.
Still, there was no question that the Celtics depended on Pierce for scoring and he came through. Even though Pierce had been successful operating out of the high pick-and-roll in Game Four, Doc Rivers and company made an adjustment to primarily get him the ball in isolation settings, making it more challenging for the Lakers to offer help through good spacing. Artest tried valiantly, but had no answer for Pierce on defense. Pierce scored 27 points on 12-of-21 shooting in another performance that recalled 2008, when Pierce was Finals MVP.
So how then were the Lakers able to stay within striking distance in the fourth quarter? As Matt Moore noted on Twitter, statistically the game was pretty much a clinic in why all of the Four Factors matter. Thanks largely to an enormous differential in two-point percentage (62.7 percent for Boston, 40.7 percent for the Lakers), the Celtics dominated in terms of effective field-goal percentage (58.5 percent to 44.2 percent). However, the Lakers held an advantage in all three other factors, grabbing more offensive rebounds, getting to the line more frequently and turning the ball over less often.
In particular, turnovers were costly as Boston was otherwise clicking in the second quarter. The Lakers got just one defensive rebound in the entire period, that coming in the final minute. Otherwise, the Celtics either scored or turned the ball over every time down the court. Surely there's an element of the John Wooden philosophy in there ("I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes"), but Boston still left points on the table with all the miscues.
The other factor was that Bryant was, well, pretty amazing. He scored 38 points on 30 shooting possessions, 34 total if you add in turnovers. Given the share of the offense he was shouldering, that efficient is remarkable.
From that standpoint, then, the Lakers may look at this game as one that got away. Their poor free throw shooting (65.4 percent for the game, and 7-of-11 in the final period) was costly in a close game. Had the Lakers who went to the line made free throws at their regular-season percentages, they would have made 20 of them, and those extra three points could have made a difference. Los Angeles also struggled to secure defensive rebounds down the stretch, helping Boston extend possessions and take time off the clock.
In the end, there was a final flashback to the 2008 Finals. For the first time, this series has the same standing as that one--Boston 3, L.A. 2. The difference is now the series is returning to the Staples Center rather than the Celtics coming home for their chance to clinch. We'll find out Tuesday how much of a difference that makes or whether things will continue to look a lot like 2008.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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