Celtics 96, Cavaliers 89
When LeBron James scored to put Cleveland up 43-29 with 3:50 to go in the second quarter on Wednesday, I hit pause on my DVR and began to fill my notepad with invective:
“Pathetic. Boston has learned nothing from the games at Cleveland. They are laying down like dogs. Doc Rivers has blown it with bizarre substitution patterns and a lack of trust in his role players. He must be insane. The Celtics’ 66 wins were a waste and a tease.”
The Boston offense was sputtering again, much as it had for the entire series. Ball movement was negligible. The few open shots that arose were missed. Rivers had not found a way to combat Mike Brown’s strategy of using Delonte West to roam off of Rajon Rondo whenever Rondo was on the weak side. The crowd at the Garden was about as enthusiastic as the audience at a subprime mortgage seller rally. James had already scored 23 points and the breakout game that Rivers had dreaded seemed to finally be at hand.
Momentum can shift in a basketball game faster than Cool Papa Bell can jump into bed. Rondo penetrated in the lane and kicked out to Kevin Garnett, who hit a jumper to somewhat stem Cleveland’s tide. Zydrunas Ilgauskas tried a jumper just before the shot clock expired that was blocked by Kendrick Perkins. (Perkins’ defense on Ilgauskas on Wednesday was the best it has been in the series.) Rajon Rondo hit a three on the other end to trim the lead to single digits. James missed a forced jumper and Ben Wallace threw away a pass after Ilgauskas had collected the offensive rebound. Rondo hit another three and Boston was within six. When Paul Pierce hit a jumper with three seconds to go in the half, the Celtics had trimmed the advantage to 46-43 and clearly had the momentum heading into the half.
At that point, under the invective in my notepad, I scribbled: “Perhaps a tad premature.”
In the second half, the Celtics were back to playing the familiar, dominant style of hoops that they displayed all through the season--though only at home during the playoffs. Players were flashing the middle and cutting. Rondo was penetrating and dishing. Every Celtic was willing to give up a shot to a teammate with a better look. Garnett couldn’t miss. Ray Allen, again struggling with his outside shot, began to take the ball to the rim with better results. Boston took the lead and pushed ahead by as many as 11 points and took a 72-63 lead into the fourth quarter.
In the games at Cleveland, the Cavs’ offense sparkled thanks to crisp ball movement. James started the offense more often than he finished it, a good thing because he couldn’t hit an outside shot. The weakside shooters were hitting what seemed like every open shot and even the Celtics’ top-notch defensive rotations were too slow in reacting to the sharp passing. On Wednesday, with James going off in the first half, the ball movement seemed to come to a dead halt on the Cleveland offensive end of the floor. When the Celtics adjusted and tightened the screws on James, there was no one to pick up the slack. Cleveland began to go one-on-one and take the ball inside. The Cavs were successful at getting to the line (41 free-throw attempts in the game) but the flow and rhythm of the offense had been disrupted. The Cavs scored only 17 points in the third quarter.
Boston and Cleveland traded blows for most of the fourth quarter, the Celtics maintaining their lead and Cleveland keeping pace but unable to make much headway. The Celtics got some sparkling minutes from Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who energized the crowd with his hustle and big plays in the post. Garnett and Rondo continued to shoot well, after Rondo scored his 20th point on a jumper with 3:38 remaning, the Celtics led 88-77, the same score by which they lost at Cleveland in Game Four, and appeared to have the game well in hand.
Soon after, Rivers inserted James Posey into the game for Davis, something I did not understand. The unit the Celtics had on the floor was clicking and Pierce was doing a solid job on James. Further, Boston began to run the offense through Pierce, who would set up in the middle of the floor, guarded by James, and try to make things happen off of penetration. The formula that had worked so well the entire second half, with Rondo and Garnett featured on offense, had been changed for no apparent reason. With Pierce holding the ball out top down the stretch, Rondo was consigned to standing around the three-point line, watching the action unfold. Rivers had once again displayed an amazing resistance to leaving well enough alone.
The game turned out fine for Boston. Cleveland could not get closer than four points and Pierce converted his free throws down the stretch. The Celtics continued to defend the three-point line effectively, limiting Cleveland to 3-of-16 from beyond the arc. Boston won 96-89 and will try to close out the series on Friday by winning its first road game of the postseason. Nevertheless, Rivers’ player usage in this series continues to confound and irritate me. One improvement in that area was his handling of Sam Cassell. Rivers gave Cassell some court time in the first half, Cassell missed a couple of shots and Rivers took him out. If Cassell does not have a hot shooting hand, there is no reason for him to be on the floor in Rondo’s place.
Rondo finished with 42 minutes in the game. He was playing so well in the second half that there was no way that Rivers could take him out. In a typical game, however, you’d expect Cassell to get another couple of cracks at the basket. If he’s hitting, let him go. Otherwise, it’s back to Rondo, who really has emerged as the Celtics’ barometer for success in the playoffs. He posted a game score 33 in Game Five, nine above his playoff average and 15 above his regular-season mark. Garnett posted a 50 and Pierce a 35. James led Cleveland with a 29.
A reader sent me an interesting question about the age of the Celtics’ big three as being a symptom of Boston’s struggles in the playoffs. The question came on the heels of Boston’s lousy fourth quarter in Game Four, when Allen, Garnett and Pierce were all coming up short on their jumpers. Could the age factor be catching up to them?
Personally, I don’t put a lot of stock in that theory, with the possible exception of Allen, whose shooting woes defy easy explanation. Rivers did an excellent job in managing the minutes of his stars during the season, all three of them carried a very light load during the latter stages of the regular schedule. It’s not like they’re struggling every time out--for the most part the struggles have just been on the road. There are no magical, youth-giving waters for Boston’s veterans to drink before playing at The Garden. In Game Four, I thought the likely culprit for Boston’s late fold was that Pierce, Allen and Garnett were all in the 40-minute range. Boston played exceptional defense in that game, at least for about 3 1/2 quarters. I suspect that the energy that the big three expended on the defensive end played into their bad finish. Rivers did not do a good job of getting them rest in that game. He did do a good job of managing his fine bench.
The other part of the reader’s question was how the ages of Boston’s big three compared to other past champions. Good question. I added up the combined ages for the big three of all of the NBA’s champions since the league started keeping turnovers for individual players. I determined each team’s top trio as simply being the three players with the most regular-season win shares as found at basketball-reference.com. The full list follows. My only comment is that while the combined age of the Celtics’ trio is pretty far up on the list, it’s not unprecedented. You might also infer from this list that Boston’s window for winning with this group consists of this season and, perhaps, next season.
Team Big Three Combined age
07-08 Celtics Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen 93
97-98 Bulls Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper 104
96-97 Bulls Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr 95
94-95 Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith 93
77-78 Bullets Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge 93
98-99 Spurs Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Mario Elie 90
95-96 Bulls Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc 89
85-86 Celtics Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish 89
89-90 Pistons Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars 86
00-01 Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Horace Grant 85
93-94 Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry 85
88-89 Pistons Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas 85
84-85 Lakers Magic Johnson, K. Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy 85
82-83 76ers Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks 85
81-82 Lakers Magic Johnson, K. Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes 84
06-07 Spurs Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker 83
02-03 Spurs Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker 83
01-02 Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Robert Horry 83
92-93 Bulls Michael Jordan, Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen 83
83-84 Celtics Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale 83
05-06 Heat Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, Udonis Haslem 82
03-04 Pistons Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton 81
99-00 Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice 80
91-92 Bulls Michael Jordan, Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen 80
87-88 Lakers Byron Scott, Magic Johnson, A.C. Green 78
79-80 Lakers K. Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes 78
04-05 Spurs Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker 77
90-91 Bulls Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant 77
86-87 Lakers Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott 77
80-81 Celtics Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell 76
78-79 SuperSonics Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson 72
Lakers 111, Jazz 104
This was the kind of loss that can haunt a team. In Game Five Wednesday, the Utah Jazz had its best chance to steal a game in Los Angeles. In the final two minutes, Utah had two looks at three-pointers that could have tied the game. The killer blow came with 20 seconds left, when the Jazz forced a miss and had a chance to take possession down three. Instead, Pau Gasol came up with the offensive rebound and the putback score to all but put the game away.
If Utah is unable to win the next two series, including a deciding Game Seven at the Staples Center, the team will also look back with lament on 14 first-half turnovers that allowed the Lakers to get out to an early lead and forced the Jazz to play from behind virtually all night.
Still, Utah had its chances down the stretch. No one did more to hold the Jazz at bay than Gasol, who came up with two critical offensive rebounds and two big scores in the last two minutes of the game. Going into this series, I wondered whether the Jazz might be able to use a physical style to beat Gasol up and take him out of the game. Instead, Gasol has more than risen to the challenge. In addition to his clutch play, last night Gasol ran the triangle to precision, handing out eight assists. He also blocked four shots to give him 13 for the series, this after he blocked 11 in the first round against Denver. Who figured Gasol would offer such resistance inside?
When it comes to the Lakers' offense, I've buried the lead. The big-picture story was Kobe Bryant sharing the load in Game Five, attempting just 10 shotss. Bryant (26), Gasol (21) and Lamar Odom (22) all topped the 20-point mark, and the Lakers put up a solid 24 assists on 35 field goals. Bryant was in his dangerous efficient-scorer mode, getting to the free-throw line 17 times and shooting 60% from the field for a 72.2% True Shooting Percentage in the game.
(Quick aside: I do wish Doug Collins would let the points-per-shot discussion go. While looking at shot attempts is better than not considering efficiency at all, the improvement isn't big. Saying Bryant gave the Lakers 2.6 points every time he shot is laughably silly. Those free throws count as possessions just like attempts from the field, even if they help produce foul trouble. Bryant was efficient last night, but not to the extent the points per shot stat would have you believe.)
The Lakers' offense was at its best early in the fourth quarter, with five different players scoring on six out of seven possessions in one stretch to extend the lead to six points before Utah rallied. During that stretch, the Lakers reached the bonus with 6:53 left to play in the fourth quarter. I don't come down on the Jazz's foul trouble as hard as some analysts because it's a trade-off Jerry Sloan is willing to make, and it has paid off for Utah over the long run. The fourth quarter of a crucial road playoff game, though, is not the time to be sending the opposition to the free-throw line on fouls away from the ball. Derek Fisher got two such free throws on an ill-advised Deron Williams foul with just under three minutes left to play and the Lakers clinging to the lead.
That said, I thought the Lakers got the benefit of the doubt on a couple of close calls. There was little if any contact on an Odom fourth-quarter give-and-go dunk from Odom that resulted in a three-point play. Down the stretch, Gasol might have gotten away with some contact on both of his offensive rebounds. It's tough to say how much Mehmet Okur exaggerated Gasol pushing off, but at least one of those calls could have gone the other way. On the other hand, I'm not sure Sasha Vujacic's mouthing off to Kyle Korver merited a technical foul with 2:41 left in a five-point game, a call that surely would have loomed large had the Jazz completed the comeback.
I mentioned Gasol's blocks earlier, but I have really been surprised in this series how much the Jazz has been bothered by the Lakers' length in the paint. This is most obvious, of course, in the case of Carlos Boozer. Boozer put up another inefficient 6-of-16 shooting line, though he had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Charles Barkley suggested on Inside the NBA that Boozer needs to take the Lakers out of the paint and look to score off the drive, but where he seems to really be having problems is after coming up with offensive rebounds (Boozer had six of them last night). Going back up is the correct play, and one Boozer usually converts, but to the Lakers' credit it just isn't working in this series.
The scene now shifts back to Salt Lake City. While this series has followed the bizarre trend of extreme home-court advantage that has marked this postseason (one I can only attribute to randomness, there being no indication during the regular season or last year's playoffs that home-court advantage was growing stronger in the league), every game has been in some doubt in the closing moments. The Lakers have certainly shown the ability to end this series in six games, just as Utah could pull off the upset if it comes down to a winner-take-all Game Seven.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.