Celtics 98, Lakers 88
These NBA Finals have been described as a conflict between an unstoppable force (the Los Angeles Lakers' potent offense) and an immovable object (the Boston Celtics' historically-good defense). In Game One, the immovable object won. Boston held Los Angeles to just 88 points in 87 possessions, and as a result Game One of the series held to form with the home team pulling away late in a 10-point victory.
The Celtics started by containing Kobe Bryant. Bryant started slowly, forcing shots early in the game and shooting 1-for-7 from the field in the first quarter. Bryant would play well in the second and third quarters, but in the fourth he was 1-of-6 and scored just four points. The final line--24 points on 29 shooting possessions--wasn't exceptionally pretty. Bryant made good passes, handing out six assists, and did not force it terribly after the early part of the game, but he wasn't the dominant force he was down the stretch against San Antonio.
It did not help Bryant that Phil Jackson made a rare tactical mistake--at least with the benefit of hindsight--by messing with Bryant's usual rotation. Jackson kept Bryant on the floor to start the fourth quarter, a move that worked brilliantly in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals but backfired in this case. Bryant looked tired, and Jackson had to get him out between the first and second timeouts of the final period to get his needed rest.
The key to Boston's defense wasn't necessarily neutralizing Bryant, but being able to do it without having to over-help and open things up for the Lakers' role players. During the second quarter, when L.A. scored 30 points, there were open looks from the perimeter. The Lakers did a great job moving the ball and had assists on most of their first-half baskets. But those looks closed down after halftime as the Lakers mustered 37 points in the half.
None of the trio of Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom played poorly, certainly; they combined for 44 points on 16-of-31 from the field. However, none of them put together the kind of performance L.A. would have needed to overcome Bryant's off night.
The other area in which the Celtics excelled was on the defensive glass. There were 43 Lakers misses available to be rebounded, and the offense corralled just seven of those, a 16.3 percent offensive rebound percentage. It was a team effort on the boards for Boston, but Ray Allen deserves to be singled out for his effort, pulling down seven defensive rebounds (eight total) from his backcourt position.
The Celtics executed so well in every other area on defense that it scarcely mattered that they forced few turnovers, eight in total.
At the other end of the court, Boston got a heroic performance from Paul Pierce. Despite having to be carried off the court after spraining his right knee early in the third quarter, and despite foul trouble in the first half, Pierce scored 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Pierce came up with consecutive scores in the fourth quarter with the Lakers within four.
For a while, it looked like Kevin Garnett's night might reinforce all the negative stereotypes of his crunch-time play. Garnett had missed all four of his fourth-quarter attempts and been very quiet before coming through with a signature play in his first Finals game. After saving a missed free throw by Rajon Rondo (a reminder that clutch plays need not always be scores) to take crucial time off the clock, Garnett met a James Posey miss perfectly as it came off the rim, flushing it powerfully back through to give the Celtics a three-possession lead with 1:32 to go. On Boston's next possession, Garnett took advantage of an outmatched Vladimir Radmanovic and got to the free-throw line. His two free throws essentially sealed the game.
The Celtics got plenty of production from their backcourt. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo shot 10 free throws apiece (Boston got to the free-throw line 35 times as a team) and combined for 34 points and 12 assists. Rondo ran the team well from the point, turning the ball over twice in 35 minutes, while Allen had a solid if not spectacular shooting night.
Doc Rivers was one-for-two with his bench rotation. I've been against heavy minutes for P.J. Brown in this series, preferring more time for Kendrick Perkins or a small lineup with James Posey at power forward. In Game One, however, Brown was brilliant. Brown's stat line (two points, six boards, two assists) does not do justice to his effort, but his plus-minus--+10 in 21 minutes of action--tells the true story.
However, after a strong start Sam Cassell managed to again sabotage the Celtics' efforts with his quick trigger (nine shot attempts and only one assist in 13 minutes). Boston fans were at least as nervous as they were excited about Cassell making his first three shots, which seemed to give him license to keep firing. The Celtics are better off with Eddie House or even more minutes for Rondo instead of Cassell.
While this was an impressive effort by Boston, the Lakers can't feel too badly going into Sunday's Game Two. Despite their poor offense, they were in position to steal this game in the late stages. A few offensive tweaks with two days of preparation time could go a long way toward figuring out the Celtics' defense. In particular, Jackson would be well served to find ways to get Bryant to be a factor away from the ball. He was at his worst in this game when the Lakers simply isolated him and had him try to create his own offense, something Bryant was able to do against the Spurs. The Lakers found more success out of pick-and-rolls, and I'd like to see them use Bryant more frequently catching the ball off of screens and shooting or driving from there, where the Boston defense is not nearly as well prepared to stop him as when the entire defense knows where he is throughout the possession.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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