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June 9, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
The Finals, Game Two

by Kevin Pelton

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Celtics 108, Lakers 102

In Game One, the Boston Celtics won with defense. Their Game Two victory was all about offense. In a slow-paced game with 86 possessions, the Celtics threw up 108 points, their second-highest-scoring game of the postseason. It is the Los Angeles Lakers who typically have the dominant offense based on terrific ball movement, but Boston assumed that role last night, handing out an impressive 31 assists on 36 field goals.

The Celtics were loose with the basketball, committing 15 turnovers, but when they hung on to the ball they were nearly unstoppable. Boston shot 52.9 percent from the field, knocked down nine three-pointers in 14 attempts and got to the free-throw line an amazing 38 times. (Besides turnovers, the only other downside was that the Celtics shot a subpar 71.1 percent from the line, leaving some free points on the table.)

Of course, while scoring nearly at will much of the night, Boston hardly neglected the defensive end of the floor. Through three quarters, the Lakers had been limited to 61 points as the Celtics took a 22-point advantage to the final period. They needed almost all of that lead as the Lakers mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback that nearly allowed them to steal the game. Los Angeles got within two points with 38 seconds to play and had the ball down four after Paul Pierce made two free throws. There, a disorganized offensive possession that saw Kobe Bryant reduced to decoy and resulted in Sasha Vujacic forcing a three-point attempt brought the rally to an end.

Even the Lakers' extended run was more about an offensive explosion that saw them score 41 points in the fourth quarter than it was about stopping the Celtics, who still scored 25 points in the fourth. The Boston offense got plenty of contributions from the big three, with Paul Pierce leading the way with 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting (4-of-4 from three-point range) and eight assists. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett scored 17 points apiece, though Allen's effort (on 11 field-goal attempts) was much more efficient than Garnett's (which required 19 shots).

Despite that production, it was a pair of Celtics role players who really powered the offense. Rajon Rondo scored just four points in 42 minutes, but he was the playmaker setting up his teammates all night long. Rondo handed out 16 assists, tying his regular-season career high, against two turnovers. Again and again, he was able to draw defensive attention and kick to the perimeter, where Boston's shooters were lights out.

Meanwhile, ABC picked a great night to feature Leon Powe during their halftime coverage. Powe had a brilliant 15-minute run off the bench, making six of his seven shot attempts and getting to the free-throw line 13 times to score 21 points on 13 possessions. Behind Powe and workmanlike efforts from veterans P.J. Brown and James Posey, the Celtics' reserves dramatically outplayed their Lakers counterparts. Boston went on runs during the second and third quarters with the benches in the game. The plus-minus numbers tell the story here. For the Lakers, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton were both -16 for the game, while the Celtics were +20 in Brown's 23 minutes of play.

The final numbers for the Lakers' offense look pretty solid after the team scored more points in the fourth quarter than in the second and third combined (39), but that's somewhat misleading. Their outburst wasn't sustainable, coming as it did on the strength of 7-of-9 shooting from three-point range to start the quarter before Vujacic and Fisher missed their desperation attempts in the closing seconds. The rest of the offense came from Bryant, who scored 13 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter largely on the strength of pure will.

While Boston was moving the ball and getting open shots, the Lakers were largely playing one-on-one basketball. They hit 41 field goals (five more than the Celtics, with the difference made up from the free-throw line), but assisted on less than half of them, handing out 20 assists in total.

When the Lakers did have success on offense in the first three quarters, it was with Pau Gasol playing tough in the post (he finished with 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting, adding 10 rebounds) and out of the pick-and-roll. Boston's defense has done a terrific job at taking away the Lakers' passing and cutting out of the triangle that usually makes them so challenging for opposing defenses.

As this series shifts from Boston to Los Angeles, the Lakers face a challenge unlike anything they've encountered during this postseason. Even when the Lakers dropped a pair of games in Utah in the conference semifinals, they never looked as mystified as they did during the middle two quarters last night. In the wake of a Game One loss where they stayed close despite atypically poor shooting, the Lakers seemed to be in good shape going into Game Two. Instead, the Celtics put together an even more impressive performance to leave the Lakers looking for answers.

Defensively, the first order of business for the Lakers is to stop fouling. Boston has shot 73 free throws in the first two games of this series, and if not impossible it's very difficult to win that way. The Lakers' rotations have been a step slow in the interior, leading to fouls, and on the perimeter, leading to open three-point attempts. The Lakers can do more to contain the ball on the perimeter and avoid those help situations, but ultimately the team defense has to be stronger and has been throughout these playoffs.

On offense, the Lakers also need to get back to basics in terms of ball movement and executing out of the triangle. Bryant had a better game last night, particularly in the fourth quarter, but he's having to work too hard for his points without being able to create easy looks for his teammates. I'd still like to see Phil Jackson be more creative in terms of where Bryant is getting the ball and attacking instead of simply having that be from the perimeter.

In the fourth quarter, the Lakers went away from Lamar Odom and used Vladimir Radmanovic at power forward. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy endorsed the move and clearly it paid off last night; Radmanovic was a +9 while the Lakers were outscored by 13 points with Odom on the floor. I agree with Van Gundy that Radmanovic at the three is a no-go matchup for the Lakers because he cannot defend Radmanovic, but I'd rather have Odom at power forward than Radmanovic in general. I'm surprised we haven't seen more of Bryant and Vujacic together on the wings; they did not play together at all in the first three quarters before playing the entire fourth alongside each other.

We've seen over the course of these playoffs, particularly with the Celtics, how quickly a series can change with a shift in home court. There's no reason to believe the Lakers cannot reclaim momentum beginning with Tuesday's Game Three. However, Jackson and company have some important issues to address if that is to be the case.

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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