Lakers 87, Celtics 81
An NBA Finals filled with unlikely heroes got another one Tuesday, as the Los Angeles Lakers emerged victorious in a Game Three they could not afford to lose. With the Lakers' lead a precarious two points and the clock ticking under the two-minute mark, the Boston Celtics trapped Kobe Bryant and took the ball out of the MVP's hands. The Lakers worked the ball to the corner and Sasha Vujacic, nicknamed "The Machine." On this night, the Machine was set to automatic. Vujacic nailed the three, giving him 20 points on the evening on 7-of-10 shooting. In a game in which the two teams shot a combined 38.8% from the field, Vujacic's scores took on added importance.
And, oh yes, that Bryant guy was pretty good, too. Vujacic's make got the Celtics out of trap mode and left Ray Allen matched one-on-one against Bryant on the game's final possessions. First, with 1:06 left on the clock, Bryant made an impossible jumper with Allen's hand in his face. On the next Lakers possession, Bryant up-faked Allen out of position, giving himself an open look from the free-throw line that he knocked down, sealing the victory.
As big as Bryant's shots were down the stretch, his bigger contribution might have been keeping the Lakers in front early in the game despite limited offensive contributions from his teammates outside of Vujacic. Aside from Bryant, the other four Lakers starters combined to score 22 points on 7-of-28 shooting. The bad Lamar Odom showed up in this game. He was at his best when he was invisible; the rest of the time, he was actively hurting the Lakers, whether it be with his 2-of-9 shooting or his five turnovers.
Odom and Pau Gasol did at least combine for 21 rebounds, and while the Spaniard couldn't find his touch, he did come up with a couple of big buckets in the fourth quarter, notably a seemingly-accidental tip follow of an Odom miss with a three-point margin and a little over five minutes to play.
Against that backdrop, Bryant was resolute in his determination to attack the Celtics. Avoiding the long-distance two-point shots that had been his undoing in the first four games against Boston this season, Bryant got into the paint and was sent to the free-throw line 18 times, nearly double the Lakers' attempts as a team in Game Two. Had Bryant not been atypically poor from the charity stripe, missing seven of his 18 attempts, the Lakers might have had a healthier cushion much of the night. As it was, Bryant scored 36 points on 29 shooting possessions, strong efficiency on any night but positively Ruthian in the context of this game.
While Bryant was carrying the Lakers, Allen attempted to answer for the Celtics on the other end. He did all he could, but to little effect most of the first half. With Kevin Garnett missing nine of his first 10 shot attempts and Paul Pierce extremely quiet and in foul trouble in his hometown, Boston had no offense to speak of before halftime. Throughout the second quarter, the Lakers seemed on the verge of blowing the game open, yet the Celtics managed to hang in with defense and when the break finally came, it was just a six-point game.
By the midway point of the third quarter, Boston had caught and passed the Lakers to take the lead and it seemed like the Celtics might just steal this game. In a backwards way, Boston got a huge break when Rajon Rondo rolled his left ankle early in the second half. Responding to Rondo's four-point, 16-assist effort in Game Two, Phil Jackson and the Lakers' coaching staff completely changed how they defended Rondo. Chatting at Baseball Prospectus before the series, I was asked whether the Lakers might roam defensively against Rondo. My response was that when they did so defensively, they usually used Bryant to roam, not Rondo's opposing number Derek Fisher. Jackson's answer was to move Bryant onto Rondo, giving him the freedom to float and double-team while shrinking the floor for the Celtics. That strategic change was a big reason why Garnett and Pierce struggled.
When Rondo went out, Doc Rivers opted against using veteran Sam Cassell and went instead to Eddie House at the point after House had not played in the first two and a half games of the series. House was hardly perfect, too quick to trigger late in the game and making just two of his eight shots, but the Lakers had to respect his ability to hit from the perimeter, which opened things up. The plus-minus illustrates this story. The Celtics were -9 with Rondo on the floor and +7 with House.
The general consensus after the game in the Ball Don't Lie chat was that this was an unimpressive victory for the Lakers. Certainly, to the extent that neither team shot the ball well and it seemed at least as much about bad offense as good defense, it wasn't an impressive performance by either side. However, this is the NBA Finals, and the level of intensity and quality of the competition is so high by this point I'm not sure it's possible to have an unimpressive victory. Surely the Lakers, in desperate need of a victory, won't quibble with how they got the series to 2-1.
The more pressing question is where this outcome leaves us heading into Game Four. To an extent, we probably ought to throw out the dismal performances by stars on both sides. Garnett and Pierce were affected by the Lakers' roaming defense, but they won't shoot so poorly again; nor is Gasol likely to be such a non-factor going forward, and even the inconsistent Odom should play better. Normally, a team getting performances like that from key players would feel good going forward, but in this case they cancel each other out.
Doc Rivers and the Celtics' coaching staff must devote the next two days to figuring out how to make Rondo a threat against a Lakers defense that does not respect his ability to score. While they had success with House last night, Rondo remains the team's best all-around option at the point because of his ability to run the team and his superior defense. In the fourth quarter, Rondo came up with a big putback score, and maybe the answer is in part to use Rondo to dive to the basket when Bryant leaves him and force the Lakers to at least take notice of him. However, that would require a change to Boston's transition defense, with Allen or someone else forced to hang back at the top of the key ready to be the first defender back. There is no simple answer for the Celtics, but this is a chance for their coaching staff to prove their mettle.
Meanwhile, I plead with Jackson: more Machine, please! Even in his star turn, Vujacic played fewer than 28 minutes and the Lakers were +15 in that span. He needs to be in the game early and often.
Stepping aside from the perspective of either team, the good news is that we are now guaranteed at least a Game Five and this looks like a series. While they've taken wildly-divergent paths to get there, all three games have been decided in the final five minutes. Now if we could only get both sides executing at a high level down the stretch, we might really be in for a treat.
Join Kevin Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern at Baseball Prospectus as he chats about the Celtics/Lakers matchup and more NBA news. If you can't make it, submit your question now.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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