Celtics 97, Lakers 91
I still can't believe it. I watched the game. I've looked at the box score and read other accounts of the game. Yet I still can't possibly believe that the Los Angeles Lakers, playing on their home court, surrendered a lead that was 21 points after first quarter and 18 at the half and lost Game Four to the Boston Celtics, falling behind three games to one in the NBA Finals.
Everything started off so well for the Lakers. During the first quarter, for the first time in this series, their offense was running smoothly and easily. Lamar Odom was the key, bouncing back from his dismal Game Three effort to score 13 first-quarter points (nearly as many as the Celtics had as a team, 14) and hand out a pair of assists. Kobe Bryant scored only at the free-throw line in the period, but had four assists as the Lakers assisted on 10 of their 11 baskets, showing off their ball movement.
Boston found its way back into the game in the second quarter, using a 12-0 run to slice what had been a 24-point deficit in half midway through the period. Inevitably, talk turned to whether the Celtics could manage to get the lead to single digits by the half. Instead, the Lakers reasserted their control, finishing the quarter with a big Pau Gasol three-point play and Jordan Farmar's buzzer-beating triple to extend the lead back to 18. When the lead surged back to 20 five minutes into the second half, the big question was when garbage time would begin.
Who could have imagined that, seven minutes later, the Celtics would be within two going to the final period? Boston went on a 23-3 run, holding the Lakers without a field goal for seven minutes to tie the game.
So, after the big lead and the comeback, we got a classic ending, a game led by no more than five points on either side in the fourth quarter until the final five seconds. Given the history of the NBA Finals--no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit--it felt like the season was on the line for the Lakers...and they couldn't get a stop.
Over the last 5:25 of the game, the Celtics had 10 possessions (counting their final possession with three seconds left, when the Lakers had no choice but to foul). They scored on every single one. Consider that. In the NBA, possessions are essentially a 50-50 proposition. In the most important stretch of the season, Boston was perfect.
Doc Rivers did a masterful job down the stretch, and had the perfect five on the floor--Eddie House and James Posey alongside the Big Three. On a night when the Celtics' young starters, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, were struggling and injured, respectively, the team's veteran off-season free-agent pickups were crucial.
House's shooting allowed the Celtics to spread the floor and keep the defense honest, with Ray Allen pitching in to help with ballhandling duties and initiating the offense in the fourth quarter. Posey gave Boston terrific defense on Lamar Odom, successfully "pulling the chair" to create a timely miss. At the other end, Posey made daggers from downtown--four three-pointers in all and two in the last five and a half minutes, including one to push the lead from two to five with 1:13 left on the clock. The Celtics were +20 in House's 24:34 of action and +15 in the 25:28 Posey was on the floor.
While House and Posey were making important contributions, this is still the big three's team. Kevin Garnett came up with some big plays, but down the stretch Boston went to Allen and Paul Pierce with terrific results. Twice, Pierce got to the free-throw line. Allen created off the dribble, completing an impossible reverse layup in traffic. Then, with the Lakers a stop away from having the opportunity to tie, he isolated against Sasha Vujacic and left The Machine in his dust for an uncontested layup (where the Lakers' help defense was on the play, we may never know) to do everything but put the game on ice.
As the Celtics were executing to perfection with the basketball, the Lakers looked lost on offense. The Celtics' defense completely took the triangle and the Lakers' ball movement away. That left the Lakers looking to create one-on-one or out of pick-and-rolls, which Boston defended splendidly. Things improved when Phil Jackson benched Odom in favor of Vladimir Radmanovic and went to a 1-4 flat set with Bryant isolated at the top of the key and the other four Lakers along the baseline, making it difficult for Boston to help. Bryant scored the next two trips down before assisting on Lakers scores the two after that. Had they been able to get a stop, the Lakers would have been in position to tie.
Still, the final L.A. possession was revealing. Down five with just over 16 seconds left, the Lakers were in trouble but not finished. Their execution was abysmal. First, they inbounded the ball before taking a timeout, forcing Jackson to burn a second timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Then, both Vujacic and Bryant shot long twos instead of threes, shots which, even had they been made, would have left the Lakers needing two misses by the Celtics at the free-throw line to have a chance to tie even had they gone in. Those mistakes cannot happen in a game of this magnitude at this point of the season.
The Lakers made mistakes at the defensive end as well. Both fouls that sent Pierce to the free-throw line could have been avoided. On the first, Gasol did a poor job of trapping Pierce off of a pick-and-roll, allowing him to turn the corner and get into the paint. On the second, Bryant was overzealous out on the perimeter where Pierce was no threat to score, making contact and sending him to the line.
While the Lakers got balanced offensive production--all five starters scored in double figures and Bryant, Gasol and Odom all recorded double-doubles--Bryant was never himself. Whereas the Lakers started out hot, Bryant did not have a field goal in the first half. He finished 6-of-19 from the field. The other Laker coming off of a strong Game Three, Vujacic, was less accurate still. Vujacic missed eight of his nine shot attempts and struggled on defense as well. Yet Jackson had few other options; Radmanovic can't stay with Pierce defensively, the Celtics would not respect Trevor Ariza (who came up with some valuable energy in the first half) on offense and Luke Walton has been invisible in this series.
The Lakers can still win. While no one has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, it has hardly proven completely insurmountable overall in best-of-seven series. The two teams have been close over the course of the series, with all four games ultimately coming down to the final minutes. The difference for the Celtics has been the quality of their defense and their ability to make the necessary adjustments, especially in terms of personnel. It brought them back last night and now has them within one win of a championship.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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