Lakers 103, Celtics 98
This much we can say definitively after Game Five of the NBA Finals: There will be a Game Six. The Los Angeles Lakers ensured as much with a 103-98 victory over the Boston Celtics Sunday night in the final game of the 2007-08 season at the Staples Center. Now, the series shifts back to Boston with the Lakers needing to come up with two road victories to become the first team in league history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit.
At times during Game Five, it appeared the Lakers' season might come to an end. A 16-2 run brought Boston back from a 14-point deficit three minutes into the final period to tie the game at 90-all with 4:35 to play. Down the stretch, it wasn't so much that the Lakers made big plays as that the Celtics did not in a game that was there for the taking for either team.
Unfortunately, Kevin Garnett was unable to shake his reputation for shrinking in clutch situations on this night. While Garnett scored three straight Boston points at one stretch in the last five minutes, he did not score again, missing three of his last four free-throw attempts and leaving costly points on the board.
It's hard to criticize Paul Pierce, who was brilliant all evening and was the only Celtics player to score between Garnett's free throw at the 3:54 mark and Eddie House's late three with 14 seconds left and the game all but decided. However, Kobe Bryant's pair of steals from Pierce proved monumental in deciding the outcome. Both turned into points at the other end, with Bryant turning the second steal into a dunk with 37 seconds left that put the Lakers ahead by two scores.
The Lakers were sloppy at the end of the game themselves. Bryant's dunk was the team's only field goal in the last four minutes of the game, meaning the team got just free throws from its halfcourt offense in that span.
The bizarre aspect of this NBA Finals so far is that the five games have all ended up decided in the final minutes, but they have taken wildly different paths to get there. Game Five was a contest of runs. As in Game Four, the Lakers started out on fire. This time, it was largely because of Bryant, who scored 14 points and hit four three-pointers in the first seven minutes and change. The Lakers hung 39 points on Boston in the first quarter and led by 17 when it ended.
In a strange move, Phil Jackson went with Chris Mihm--who had not seen action in the entire postseason--over Ronny Turiaf as his backup big man to start the second quarter. Mihm was a disaster, fouling three times, missing a shot and turning the ball over before being replaced. By that time, the Celtics had commenced a 15-0 run that would bring them back within four points.
It took Boston but two minutes into the second half to claim the lead for the first time, but the Lakers righted the ship and used a 14-4 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters to take the 14-point lead that seemed to be comfortable before the Celtics rallied behind Sam Cassell.
So, after all that, what can the teams take from this game looking ahead to Tuesday's short turnaround? (As between Games Two and Three, the latter a sloppy affair even by the low standards of this series, the teams have only a day between games despite the cross-country flight.) I'm not sure there is much that will translate.
For the Celtics, the obvious is this: Five games into this series and 102 games into their season, the Lakers have yet to figure out how to consistently stop the pick-and-roll. It was off of picks that Pierce launched many of his forays to the basket that resulted in 19 free-throw attempts.
What Doc Rivers cannot count on is another throwback performance from Cassell, who scored seven straight points early in the fourth quarter and finished with nine points on 4-of-8 shooting. Even though Boston was +23 in Cassell's 18 minutes on the floor, Rivers must eye his production warily. Cassell is probably worth a heat check to see if he can give the team scoring from the point, but Rivers must move aggressively to get Eddie House or unproductive starter Rajon Rondo back in the game if it is apparent early that it is not Cassell's night. (Yes, yes, I know--sample-size issues and all that, but with Cassell you can tell what kind of night it is going to be quickly based on his attitude.)
While the Celtics have enough depth up front to survive without starting center Kendrick Perkins, sidelined last night and doubtful for Game Six with a strained left shoulder, his absence became more painful with Garnett in early foul trouble. Rivers started Leon Powe, but played him just five minutes. Veteran P.J. Brown got 25 minutes of run, but for most of the night the Celtics played small. James Posey was far more productive than his three points would indicate, but the undersized lineup did hurt Boston on the glass.
After his early outburst, Bryant was quiet the rest of the night, finishing with 25 points. He coughed the ball up six times, but atoned for that by coming up with five steals, including the two crucial takeaways from Pierce down the stretch. More important to the Lakers' offense were strong performances from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, who combined for 39 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists, making 14 of their 20 shot attempts.
Increasingly over the course of this series, I've begun to believe the Lakers ought to go to Gasol in the post more frequently as opposed to letting Bryant operate one-on-one on the perimeter. Garnett won Defensive Player of the Year on the strength of his help defense; he's only average defending the post, and good things have generally happened for the Lakers when they've gotten the ball to Gasol in the post.
Elsewhere, the Lakers have to hope the Machine shakes off the rust in time for Game Six, with him having put together consecutive dismal performances since his key role in their Game Three victory. With Vujacic struggling and Vladimir Radmanovic unable to defend anyone, the Lakers went with a little-used Derek Fisher/Jordan Farmar backcourt down the stretch. Jackson had the two point guards on the floor together for just 55 minutes during the entire regular season. Farmar wasn't a factor either way in the closing minutes.
Five games into this series, I still can't say I have a much better feel for things than I did when it started. Nothing would surprise me Tuesday, which will end with either the crowning of a new (old) NBA champion or just the second seven-game Finals series in the last 15 years.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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