L.A. Lakers 89, Houston 70 (Lakers win series 4-3)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 104.3, Houston 78.3
One of the questions going around about this series was whether the L.A. Lakers' biggest area for improvement was at the offensive end or on defense. My contention was that it was the defense that was letting the Lakers down, and I think the results of Game Seven bore that out. The Lakers scored 89 points in 85 possessions, a rate which would not have been good enough to win either Games Four or Six, when the Houston Rockets scored at a rate of 116.1 and 115.5 points per 100 possessions respectively, Game One (106.6) or even two of the games they did win, Two and Three (105.3 and 107.7). Yet this still was a blowout win for the Lakers because the Rockets could never get anything going on offense. They were scoreless for the first 5:08 of the game, and things never got much better from there.
Houston is an excellent defensive team, and spent the first round of the playoffs locking up a Portland team that was more efficient on offense during the regular season than the Lakers were. So that L.A. would struggle at times to score should not have been a surprise. However, for a matchup of the league's 16th-best offense during the regular season against its fifth-best defense, the Rockets' offense was remarkably evenly matched with the Lakers' defense throughout this series.
In Game Seven, the Lakers did their most complete job of taking penetration away from Aaron Brooks. They were able to do that because of renewed effort at the point of attack against the pick-and-roll and because their best help defender, Andrew Bynum, was there to keep Brooks out of the paint. Not only was Bynum able to stay on the floor for 22 minutes, he also had more freedom to help because Phil Jackson at last decided to ignore Chuck Hayes and make the Rockets' least-skilled player beat them. Good decision.
Hayes attempted eight shots, giving him 14 attempts in 42 minutes in the Lakers' two wins since Yao Ming's injury and three shots in 65 minutes in their two losses. In those two games, Brooks had 27 points on 8-for-24 shooting as opposed to 60 points on 20-for-33 shooting in the wins. This is not a coincidence. Brooks got just five attempts in the paint, and missed them all under defensive duress. He also struggled with the pressure applied by the Lakers, coughing the ball up five times.
When it became apparent in the early going that Brooks was not going to be able to provide the offense Houston needed, Jeff Van Gundy urged them to go to Luis Scola in the post. However, while Scola dominated an unmotivated Pau Gasol in Game Six, for most of this series he has been held in check. Such was the case yesterday, as he had 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
Next, the Rockets turned to Ron Artest. As has been the case since Yao's injury, even in Houston's blowout wins, Artest was not equal to the task. He overdribbled, hoisted six three-pointers amongst his 10 shot attempts (making one) and scored seven points in 39 minutes. Scratch that. The last real hope Houston had for generating any offense was getting hot from downtown, and this was not to be; Shane Battier missed all four of his tries, and the Rockets were 5-for-20 as a team.
Basically, everything that could go wrong for Houston on offense did. The only reason the Rockets were able to avoid another 40-point margin was that they did scratch and claw on defense and were reasonably effective there, forcing 19 turnovers, limiting the Lakers to 33.3 percent shooting from downtown and holding them to 38 second-half points. Kobe Bryant was strangely absent from the Lakers offense, content to sit back and watch because Houston has defended him so well in this series and because the team built an early lead. He used 15 shooting possessions, scoring 14 points and handing out five assists.
Much will be made of the Lakers finally overwhelming the Rockets with their size up front, but this factor is probably somewhat overblown. Bynum was very good on offense, decisive when necessary and patient when the situation called for it. He made six of seven shot attempts to score 14 points in 22 minutes. Though Pau Gasol scored a game-high 21 points, it wasn't a great scoring effort; he needed 19 shot attempts, got to the free-throw line only once and had five turnovers. Gasol had a greater impact on the glass, coming up with six offensive rebounds and 18 in total. The Lakers as a team did a phenomenal job of finishing possessions with defensive boards, limiting Houston to five offensive rebounds in 47 opportunities--a dismal 10.6 offensive rebound percentage.
A key factor for the Lakers in the early going was Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher hitting their open jumpers. Ariza had nine points and knocked down a pair of three-pointers in the first quarter, and Fisher made both of his shots in the opening period as well. That helped the Lakers build an insurmountable early lead.
I was surprised by the willingness of Van Gundy and Mark Jackson to make excuses for the Lakers' performance in this series late in the game. While they probably took too much criticism, and the Rockets surely got too little credit, if the Lakers had gone to their Game Seven game plan earlier in this series, they would have been able to finish this series earlier and go into the Western Conference Finals at less of a rest disadvantage. I've liked the Lakers to win the championship most of the season because of the extra gear they have shown. So far during the playoffs we've seen precious little of that level of play, and the Lakers had better find it soon.
Orlando 101, Boston 82 (Orlando wins series 4-3)
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 114.6, Boston 93.9
Consider Game Seven the bizarro day of the Boston Celtics/Orlando Magic clash. Series-long trends were turned on their ear in Game Seven, and the result was a Magic win that, if not as one-sided as the final score would indicate, was decisive nonetheless.
The biggest difference came in terms of Orlando's three-point shooting. The Magic shot 30.5 percent from downtown over the first six games, the result of a team-wide malaise (as opposed to Boston's three-point shooting, off largely because of Ray Allen's struggles); no Orlando player with more than four attempts had made better than 36.4 percent of his threes. For a Magic team that finished second in the league in threes in the regular season, this qualified as unusual, and while the Celtics defended the three-point line very well in the regular season, they got torched from downtown by the Bulls in the opening round.
Apparently, Orlando was just saving all its threes for Game Seven, hitting 13 of them in 21 attempts to more than double its previous accuracy in the series (to 61.9 percent). The triples came from all over, with four different players making at least two of them. They carried a Magic offense that was otherwise uninspired, turning the ball over 16 times and recording but three offensive rebounds. In fact, Boston had the advantage in three of the Four Factors. It's just that Orlando's advantage in shooting efficiency (60.7 percent eFG% versus 41.9 percent for Boston) dwarfed everything else.
Besides being due, the Magic benefited from bizarro factor No. 2: The return of Hedo Turkoglu. The pick-and-roll assassin--dangerous as a shooter, driver or passer--re-emerged, creating huge problems for the Celtics' defense. Turkoglu scored 25 points and came up with four of those Orlando three-pointers, and he also set up teammates with 12 assists. The Magic's ball movement was phenomenal in the first quarter in particular, and the team finished with 26 assists on 36 buckets, with every starter save Dwight Howard handing out at least four. Orlando made the extra pass, translating into better looks from downtown, and Turkoglu set the tone.
The last bizarro factor worked against the Magic, that being Allen finding his jumper, previously MIA. In Game Seven, Allen was Boston's best offensive player, scoring 23 points on 19 shooting possessions with three triples. Alas, a strong effort for Allen could not offset rough shooting nights for the rest of the Celtics. Among the reconstituted Big Three, Paul Pierce just could not find a rhythm, missing nine of his 13 shot attempts, and Rajon Rondo played passer with as many assists as shot attempts (10 apiece).
In a game where his offensive numbers don't jump off the page (12 points on 5-for-9 shooting), Howard was a force at the defensive end. He blocked five shots, and the plus-minus backs up his critical importance. In the 10 minutes Marcin Gortat was on the court in place of Howard, Boston scored 25 points. That means the Celtics had 57 points in Howard's 38 minutes, which is a 72-point pace over the pace of a full game.
This played out in the fourth quarter. Howard sat down at the 8:03 mark with five fouls, and Boston scored on five of its next seven possessions--one of the two stops coming when Pierce missed a pair of free throws. After an Allen three cut the lead to 12, Van Gundy quickly signaled timeout to get Howard back in the game. The Celtics would not score again for more than three minutes while Turkoglu threw in two jumpers and Alston another three to finish Boston off.
Ultimately, the Celtics were never able to find a consistent formula for success in this series. There were stretches where they played well, including all of Game Two, and that was enough to stretch this series to seven games. Change the outcome of one of the close games (Games Four and Five) and things look very different; Orlando might have won in six and never gone through the mini-crisis between Games Five and Six. I'm not sure there were a lot of changes Doc Rivers could have made that would have made a huge difference. Rashard Lewis was a problem at times in this series, but he was quiet the last two games. Rivers tried Pierce on him with a smaller lineup in the fourth quarter last night, and it did not work.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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