Paul Pierce told Laker fans that the series would not be coming back to Los Angeles near the end of game two of the NBA Finals on Sunday. If that statement is to become truth, Pierce will be returning home this summer, only he’ll be alone and he’ll still have just one ring on his finger.
(If you haven’t seen Fisher’s reaction to Pierce’s comments, here it is.)
The Los Angeles Lakers took homecourt advantage back with their 91-84 win over the Boston Celtics in game three of the NBA Finals. In one of the sloppiest games we have seen all season, the Lakers established a 17-point lead in the second quarter and never relinquished control of the scoreboard. The Celtics would charge back in the second half after tightening up their defense to give us an exciting finish, but their comeback efforts produced no positive results, only setting the stage for a four-time NBA champion to close the door on them.
Only this time, as opposed to the 100′s of games we have seen Kobe Bryant close out in a more than impressive fashion, it was his counterpart Derek Fisher taking and making big shot after big shot in the fourth quarter. Derek is no stranger to the spotlight, even on the game’s biggest stage, but his performance tonight was different than any other clutch jumper he’s hit throughout his career. It was different because the Lakers needed someone to step up more than ever as Bryant dealt with one of the worst shooting nights of his career and Fisher came through with more than just one clutch basket.
As Bryant went one-for-six in the game’s final period, with his lone jumper coming with about 1:45 left in the game, Fisher finished strong with 11 points on five-of-seven shooting. But despite his inefficient shooting, Bryant played a role in getting Fisher those shots. Boston’s defense had been forcing Bryant into long two-point jumpshots all game long and, unlike the Phoenix series, they weren’t falling. Thus, the Lakers had to go with an unusual set to get them good looks down the stretch.
After dominating the ball for the majority of the game, Bryant allowed his teammates to take all of the crucial shots in crunch time, something that most likely would not have happened in 2008. And Bryant did more than stand at the top of the key as Fisher went one-on-one with Rondo. Instead, Derek and Kobe ran a 1-2 pick and roll. Because Kobe is so dangerous, Ray Allen could not help on the screen and Rajon Rondo decided to go over on the pick, giving Fisher a wide open lane to the basket with his strong hand. He had two pull-up jump shots out of this very simple set, one that swished and another which he banked in despite contact from Rondo.
Fisher’s shots continued to push the Laker lead back to four as the Celtics answered back with buckets of their own. About two minutes after his fourth bucket of the period, the Celtics had climbed back within two before a Kobe jumper knocked in another jumper. Three bang-bang plays that required the use of instant replay followed, one of which went to the Lakers with the other two going in favor of Boston. Neither team was able to capitalize on the extra possessions. The last play that was reviewed gave Boston the ball with about one minute to go. The Celtics got themselves a quality look on the inbounds pass, but Ray Allen missed a wide open three to keep the Los Angeles lead at four.
Derek Fisher skied in to get the rebound and made the biggest play of the night to follow. The Boston defense was confused as to what the Lakers were going to do. Kevin Garnett said post-game that he thought they were going to call a time out, other Celtics looked like they thought the Allen missed three had lost them the game. Either way, Fisher took advantage of a lazy/confused Boston defense and attacked the basket on a coast-to-coast fast break, finishing at the rim with a beautiful lefty lay-up even though three Boston Celtics contested the shot while two of them whacked him on the head. Fisher nailed the free throw, giving him 11 points on the quarter.
Once again, Fisher had come through when it mattered most. I covered it in my column after the Phoenix series, but once again, after being criticized all regular season long, Derek has comeback in the post-season while facing the best competition in the world (Westbrook, Williams, Nash, Allen) and he is making big shot after big shot. We say it every time he has a game like this, we tell ourselves that this should surprise nobody, because, as Kobe said post-game, “that’s what he does.” But I’m surprised. How this guy keeps coming through in big moments is beyond logical thinking, at least considering his 82 game display before the playoffs. But I’m not complaining either, I’ll take 0 points a game in 1000 games that don’t matter if he you’re going to give me 11 points in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game on the other team’s home court. I’ll take that any day of the week. Fisher finished with 16 points on six-of-12 shooting. He still sits without a three-pointer in the Finals, but that doesn’t matter after tonight.
Kobe Bryant showed something in this game as well. In 2008, Bryant would have had a 10-of-29 shooting night and that would have been it. That would have been the story. But tonight, after two seasons, Bryant has grown into a leadership role. Instead of just being a volume shooter, Bryant facilitated, he rebounded, he played excellent off-the-ball and on-the-ball defense, and he was willing to let someone else be the man in the final five minutes of the game. Kobe finished with 29 points on 20 shots, an inefficient rate, but he also added seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.
Because Bryant’s defensive assignment is Rondo, a horrific jump shooter, he has the ability to roam defensively more than ever. Thabo Sefolosha is in the same boat, but Kobe had to make sure he was at least in the vicinity of him to make sure he didn’t get too many open three’s. With Rondo, he’s playing off of him and because he stays at the top of the key for the majority of the time he is on the floor, Kobe gets to play goalie in a sense. We saw it in game one when Tony Allen got blocked by Kobe and we saw it again tonight. Normally, if Kendrick Perkins is posting up Pau Gasol, the opposite big man (Odom or Byum) is the guy you would expect to provide help in the paint. But now, Kobe is able to drop down low if need be, giving the Lakers an athletic guard with a lot of hops (Kobe gets much better lift on defense than offense for some reason) that can go up and swat shots. We saw that three times last night, with the best block of the post-season coming as Bryant rejected Perkins at the apex of his jump.
Kobe also had several hustle plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. After a missed lay-up, Bryant came from the opposite side of the floor to poke away the rebound from Kevin Garnett, dove out of bounds to save the ball while simultaneously finding Andrew Bynum under the basket, who caught the pass and finished with KG on his back getting an AND-1. On the defensive end, again with Rondo staying out on the wing, Kobe came into the paint to help on KG, knocking the ball out of his hand but also off the tip of his fingers, giving the Lakers possession of the ball. These extra effort plays from Kobe may or may not show up on the scoreboard, but there is definitely something about watching the best player in the league make plays that put his body at risk for the better of the team.
The amazing part about this game for the Lakers is that there were able to come up with a victory in Boston despite 19 misses from Kobe Bryant and a poor game from Pau Gasol. Gasol shot just five-of-11 from the field for 13 points while grabbing 10 boards. That’s a solid game, but not great compared to his play in games one and two. It looks worse when you consider Kevin Garnett made his first appearance of the series, going from 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting. Most of those buckets came on Gasol. The same way Pau abused KG on the block in the first two games, Garnett took it right to Gasol early and often. He faked him out of the way to get uncontested lay-ups and he shot right over him, making great shots despite pretty good defense.
Garnett did not have as much success against Andrew Bynum. On a couple of occasions the two were matched up against each other and when Garnett went to the same moves that worked on Gasol, Bynum was right there to block the shot before he got it out of his hands. I don’t know if one is longer than the other but Bynum definitely seems to have his moves timed a little better. Gasol plays Garnett over aggressively, putting his body right on Garnett, even in face-up situations. That gives KG the advantage and allows him to get the first step on Gasol. Even though he didn’t have Bynum on him nearly as much, it seemed like Andrew played him a little better, at least this evening.
Bynum played 29 minutes in this game, less than game two but one more than game one. I loved what he did. He was just three-of-nine from the field but his defense was absolutely key in the second half and he got big shots to go down when the momentum was either shifting to Boston or growing in favor of the Lakers. Bynum had nine points and 10 rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end. I’ve written two columns on Bynum alone since the Finals started so I won’t do it again, but I echo the thought that I didn’t expect this kind of production before the series and I’m very happy he is delivering right now.
Before the game, the plan was for Andrew to play fewer minutes in order to get Lamar Odom some more time on the court, and to get him in the game early. Odom wasn’t great but compared to his first two games he was magnificent. Lamar played 28 minutes and though he racked up another four fouls, his scoring and rebounding made up for that in this contest. Lamar’s first shot was an ill-advised three with Kobe calling for the ball on the block, something that happened twice in game two, but unlike game two, he banked it in. Odom would take four more shots over the course of the game and he didn’t miss one. 12 points and five boards for Odom, which helped out tremendously for the Lakers. Lamar can play even better, but you can’t complain with the effort tonight.
Ron Artest was again poor on the offensive end. After scoring the first bucket of the game for the Lakers, Ron missed his next three shots and wasn’t getting the ball moving on the perimeter. Howevr, once again his defense on Paul Pierce kept Pierce from doing anything offensive. Pierce was five-of-12 from the field for just 15 points, and three of those points came after the game had been decided. Artest’s back-up, Luke Walton, had a good game himself. When Pierce went out with early foul trouble, Walton came in to help the offense flow better. Luke had just two points (on a pretty jumper at the end of the shot clock), two rebounds and one assist, but things just seem to go better when Walton is on the floor. He fought for loose balls and made plays out of nothing. Though its not necessarily something to rely on after just one game, Walton was a +13 in the game, the best line in the game other than Odom (+14).
Boston can say they should be happy for being close even though Ray Allen was horrific, which is true. Never has there been such a swing from good to bad. Allen went from an NBA Final’s record eight three-pointers in game two to the third worst shooting performance in the history of the NBA Finals with an 0-for-13 performance (0-of-8 for three). However, the Lakers can say the same thing about the record breaking performance in game two.
With a 2-1 advantage, the Lakers have a chance to take a tight grip on the series with a win on Thursday night. Even if they lose that contest or even the next one for that matter, they can rest well knowing they got home court advantage back with a victory on Boston’s homecourt. No matter what, the Lakers will be going back to LA with a ring, or at least a chance to get one, which means Paul Pierce was a little too cocky on Sunday evening.