The Los Angeles Lakers, at some point, needed to take one of these games – those against the league’s other elite teams – to make a statement to the rest of the league. They needed to take a stand, if only for a night, just they could stop hearing about their supposed demise. The same rumblings were around last season and when the Lakers had had enough of it, they went out and sent a message. In a similar situation tonight, the Lakers went out and convincingly handled the Celtics for a half en route to a 92-86 victory over their most bitter rivals.
The Celtics started off the game with the momentum, with their fans jacked up about the possibility of Ray Allen breaking the NBA record for three-pointers made. Allen’s first three attempt was errant, but the fans were still up, going crazy in anticipation. Allen ended up tying and breaking the record in the first quarter, which may have been the worst thing for the Celtics. They had a 15-point lead in the first half, but because Allen had already broken the record – and because Allen had to sit out a good chunk of the game because of foul trouble – the Garden crowd never got into in the second half.
Allen hit a few mid-range jumpers in the first half as well, as Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and even Von Wafer helped to grow the Celtics lead. But once the second half begin, the Lakers took control of the ball game. Entering the third period down five thanks to a spurt at the end of the first half, the Lakers scored the first 10 points of the quarter thanks a three from Derek Fisher, a pair of nice finishes from Kobe Bryant and a Pau Gasol mid-range two. The Celtics would cut the lead to four to start the fourth period but the Laker reserves would keep them at bay – a Lamar Odom three, a Shannon Brown tip-in and a few nice plays from Steve Blake on both ends would help the Lakers maintain their cushion.
Phil Jackson may have went with his reserve unit a bit too long in the fourth, as Kobe and Pau sat until the five minute mark in the period. By then, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had already returned, with Allen hitting a triple and Pierce getting to the bucket to cut the lead to three. But when Kobe checked in, the game was all but over. Bryant channeled Mamba mode for the first time all season and flat out dominated Boston down the stretch.
He started things off with a 19-foot turnaround over Ray Allen, then he swished a 20-footer coming off a curl, then he took the ball to the basket for an easy deuce, then he drove baseline, drew the double team and gave Pau Gasol a beautiful pass for an easy two, and he finished things off with an isolation destruction of Ray Allen, taking him the half-court line to the free throw stripe, with Allen guessing every which way before Kobe pulled up and knocked down the jumper to seal the deal.
More on the game after the break…
Bryant and the Lakers stole Allen’s show, which was a bit too theatrical for a player that had accomplished something so basic. Yes, it’s impressive that he has the most three-pointers made in NBA history, but is it really so amazing that we should place a spotlight on him when he goes to the bench while watching him high five all of his teammates, then look on as he hugs Reggie Miller, whose record he broke, twice, and then observe Allen getting congratulatory hugs from every member of his family (oh, and by the way, his mom also hugged Reggie Miller for whatever reason)? No, the entire spectacle was unnecessary. It kind of reminded me of when Lastings Milledge circled Shea Stadium after hitting his first professional homerun to shake hands with fans.
Kobe had a decisive gameplan in this one, as did the Lakers. They made an effort to get Andrew Bynum and Gasol going early, not only through post-ups but on basket cuts and lobs. Derek Fisher was off on his lob location last night, but the length of Gasol and Bynum was enough to coral the ball and their smarts to keep the ball high allowed them to go right back up with it. Bryant wasn’t directly implementing this plan at all times as is often the case, rather, the ball was swung from side to side until a post entry was feasible and Fisher, Bryant and Ron Artest all did a good job of getting the ball downlow.
In the second half, with the Boston crowd arriving late to their seats, Kobe scored very quickly to get his team the lead and then returned in the fourth to close out the game. He finished with 23 points (with 20 coming in the second half), which, when you consider the pace at which these two teams play at and the stoutness of Boston’s defense, is pretty good. His nine-of-17 shooting will justify that as well as his willingness to start the game off in a very passive mode that kept his teammates engaged throughout the game. Bryant added five rebounds, four helpers and a monster block on Rajon Rondo in the win.
Pau Gasol and Bynum were fantastic as well. Gasol had 20 points and 10 rebounds while making eight of his 13 shots from the floor. He filled the holes in the lane when they were open, he knocked down his mid-range two and he was good on defense as well. Bynum was the rock on defense, keeping Rajon Rondo away from the basket on most cases, while making Kendrick Perkins look even worse on offense than he actually is, which is hard to do. Lamar Odom struggled in this one and it wasn’t just because he got chinned in the face by Pau Gasol – he needed eight stitches after the game to close the gash on his forehead. He rushed shots in the half-court and on the break in the first half, but in the fourth period his three-point was huge and his ability to crash the boards and bring the ball was key down the stretch. 10 points on four-of-12 shooting overall, but 12 big boards, too.
Allen finished with a team high 20 points, but took 18 shots to get there. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were off, making just 10 of their 25 shots. Rajon Rondo was horrid offensively, scoring 12 points on 14 shots (missing nine of those). The Lakers implored the same defensive strategy that they did on Rondo during the Finals, placing Kobe Bryant on him while giving him a good five feet of space. Bryant went under on the Celtics’ numerous pick and rolls and that induced Rondo into taking six mid-range jumpers. He missed four. Additionally, when Rondo got a lane to the basket, Bynum or Gasol was there to discourage a shot and on one occasion, Bryant caught him from behind and swatted him.
Celtics fans will argue that this team doesn’t resemble their squad at full strength and while true, the amount of minutes their starting five played was right on line with what they would play in a playoff series and the Lakers weren’t at full strength themselves as they continue to miss Matt Barnes badly (Ron Artest was two-of-six with four points on the game).
In the end, no matter how you spin in, this was a big win for the Lakers. Los Angeles is now 3-0 on their current road trip and they would be on a five game winning streak if it wasn’t for the luckiest two plays of the year going in favor of San Antonio during their Thursday night meeting last week (Gary Neal flip at the end of the first quarter and Antonio McDyess‘ offensive interference tip to win the game). This was the biggest game of the trip for the Lakers because of their history with the Celtics but over the next three days, the Lakers will be test again. Tonight, they take on the New York Knicks at MSG and Sunday afternoon they meet with the Magic in Orlando in a rematch of the 2009 NBA Finals. With another win out of those two games, almost all critics will be silenced and if the Lakers can manage to pull of victories in both contests, they’ll likely regain their status as the favorite to win it all.