Above The Rim: The Fat Lady Is Doing Some Vocal Exercises

Now, the Lakers may save face on Thursday and this will have to end in Boston next week. But I’m going to have to start re-thinking my rationale for the Lakers pick in the Finals, because the Celtics have destroyed just about every advantage the Lakers have had and exposed a few fallacies I had coming into the series. All of these are perfectly good explanations as to why the Lakers blew a lead that grew to as large as 24 at one point; in fact, if you look at them all collectively, it’s hard to be surprised at this collapse.

I was watching the collapse at work with a friend/co-worker who is a Laker die-hard, and couldn’t understand how this could happen. I could see it, and said so.

1) A 19-point night on 6-for-19 shooting for Kobe means the Lakers will lose. Neither Gasol nor Odom nor anyone else on the squad is good enough to make up for Kobe scoring less than 20 points. That lead was built on the bench and the other starters. If Kobe can’t get in rhythm, it spells doom, because the bench is bound to cool off. The Celtics’ help rotation on defense is spectacular, and since it looks like Tom Thibodeau won’t be getting head coaching offers for next season (unless someone gets fired that we don’t know about), this will stay next season, too. I was never a “Kobe = MJ” guy; I still think Kobe is the best player in the league on individual skill, period, and wanted him to establish his own legacy — but everyone who’s saying “Jordan would have never let that happen” is absolutely right.  Kobe thrives on having chips on his shoulder, and he’s going to have a big one after this.

(Theory: if we’d like to continue the Jordan comparisons, look at it this way: these are the steps a Kobe-led Laker team has to take to learn how to win. Whether they can again after this, well, that’s another matter.)

2) Speaking of help defense, the Lakers’ defensive rotations completely disappeared in the second half. Partial credit must go to Eddie House playing minutes, because Kobe had to respect his shot after a couple of threes, thus opening up the floor for the Celtics and not allowing Bryant to do what he does as a top-notch defender: play help defense.

3) I have tried to stay away from the Euroball critique; outside of the flopping, I’ve enjoyed the offensive aesthetics and unique versatility brought by players of the international school. But this game finally revealed the complete inability of the Lakers to slog it down low with teams. Pau Gasol is not a center and never will be. I made a mistake, believing he would step it up against Kevin Garnett, who has similar tendencies — but solely on the offensive end. Garnett is an intense defensive presence, one that made Gasol revert to his usual weak inside attempts, so even a 17 point and 10 board game seems insufficient. This team misses Andrew Bynum more than it lets on — while they probably wouldn’t have dealt for Gasol without Bynum’s knee injury, they need someone willing to muck it up in the paint and go strong.

4) Lamar Odom appears for one half (15 points in the first), and when the screws get turned, disappears with only 4 points in the second half. He is not comfortable being even the third option, it seems.

5) Eddie House, Leon Powe, P.J. Brown, getting a mix of veterans and young players to chip in like that has seemed to add to the difference. The Laker bench skews younger, and they run hot and cold — when they run cold, they will stay out of normal offensive and defensive rotations, which kills them, because it becomes haphazard and without execution.

6) When House and James Posey were on the floor, it changed the Celtic attack — making Pierce and Allen the ball-handlers, which is, paradoxically, a complete ape of the Lakers’ triangle in the sense that it does not require a traditional point guard to control the action (which is why you see a fair share of Kobe and Odom bringing it up the court for Los Angeles.) The Celtics stole the Lakers’ bag of tricks in spreading the floor and the offensive rotation required.

I think this is why I’m less than surprised. These things start to add up, and I wish I’d accounted for them previously. The only way the Lakers can save the ignominy is by performing the impossible: becoming the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals.

I’m not betting a whole lot on it.

Photo: AP/Mark J. Terrill

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