Above The Rim: We’re Back

I realize there are NBA recaps without previews. I’ll rectify this no later than Friday, but honestly, I’m still shaking out where teams get slotted and baseball and football own my time. One thing I will assure you: I am NOT jumping on the Rockets bandwagon unless Tracy McGrady makes it through a season without injury.

Lakers 96, Blazers 76 – Portland wound up shooting 34 percent from the field for the game, which is never good against a team with serious offensive talent. Kobe Bryant chipped in 23 and 11 boards, Pau Gasol had all of his 15 points in the first half, and Trevor Ariza added 11 off the bench. Bigger concern: Greg Oden leaving with an ankle sprain after playing for less than 13 minutes.

Celtics 90, Cavaliers 85 – Big ring ceremony, big emotional night at home.  27 points for Paul Pierce led the Cees, but remind me not to watch First Take, because I’m sure Skip Bayless will be on LeBron James for missing a late lay-up and two free throws with 11 seconds left.

Bulls 108, Bucks 95 – Six Bulls scored in double figures, led by Luol Deng’s 21, including #1 draft pick Derrick Rose, who added nine dimes yet dealt with four turnovers. Early impressions say former Chicago coach Scott Skiles, returning to the United Center after getting fired mid-season, is going to have a lot of work to do on defense with his Milwaukee team.

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Above The Rim: Complete Domination

Congratulations are obviously in order for the Boston Celtics, who achieved the near-impossible: going from 24 wins last season to NBA champions this year with a disgustingly dominant performance that made Laker fans sick at the end of the first half (and should have made anyone interested in competitive basketball even more ill than that.)

Given the way he and his team played for the majority of this series, Kobe Bryant should be cussing himself out during the off-season, but his teammates should be doing the same without prodding from their alpha. When a four-point deficit turns into 23 at the half and ends in a 39-point assault, it means so much more than being outclassed by a better team; it means a team failed to show up or hold any pride.

Bryant was a measly 7-for-22; Lamar Odom a lame 2-of-8, and Pau Gasol was once again putting up weak shots instead of going up the the rim. This team may need much more work than simply adding Andrew Bynum to get back to the Finals, as the Lakers got a crash course in a quick, dynamic offensive team that was just as quick on defense (which they did not face in the Western Conference matchups, despite playing the Jazz in teh conference semis.)

But this is really about Boston. The chances for a repeat ought to be realistic — all three of the Big Three are in the early 30s, and they can keep most of those role players, so they can have a good shot at a repeat. Unless they happen to run against a team that plays as hard on defense as it does on offense, they could do it all over again.

Photo: AP/Winslow Townson

Above The Rim: Delaying the Inevitable

I know the Lakers won the game 103-98; I watched the whole thing, but I can’t help but note that Boston essentially played harder and with more intensity for the final three quarters (after L.A. scored 39 points int he first quarter to put them down 17.)  Paul Pierce had 38 in the game compared to Kobe’s 25 (most of which came in the 1st quarter), and it was highly frustrating to watch the games from both Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, who put up decent statistical numbers, but again tailed off, as if going to the rim was not the idea they had in mind.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing win, and infuriating in the sense that even with Kevin Garnett in foul trouble for most of the game, the Lakers still wouldn’t take it to him to try and get him out of the game in the second half. It was even more difficult to watch the defensive lapses and idiocy on the L.A. side of the ball.  Despite the high score, it felt like a Celtics style of game the rest of the way, but the Lakers made enough plays in the final few minutes to survive and be able to go back to Boston, in an ugly game.

I don’t have any more confidence in the Lakers being able to win a Game 6 in the TD Banknorth Garden, or whatever else their arena is called. There’s no reason to. Even when the Lakers started to get out to leads of double digits, it was like, “We’ve seen this before.” And we saw a win like this in Game 3, but it will make no difference in the end. I haven’t seen anything to believe otherwise.

Photo: AP/Kevork Djansezian

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

Above The Rim: Breathing Again

This game was not pretty. Whether it was the short travel turn-around (why there are two days off in between two games in Boston, but not when the series switches cities is beyond me) or whatnot, both teams did not have all their players on full tilt. I suspect the Lakers would have still won, but it speaks well of Kobe and Sasha Vujacic to be able to help pull out a must win at home in a low scoring contest.  Kobe had 36, Vujacic 20, and the Laker defense only allowed Ray Allen to get off (he had 25, while KG had 13 after only one first half field goal and Paul Pierce was in foul trouble all night.)

With that in mind, it may be time to look at giving the Fisher-Vujacic-Bryant line-up from PG to small forward more time on the court — the Celtics admitted this formation can stretch the floor in the ways starting Vlad Radmanovic at PF doesn’t. It’s the Lakers’ small line-up, but it works, and Kobe is good enough to take on Paul Pierce directly.  For the Celtics: Pierce has to get over the jitters and KG cannot score 2 points in a half, because it means he’s not getting down low and battling for offensive boards enough.

Crucial thing: how bad is Rajon Rondo’s ankle sprain? Boston is cooked if he can’t play up to snuff. Rondo may be a second-year player who handles it better in the Garden than on the road, but tell me with a straight face that after all this time, the Celtics want Sam Cassell or Eddie House playing hte majority of the minutes at PG for the rest of the series.

I think we’ll be talking 2-2 and a 3-game series after Thursday.

Photo: AP/Mark Avery

Above The Rim: The Near Choke

There were so many things wrong and right about Game Two that it’s hard to know where to start, other than to admit I was more entertained throughout by most of the soccer I’d watched this weekend. I suppose this will be the case when you see an abundance of cheap fouls being called that normally aren’t and know the balance will be reversed once venues change.

The Celtics were dominant thanks to a willingness to penetrate and hit the rim, never mind the officials’ home cooking that always seems to rise up a little for home teams, no matter who they might be. I fully expect that free-throw disparity to be rectified once Tuesday rolls around, which speaks poorly for the NBA. Like it or not, the inconsistency of foul calls is still plaguing the game right now.  How does this affect play, you ask? The Lakers played absolutely atrocious defense the entire game — it was as if they transformed themselves into the Denver Nuggets for the 2nd and 3rd quarters — while the Celts were able to play their usual aggressive help D. When Kobe, Vlad Radmanovic, Derek Fisher, and Lamar Odom are all getting in first half foul trouble, it affects how the team plays D, because they don’t know what the refs are going to blow the whistle for. (Lest you think I’m being a Laker homer, some of those chippies on Kendrick Perkins could have been let go, too.)

That said, by no means has Boston locked anything up, because that 4th quarter just looked flat out bad for any team. Allowing 41 points in a quarter is really, really questionable.  I don’t care how large your double-digit lead is, and the Celtics were admitting post-game that they let up on the gas, setting themselves up for what would have been an awful, awful choke job; one that would have doomed them for the rest of the series. That last run permitted the Lakers to think they still have a shot — which they do, if they would do more of the rim work they were going for in the first quarter.

The Lakers have to stop Rajon Rondo’s penetration. His assist total of 16 was ridiculous, and Leon Powe playing out of his shoes is something they need to account for. There are too many weapons with the Big Three on the floor and scoring double figures to allow a bench player to get 21.

The Celtics can’t play cute with a lead (as Doc Rivers put it).  Remember where that got the Spurs two weeks ago with a 20-point lead. If they get a double digit lead at any point in the Staples Center, it’s either curb stomping time or they’ll get a major gut check — because Kobe looked disgusted on that bench late until the comeback and he’s liable to go off at home.

Photo: AP/Elise Amendola

Above The Rim: David Stern Needs A New Pair Of Undies

As the Celtics powered a particularly dominant 29-13 4th quarter on their way to their second road win of the entire playoffs and second of the series to close out the Detroit Pistons, that sound heard by NBA fans across the country was that of the league’s commissioner having a violently explosive orgasm at the dream of a Boston-L.A. Finals becoming a reality.

The Celtics won the game thanks to Paul Pierce, good contributions from the other two members of the Big Three, defensive work by James Posey, solid stuff from Rajon Rondo, and the complete ineffectiveness of the Detroit front court. Combine this with Flip Saunders’ insane decision to play Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract for serious minutes in a crucial game (yes, it’s a Simmons joke, sorry) and you have the game that somehow turned Doc Rivers into a coaching genius. Thus, Boston is celebrating while still trying to figure out how to get rid of a coach who still doesn’t know how to handle a bench or rotation even if he somehow leads this team to a Finals victory.

The players on the Pistons are already defending Saunders, saying the loss should be put on them.  But a lot of it must lie with the coach here.  Saunders has lost three straight conference finals as the coach in Detroit, and Joe Dumars is stuck with another Rick Carlisle situation — he has a coach who cannot get his talented team over the hump once again.

Photo: AP/Gary Malerba