Lakers-Celtics Game 4 Preview: Starring Whoever Doesn't End Up In Foul Trouble

So, what has been the overarching theme of this series so far? Well, there hasn't been one... to do with the players, at least. Every game has had many aspects polar opposite to those in the game prior to it, such as Ray Allen's Jekyll-and-Hyde performances in Games 2 and 3, or Kevin Garnett's performances from Games 1 and 2 compared to Game 3. It's impossible to tell who's going to carry the team in any given game, as both teams possess so much talent that near any player on the roster can drop points, but both teams also play such excellent defense as to prevent most of their opponents from dropping points.

Perhaps the only constant of this series has been the atrocious officiating. Foul trouble for a plethora of players, from both teams. Touch fouls on the perimeter, sometimes not even involving a touch. No flow in the game. The people who have had the most effect throughout the series have not been those donning the Purple and Gold or Green and White, but those wearing the bland grey. The fouls have been roughly equal in their level of horribleness, but even with the consistency they detract from the experience of the Game. Some may argue that the number of fouls is caused by the extremely physical nature of both teams, particularly the Celtics, but even accounting for the extra physicality, games are still called too tight.

However, it is how the refs have been throughout the whole series, and it is unlikely to significantly change, so the NBA Champions will likely  be the team that most adeptly adjusts to this style of officiating, and so far it has been the Lakers.

But I digress, we do have a game on our hands, and even with the impossible nature of trying to predict anything that will occur in this series, the Preview must go on, after the Jump.

Speaking of fouls, anybody else find Doc Rivers' comments about the officiating to be laughable? Seriously, complaining about the level of Lakers' moving screens when it is publicly known Celtic strategy to set illegal screens banking on the notion that the refs can't call every foul, and calling Derek Fisher a flopper when nearly every point he scored in the Fourth involved a Celtic flopping? Hmm, desperate, or simply working the refs? Doubtless Phil put in a complaint to the League Office of his own, to counter Rivers' claims, but all this can do is result in more fouls being called and thus even more dragged out games, not fun for anybody.

I apologise about spending so much time commenting on the officiating, but quite frankly the officiating throughout this series has been atrocious to the level it is the first thing that comes to people's mind when thinking of the 2010 NBA Finals - is that really how David Stern wants it remembered?

Me, personally, I don't buy into the conspiracy theories. There is simply too much historical evidence to point to showing the flaws in the argument. If the NBA truly wants to extend the series to 7 games, why have there been so few 7-game Finals series in history? Why has only literally one series these whole Playoffs gone to 7 games? It just doesn't add up. Far more likely, the refs are just human, have had drilled into their heads the rivalry and physical nature of these two teams, and are determined to ensure they maintain control of the game and do not let bloodlust take over; even if this control comes at the cost of flow.

The results have been tangible in that every game in this series at least one core player has been limited due to foul trouble. Allen in Game One, Kobe in Game Two, Pierce in Game 3, Artest in every game (I am not including the Celtics' big men on this list as it is their defensive strategy to foul close to the basket to prevent easy layups and to create an intimidation factor). All these players have had subpar games that have affected their respective teams' ability to win. Celtics fans will argue that if Ray Allen had actually been able to play in Game 1, they could have pulled out a win. Conversely, Lakers fans will claim that if Kobe had not picked up his fifth foul on an iffy charge call in Game Two, he may have been more aggressive in the fourth and thus won Los Angeles the game. 

Essentially, staying out of foul trouble in itself is a key to winning Game Four, and thus an achievement in itself. Neither of these teams are truly deep, and thus having to either dig deep into their bench or keep players out there who are playing cautiously with the threat of fouling out hanging over their heads leads to truly ugly basketball. Simultaneously, the team that can win playing this style truly deserves to win the Larry O'Brien.

Notes/Adjustments from Game Three (and the series in general)

Last game for the Celtics, Garnett was the only one to truly bring it on the offensive end. He was more patient with his shots, and instead of playing through the whole game taking turnaround jumpers or bulling his way to the rim, neither option being consistently efficient to him anymore, he earnt some early easy buckets simply by outhustling the Laker bigs down the floor, and used solid fundamental post moves coupled with soft hands to score the majority of his baskets, before truly heating up and making some turnaround and midrange J's. Nonetheless, Garnett still looked tired towards the end of the Game, and with his advancing age it is unlikely he can perform at such a level on a consistent basis, though he can certainly do better than he did in the first two games of this series, simply by utilising some more post moves like the ones he used on Tuesday. Gasol's defense on him was decent, it was just that Garnett was performing at an even higher level offensively. Likely, no defensive adjustment will be needed to combat Garnett throughout the series, though Phil may experiment and put Andrew Bynum on Garnett some more, as Drew's increased size and length seem to be more effective on KG than Pau is. Unless KG performs at an even higher level than he did on Tuesday, there shall never be any need to double-team him as letting him get his on offense is a better option than to collapse the defensive scheme.

Ray Allen, ouch. Seems the last two games effectively cancelled each other out. Ray was a bit aggressive looking for his shot early, as he has been in every game of this series, but this time the Lakers actually properly closed out, causing him to miss his first few looks and shake his confidence a little, particularly by blocking and/or severely altering many of his jumpers that earlier on in this series would be open. This caused him to rush his shots later in the game, missing them all (literally). The Lakers need to keep up the defensive effort - undoubtedly he is unlikely to be so cold again, but playing him that well will at the very least restrain him from repeating his Game Two performance.

It seems the Triangle is simply not working against the Celtic defense, which makes sense. Essentially, the Celtics defense is a zone half the time, and the Triangle is not a zone-breaking offense. The various cuts and angles on the Triangle are based on getting separation from an individual man-on-man defender, so as to receive the pass and either pass or finish. Against a Zone, it simply doesn't work as effectively, as evidenced in the Phoenix series. What does work, however, primarily due to the dearth of mobility in the Celtic bigs, is the pick-and-roll. The Lakers are penetrating with relative ease using this offensive strategy, as the Celtics are simply too old to rotate quick enough to contain everyone. The 2-4 screen-and-roll is obviously the staple, involving Kobe and Pau for the perfect combination of athleticism, passing ability, chemistry, court vision and mismatches; but the 1-2 pick-and-roll, as used in the fourth quarter of Game 3, should not be overlooked as it is quite useful due to the Celtics not being stupid enough to leave Kobe, even for a second.

It shall be interesting to see if the Celtics come up with adjustments in their defensive scheme for Fisher. He is still the least talented offensive player on the starting roster, and one of the least talented in the rotation, but his ability to transcend that is quite frankly ridiculous. How on earth does a 35-year-old point guard who was never known to be particularly quick run a 1-on-3 fast-break and obtain the three-point play is beyond rational thought. Quite frankly, it would be beneficial for the Lakers if the Celtics did pressure Fisher more, as Fisher will always adapt and meanwhile the additional defensive attention opens up opportunities for other players.

Fisher's backcourt partner, Kobe, seemed to be tired in Game Three. One day's rest, most of which was travel, after two games in which he played heavy minutes in LA, preceded by a series of fast-paced, heavy-minutes games in Phoenix. He wasn't getting as much lift as he normally does on many shots, didn't have his first step all there, and couldn't fade away as well as normal. Many of the shots he took in Game Three were very makable shots for him, when his legs are all there. It is unknown how much the single day of rest will aid him, but hopefully he'll come out with a little more lift in Game Four. If not, he'll likely find a way to adjust. 13 assists, maybe?

Lamar Odom STILL hasn't shown up at all this series. Discounting that banked three, which was just a stupid shot that badly missed but got the lucky bounce, he had 9 and 5 last game. He was certainly efficient, not missing a shot, but he still wasn't aggressive enough. Big Baby actually has the footspeed to keep up with Lamar, but Odom should still be decimating the likes of Perkins and Rasheed Wallace off the dribble. Lamar, feel free to rock up at any time, it might help.

Last game, while Garnett stepped up for the Celtics, no-one truly played well for the Lakers offensively throughout the game. Instead, it was the stifling Los Angeles defense that held him up through the game in the second and third quarter before Derek Fisher closed it. Hopefully today the Lakers' defense will make an appearance, as well as a transcendent offensive player actually playing like a, you know, transcendent offensive player.

 

Final Thoughts

This is a tough game to determine, even by the standards of this series. With all the heckling of the officials, there's no way of knowing how the fouls will be called. There's no way of knowing if Kobe will be feeling better, if Bynum will continue to play effectively even after tweaking his knee last game or which of the Celtics' Big 4 will show up.

All that's known is that these Celtics want to win, and therefore do NOT want to go down 3-1 in a series, a near insurmountable deficit. Simultaneously, most of these Lakers still remember '08 with a passion, and want redemption for that fateful Game 6 on Boston's parquet, and some of the Lakers are simply polite and wish to fulfill Pierce's prediction.

Both teams desire this game more than any game this series. Who desires it more will be key. In such choppy, foul-plagued, defense-orientated games, execution matters little. It is a matter of will and determination. The team who wants it more will win -  these two teams are too evenly matched for one to simply clean 'out-talent' the other, as would often happen in the Regular Season against lesser foes. To quote Al Pacino, "it's the man who's willing to die, who's gonna win that inch"... that inch that will bring them one step closer to that end goal of a championship.

Historically, the Lakers he fared not-so-well in this scenario, often laying an egg losing Game Fours when up 2-1 and having won their previous game, before bouncing back prominently in Game 5. This time, however, I envisage this game at least going to overtime. What happens from there is anybody's guess.

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