Quite simply, these first four games of the 2010 NBA Finals have been ugly. Sure, both teams are better on the defensive end than the offensive end, and the slow, low-scoring brand of basketball produced by this does wonders in turning away the casual fan, but there's even more to it than that. While a fan who is passionate about basketball will often take joy in the old-school, physical, defense-first 'smash mouth' style of basketball that these two teams have a potential to play, neither team has even effectively achieved that style of play for extended periods.
Obviously, the refs' wanting to ensure that the physical nature of the series stays within their control has been detrimental to the players' ability to play physical (though that was somewhat improved last game), and the foul trouble has made it tough for coaches to put their best players out on the floor, but like with most aspects of the game, the blame for this cannot be placed solely on the refs.
Essentially, a lot of players in this series look like they want no part in it. Lamar Odom, it goes without saying, seems to be shrinking by the day. Many of the Celtics' starters look old and unimpressive compared to their dominance of the Orlando Magic and the manner in which they resplendently ripped the souls of the Cleveland Cavaliers out with their bare hands. The Lakers' bench is quite simply ugly. Ron Artest is going from one spectrum of being terrible offensively to the other, before simply settling on missing good shots most of the time.
For all the talk about this being 'David Stern's preferred series' and all the hype around the Lakers-Celtics historical rivalry, this series has been the exact opposite of riveting basketball. There's little of the edge that surrounded it in '08, or the sheer force of will and determination on either side. In '08, the Lakers were a Cinderella-story team, rebounding from one of the worst offseasons in team history to being championship contenders. The Celtics, meanwhile, were the group of aging stars surrounded by young talent and key role players, all desperate for a championship and willing to sacrifice individual rewards for the end goal. They were a team that truly lived by their 'Ubuntu' philosophy.
Now the Celtics are an old team that's had not only issues in their play coupled with injury issues all season, but also chemistry issues mainly centered around an aging core reluctant to allow the team's new superstar to take charge. Their trash-talking has gotten old, their arrogance annoying. And for most of the season, they didn't even play well. Then the playoffs started, and a whole new monster roared out of the gates. Their first round went largely unnoted due to their irrelevant opponent, but they then shocked the world in ripping out Cleveland's heart and soul before looking well on their way to sweeping the Magic before Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson valiantly tried to hold them off without any help. Their regular season forgotten, they looked like a dangerous team. But now, in the Finals, it seems they've run out of gas. They're nowhere near as bad as they were in the regular season, but they're nowhere near as impressive as they were in the last two rounds, or in '08 either.
The Lakers, conversely, are simply... unimpressive. One of the best collections of top-heavy talent put together in recent league history, they've consistently played below their potential and have disappointed fans often along the way. Their regular season went from good to injury-plagued to downright depressing. Their first-round series was one of the most exciting of the playoffs but then, faced with an underwhelming foe in the second round, they simply took care of business. They looked to continue their rather strong play all through the conference finals, simply out-talenting the Suns, until they displayed a glaring flaw in an ability to score on a zone defense whilst simultaneously playing solid defense themselves. Nonetheless, thanks to their collection of talent, some luck, and Kobe Bryant, they made it through to the Finals. Now, they just seem tired. Their lack of depth consistently hurts them. They seem confused and exhausted, many seem like they just want to go on holiday. Their offense, seemingly revived in the second and third rounds, has once again disappeared when faced with a strong defense.
And then there's the injuries. Andrew Bynum's knee, Rajon Rondo's leg, Rasheed Wallace's back, Kobe Bryant's whole body, Lamar Odom's shoulder, Kendrick Perkins' knee, Shannon Brown's hand, Ron Artest's hand. Half the rotation players on both teams are injured and cannot perform at 100%. Of course, when teams have played over 100 games in a season, injuries pile up, but it's gotten to the level where it's just ridiculous.
Don't get me wrong, both these teams are stacked with extraordinary talent, and are generally two of the best defenses one will have the experience of seeing. But they both have some fatal flaws. The Celtics as a team are pretty mediocre shooters, and they are old. The Lakers as a team can't execute offensively, and have few players truly willing to hustle and fight it out to the last. That's fine, every team has flaws, but in the Finals teams are meant to step it up, and that simply hasn't really happened so far this series.
There's been no extraordinary intensity, no big raise in play from the earlier rounds of the playoffs. There hasn't even been much of a rivalry between these two teams on display. Unlike Christmas Day '08, where both teams seemed ready to take it to each other, particularly the Lakers, here it seems neither team wants any part of the other. From KG raising his hands and walking off every time a volatile scenario threatens to unfold, to Perkins shutting his yap in fear of a 7th technical, to Lamar Odom sleepwalking throughout the entire series, this has all been sanitised, clean basketball, the type David Stern wished for. And guess what? It's absolutely, drearily boring. There's no palpable hostility between these two teams. Both teams seem to realise that they're fragile, and that there's a very good chance the other team can beat them, and therefore they don't want to get caught getting into it. They downplay the importance of beating the other, and sound like they're just trying to do their job of winning a championship. Normally, this sort of talk is just politically correct, made-for-TV BS, but this series, it seems they actually mean it.
Finally, neither team has even been able to put together a half of consistently good play on both ends of the ball. Turnovers, defensive lapses, bad shots, missed layups, fouls, rebounding issues. Those have been the themes of the series, not good ball movement and consistent defense. Just a bunch of bad decisions, displaying that not only are the players' bodies not fully up to the task of playing in the NBA Finals, but their minds aren't all there, either.
Individuals, too. Artest has continued to play atrociously offensively, while Odom has joined his QB homeboy in the pits of hell (though Odom is perhaps even worse on defense than he is on offense). Kobe has played decently, but is yet to have a 'Kobe' night, and is shooting 41% for the series. With the exception of Game Three, Kevin Garnett has been senile. Ray Allen is flirting between record-breakingly good and record-breakingly bad. Paul Pierce has been average. Rajon Rondo hasn't been playing as well as he was earlier. Pau was great in Games One and Two, and average in Games Three and Four. Derek Fisher, third all-time in Finals threes hit, hasn't hit a three all series.
There's been no overtime, no truly down-to-the-wire finishes. While many games have been decided in the fourth, usually the victor was determined before the final two minutes. There has been no trading amazing basket for amazing basket right to the end, until one team either gets a crucial stop in the final few possessions or hits a buzzer-beater. There's been, quite simply, no drama. There have been no games where both teams played well enough to win, but one had to wrestle it away from the other. In fact, more often than not it's been a case where both teams have deserved to lose, until one team finally woke up in the fourth quarter.
This doesn't seem like the Finals. This certainly doesn't seem like Lakers-Celtics. This seems like mid-May. This series will truly be a 'last man standing' scenario. Both teams are literally too exhausted to play much harder, and the victor of this series will be the ones who last the longest before completely folding.
Of course, I may be totally wrong, and we may see a totally different Lakers-Celtics in Game Five on Sunday. Obviously, both teams want to play a hell of a lot harder and better, but it seems even they themselves doubt their capability to do so. It seems only time will tell. I hope, for the sake of basketball, these two teams bring it harder for the remainder of this series because, so far, this series is hardly deserving of a place in Laker-Celtic lore.
- Bynum had his knee drained again. Right now, it's not as much how effectively he plays as simply his ability to get out there and play. For the sake of preventing exhaustion and sealing the paint, the Lakers need Bynum out there for at least 20 minutes a night to have a good chance of winning this series, in addition to Odom stepping up.
- While I'm not relying on Odom putting up a dominating performance on Monday, it would be far from surprising if he did. If anything, it would be fitting.
- Doc Rivers said, 'we're gonna need to win a game where Kobe goes off and dominates'. For that to happen, the Lakers actually need to consistently get him the ball, and not only in end-of-shot-clock scenarios.
- As has been stated over at Forum Blue and Gold and here, Glen Davis, or 'Big Baby', is precisely the type of player to give Lamar Odom fits. Lamar is a tweener forward, and while he plays the modern power forward position effectively, and defends modern PFs well (the likes of Rashard Lewis, Antawn Jamison, David West, etc); when faced with a traditional bruiser power forward, he always has issues. Whether it be Carl Landry, Craig Smith, DeJuan Blair, Glen Davis or Leon Powe, Odom is going to have issues with their size and strength. Big Baby is even more of an issue, as he is the only one on that list to possess the footspeed to defend Odom's drives well on the other end of the floor. Bynum's needed for Big Baby, and if Bynum can't play much, the Lakers may even need DJ Mbenga or Josh Powell.
- Whether it be the Triangle or the pick-and-roll, whichever offense the Lakers decide to run, they actually have to run it well and with urgency. The shot clock is getting far too low on most possessions. Not only is this due to walking the ball up the court (done to slow the pace and keep the Celtics, namely Rondo, from running), but the passing and cutting has simply been lackadaisical all series, and most of the season. 15 assists and 12 turnovers last game. Ouch.
- Screw home-court advantage in Games Six and Seven, the Celtics are too good on the road for that to matter. Whichever team wins Game Five has a 95% chance of winning the series, in my opinion.
- Personally, I think that one way or the other, the series will be over in six. These teams are simply too battered to keep this up for much longer, whichever team loses Game Five looks primed to fold. Of course, the prime chance for exception to this rule is the Celtics' Big Three and Kobe Bryant - if they have their backs placed to the wall, God knows what they are capable of.
- Bench Shannon Brown, please, Phil. And free Luke Walton, the offense needs some flow. Sasha Vujacic is always a decent option, too.
- After last game's outburst, Rasheed Wallace has joined Kendrick Perkins in being one technical away from suspension. While Kendrick Perkins has kept rather quiet, helped by the refs being hesitant to call technicals at all this series, Rasheed will inevitably pick up that 7th T. It's just how he is. And it's a good thing, too, because he defends Pau Gasol better than anybody else, as highlighted by TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz in this video. Phil's said he thinks it would be cheap to try and bait Sheed or Perk into a seventh technical, and says that's not the way he likes to coach, but the refs will lead to 'Sheed getting his seventh tech regardless, and I wouldn't be surprised if things got close and a Laker took the initiative on himself to provoke Perk, though I doubt it would be Lamar Odom.
- I still can't believe Lamar Odom's comments about how he refuses to 'put a win or a loss on [his] shoulders... [the Lakers] need to do everything as a team'. He's not only shrinking from the spotlight, he's actively running away and directing the spotlight towards others, and it's despicable.
- Apparently, Phil's leaning towards giving Josh Powell some minutes next game. That could prove genius, or it could destroy the offense. But, as long as it's known to Josh that every time he shoots a jumper from further out than 15 feet, a baby dies, his playing is something Lakers fans will have to live with if Drew can't go for decent minutes.
- A lot of interesting points presented by Forum Blue and Gold's Darius over on this post about coping with Andrew Bynum's limitations, and how the Lakers as a team will have to adapt. Particularly of interest is the concept of playing Ron Artest at the Four against Big Baby. While this would work in that Artest is quicker than BBD and stronger than Lamar, it could only be tried when Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo aren't on the floor, as otherwise there's issues in defending Pierce (if Pierce is on the pine, no defender needed, if Rondo is sitting Kobe can defend Pierce).
- In fact, for better or worse, Phil's best shot in this series may be to give the bench some minutes together as a unit, reminiscent of the old 'Bench Mob' of '08. It would give the starters an opportunity to rest, present a new look for the Celtics to contend with, and may even gel and give the Celtics issues. Alternatively, it could completely self-destruct and throw away the chances of winning whichever game they get play in. Still, the concept of Pau, Lamar, Luke, Sasha and Jordan running around like it's 2008 is intriguing and might be one to consider. Thoughts, Laker Nation?