The Lakers have seen this party before. Twice during last year's title run, they split the first two games of a series at Staples Center and had to play Game Three on the road. Twice the Lakers won to retake home-court advantage. In the 2009 conference semifinals, they pounded the Houston Rockets in Game Three, at a time when the Rockets were still at full strength. (Yao Ming played 39 minutes.) And in the 2009 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers recovered from a Game Two home loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets to win at the Pepsi Center and assume a 2-1 series lead. Though it's no guarantee of a similarly happy outcome, the circumstances of tonight's visit to the home of the Boston Celtics aren't anything new.
The stakes are simple. The Lakers have one goal at the moment - to return the series to Los Angeles - and three opportunities to achieve it. A loss tonight leaves them two opportunities. So if Game Three isn't strictly a "must win," it's very much a "would be nice to win." As the cliché goes, it's hard to beat a team three times in a row, which is at the heart of complaints about the NBA's 2-3-2 Finals format. It's not quite as hard, though, if you spot the home team the first of those three victories. Win or lose tonight, there'll be plenty of basketball still to be played, but a loss means the temperature up in here is going to start rising, quickly.
The first order of business is to shake off the confusion that overtook the team at the end of Game Two. In the final minutes, the Lakers fell apart on both ends of the floor. They abandoned their system on offense and suffered uncharacteristic breakdowns on D. They lost their poise, they panicked a little, and as a result their execution fell apart. The Boston home crowd will be raucous and bloodthirsty, and there will continue to be whistles that the Lakers disagree with, making it all the more important that they play with smarts. No more losing track of Ray Allen on D. No more Ron Artest yakety-sax dribbling exhibitions. For the love of God, please no more of those!
Laker fans have KG's missed layups in Game One. Celtic fans have Artest dribbling around like an escaped mental patient. Let's call it even.
I think the world can agree that the Lakers have a not-insignificant advantage in the big-man game. The cat's more or less out of the bag on that one. Pau Gasol has been nearly unstoppable. Andrew Bynum was decent in Game One and a force of nature in Game Two. With Kevin Garnett apparently aging in fast-forward, the Celts are not well suited to stop the Lakers' inside attack. Should the Lakers seek to feed their big men consistently, or would it be better for Artest and Derek Fisher to launch contested jumpshots off the dribble? It's a great mystery, my friends. You'd have to be some kind of basketball sorcerer to find the answer.
One thing that would help the Laker offense is taking better care of the rock. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, they turned the ball over on a decent 13% of their possessions. So far against Boston, that turnover rate is at 17%. The Celtic ball pressure has at times rattled the Laker guards. Hands are flying in to disrupt dribbles. Offensive fouls are being called. Neither of those two things is likely to change, so the Lakers have to be sounder with their handles and to move the ball with the pass rather than the bounce. Kobe Bryant has committed a third of the Lakers' turnovers in this series.
Two of the great unknowns tonight take the forms of Artest and Lamar Odom. Artest played his usual stellar defense on Sunday but looked utterly disoriented on offense. With the way the Celtics body up and poke at the ball, I don't see Ron getting much success out of post-ups or drives to the basket. His contributions, if they come at all, will be knocking down jumpers that open up when the Celtics double on Kobe or the big men. If Ron isn't making those, he needs to be giving the ball up. The Lakers can't afford to have him burn through possessions like he did in Game Two.
As for Lamar, nothing should shock us. He could score 23 and pull in 16 rebounds. He could score five points and foul out in 15 minutes. There's not really any point in complaining about the touch fouls that knocked him out of Game Two. The officials are pretty clearly going to call things close, so Lamar and the rest of the Lakers need to adjust to that reality. For however long Lamar's on the court, whether it's 35 minutes or 15, he has to be focused and aggressive.
When the Celtics have the ball, the Lakers need to improve how they work through screens. If they can't get around them in timely fashion - and in Game Two, Fish got rubbed out repeatedly, leaving Allen free to bomb away - they'll have to consider switching. On the particular topic of guarding Ray, it seems likely that we'll see more Sasha Vujacic tonight. Given how tightly whistled this series has been, Sasha's tendency to bump and foul 70 feet from the basket worries me, but Phil Jackson doesn't have many good cards to play. Certainly it's hard to imagine Sasha looking worse than Shannon Brown has done so far.
One improvement that would be easy to implement is stopping all the double teams on the Boston post players. Gasol, Bynum and Odom can handle their Celtic counterparts just fine one-on-one. There's no need for Kobe or Shannon or anyone to sag off outside shooters to help in the paint. Kobe especially has to stay home on D. When he strays from Rajon Rondo, it leaves the Boston point guard free to chase down offensive boards. A body has to be kept on him at all times.
I'm expecting a bounce-back game from Pierce tonight. The Ronster has kept him under wraps, but Pierce is too good a player not to break out at some point. In front of his home crowd and shooting at familiar rims, he'll be more of a factor than he was at Staples. I have no such concerns about Garnett. At Basketball Prospectus, Bradford Doolittle even suggests that the Celtics could be better off with KG on the bench and Rasheed Wallace on the floor in his place.
By the way, if you haven't yet submitted your entry in our Sports Enemy/"Why I Hate Boston" tee-shirt giveaway contest, be sure to do so here. I'll be reviewing the submissions this afternoon and selecting three lucky winners. The shirts are really cool. I was wearing one the other day, and your mom said I looked very handsome.
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