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Lakers 89, Celtics 96: You've Come a Long Way, Big Baby


We've all come a long way, from 2008. In drawing contrasts between this year's NBA Finals and the Lakers-Celtics series of two years ago, most of the talk has been of how the Lakers have become a tougher, more championship-worthy team. The Celtics, however, have made improvements of their own. Chief among them is a newfound ability to win playoff games without dominant performances from their Big Three. In tonight's Game Four, a 96 to 89 Boston victory that evens the series at two games a piece, Paul Pierce led the Celtics in scoring with 19 points, and Kevin Garnett had moments of usefulness, but the truly dynamic play came from bench players Glen Davis and Nate Robinson. Those two led a massive Boston surge in the fourth quarter that secured what was effectively a must-win for the Celtics.

As in Games Two and Three, the Laker offense looked dazed and sluggish for long stretches tonight. They had trouble getting into their offensive sets and passing into the post. Kobe Bryant, though he finished with 33 points and made several key three-pointers to keep the Lakers in it, struggled with turnovers and with the general task of finding good looks. There were no out-of-the-blue role player heroics like those of Derek Fisher on Tuesday night. No one stepped forward to energize the attack.

The greater problems, though, were on defense, and in particular on the defensive glass. That's where things got really ugly.

The Celtics were not a good offensive rebounding team this year. In the regular season they rebounded less than 23% of their own misses, ranking 28th in the league in that metric. Coming into tonight's game, their offensive rebounding rate in the playoffs was just slightly better, at 25%. Watching Game Four, you'd never guess this wasn't a team strength, or that the Lakers were one of the league's better units on the defensive glass this season. The Celtics tonight straight embarrassed the Lakers on the boards. They collected an insane 16 offensive rebounds, amounting to a cool 39% of their misses, leading to 20 second-chance points. In this year's postseason, they'd never before posted a one-game offensive rebounding rate over 33%.

Big Baby personally pulled in four offensive boards and scored nine second-chance points, en route to 18 for the game. He made Lamar Odom look astonishingly bad. Flashing great quickness and using his low center-of-gravity, Big Baby drove past Lamar to the basket several times and established excellent offensive rebounding position. It helped that for the most part, there was no Andrew Bynum on the court to guard the rim or clean up missed shots. Drew's knee worsened between Games Three and Four, and he could only go 12 minutes tonight. His absence was felt.

The decisive stretch came in the fourth quarter. The Lakers led, 62 to 60, after three physical defensive periods. The Laker offense, though, was stagnating. For most of the third period, it wasn't clear what exactly they were trying to do with the ball. Someone would walk it slowly upcourt, after which we'd enjoy 13-15 seconds of aimless passing around the perimeter, at which point someone would either be forced into a turnover or have to fire up a challenged heave to beat the shot clock. The Triangle was dead, the pick-and-roll MIA. The Boston offense, fortunately, had been ever so slightly worse. Ray Allen continued his brickacious ways, and Rajon Rondo had been reduced to a nonfactor by Kobe's defense and the inside length of the Laker bigs (even without Bynum). It seemed the game would fall to whichever team could find enough offensive life to get a run together.

That run came courtesy of the Celtics' bench. Boston scored on their first nine possessions of the fourth quarter, with seven of those scores coming from reserves. Big Baby plowed his way to the basket a couple times, Tony Allen rang up an old-school three point play, Rasheed Wallace dropped in a three and Nate took advantage of Jordan Farmar's shoddy defense to register a few scores. With 3:57 remaining, the Celtics had built up an 11-point lead. The Lakers got the margin down to six with a couple minutes left, but two bad-pass turnovers (one each from Pau Gasol and Kobe) ended the comeback. In the fourth period, the Celtics scored 16 of the 20 times they had the ball.

Over the past few games, it's become clear that the Celtics, for stretches at least, can crank up their defensive pressure enough to cause real problems for the Laker offense. Kobe at times has difficulty with his handle against these guys, and Pau is showing a distressing tendency to disappear in the post. (Sheed's defense is giving him probs.) Offensive rebounds, moreover, are getting harder to come by. After being dominated on the boards in Game One, the Celtics are steadily seeing improvements in their defensive rebounding.

Lakers' Offensive Rebounding Rate

Game One


Game Two


Game Three


Game Four


That trendline's moving in the wrong direction. Pau and Lamar, in particular, fell down on the job tonight. Yes, their tasks get more difficult without Drew out there to bang, but two offensive rebounds, combined, in 83 minutes of play? Unacceptably poor.

The defense tonight was sound until the fourth quarter cave-in. That's when everyone started to look tired and a little bit confused. Energy and focus waned, and the Celtics took advantage by getting the ball inside, drawing fouls and making their free throws. (In the second half, the Celts made all 15 of their freebies.) Credit Boston for being the better team in this one. They worked harder and were more willing to battle for loose balls. There were a couple moments in the third period when they could have lost their composure as a team, when Sheed and Nate both picked up stupid and well-deserved techs, but they didn't. They pulled themselves together and scratched their way back into the series.

The Lakers still hold the high ground in this fight. It's now a best-of-three, and if it goes the distance the last two games will be played at Staples Center. The most important development between now and Sunday's Game Five will be the status of Bynum's knee. We saw tonight how damaging it is when the Lakers have to play without him. Their overall situation is still good, but the pressure is building for everyone associated with the team, their training staff very much included.











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