The Los Angeles Lakers were the better team last night. For most of Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, the Lakers matched the Celtics defense with their own stellar defense. The Lakers were better at running their offense (not good in any way, but better than the other team), and, when the time came for a possession to be used, the Lakers did a better job of making the shots they took. If this were the regular season, I have no doubt that last night's effort and execution would have resulted in a W for the purple and gold.
But it's not the regular season. It's the NBA Finals. Faced with the prospect of either a tie series or a nearly insurmountable 3-1 series deficit, the Celtics played with a desperation that was borderline manic. They threw every ounce of effort they had into making sure that not a single loose ball didn't end up in their hands. They went after every shot, on both ends, as if their very lives depending on getting the rebound, because their very playoff lives did depend on getting that rebound. They played each defensive possession as if they needed to take the ball away from the Lakers, because they could not risk letting L.A. get a shot that might go in. They played the entire night with a desperation the Lakers had no hope of matching. And when the shots finally did start falling in the 4th quarter, when the execution finally matched the effort, the Lakers didn't stand a chance.
If it sounds like a knock on the Celtics that I'm proclaiming the Lakers a better team last night even though the Celtics won (and won relatively comfortably), it's not intended to be. In fact, it's a compliment. Fact is, for most of this game, the Celtics just didn't have it. Ray Allen continued to struggle, as the Lakers defense continues to make him a focal point. Kevin Garnett played more like the creature seen in Games 1 and 2, instead of the beast seen in Game 3. Rondo struggled to cope with Kobe Bryant's "Go ahead and take that 15 footer" defense. Paul Pierce came alive in the 1st quarter, but couldn't keep up the production. This shit happens. Every team has games, even in the playoffs, where they collectively just can't perform up to the usual standards. The Celtics had one of those games, and the Lakers did not. That the Celtics won the game regardless of that fact shows how powerful a force desperation can be.
In no place was this desperation more noticeable than on the glass. The Celtics had 18 offensive rebounds. If that number doesn't already sound ridiculous to you (if you know anything about pace, and how this game lacked it, it should), then try this number as a comparison: The Lakers had 28 defensive rebounds. Nearly 40% of the time the Celtics missed a shot, they got another chance to score. While the Lakers were busy trying (and mostly failing) to box out, the Celtics were going after the damn ball ... hard. This wasn't a one man show, and it wasn't a one quarter failing. L.A. gave up 4, 5, 5, and 4 offensive rebounds per quarter. 3 out of the 4 Celtics who man the 4 or the 5 position had at least 3 boards on the offensive end. Through the first three quarters, the ability to follow up a missed opportunity to score with another opportunity was the only thing keeping the Celtics in the game.
Check that. Offensive boards ... and turnovers. The Lakers had 15, and accounting for the slow pace, we can once again see that's way too many. Turning the ball over 19% of the time, and letting your opponent have a 2nd chance 50% of the time they fail to score will not get it done. Turnovers are usually a team thing, but tonight we can point the accusing eye at two guys, who's names are pretty well known. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol had 11 of the 15 Laker turnovers between them. It's too bad really, because if you take away those turnovers, both Laker stars played well. They both shot a decent percentage, they both got to the free throw line, and they both made big and timely shots for most of the night. But they also tried to force plays, whether on the drive (mostly Pau) or on the pass (mostly Kobe) that resulted in costly give aways. Again, the desperation factor played a part. If a ball was tipped or knocked out of Kobe's hands, you can bet it was a Celtic getting to it. When Kobe threw a pass without the required velocity, you can be sure a Celtic was flying to meet the ball. Even when the Lakers had possession of the ball, the Celtics just wanted the ball more.
Turnovers and offensive rebounds. That's the Molotov cocktail which allowed the Celtics to stay in the game despite hitting for a woeful .92 points per possession through three quarters. You throw up a mark that bad and you will normally be down double digits. That's what should have happened last night. The Lakers should have had a more significant cushion heading into the final frame, a cushion that would have allowed them to weather the 4th quarter storm, and might possibly have prevented the storm altogether. That's why I say the Lakers were the better team last night, despite the fact that they lost fair and square.
Instead, the Lakers were up only 2 as the 4th quarter started, and in that 4th quarter, the Celtics bench went to work. Glen Davis and Nate Robinson both exploded as the Celtics scored on 8 straight possessions to start, building a 7 pt lead and allowing them to keep the Lakers at arm's length for the rest of the contest. Credit the Celtics, specifically Big Baby, for continuing to push the entire game, instead of giving up because they were having an off night. They kept at it and eventually made the breaks of the game their own.
Of course, this retrospective wouldn't be complete without spending a good number of words taking Lamar Odom to task. LO has been unequivocally horrible in this series. He's been completely and utterly outplayed by Big Baby. If LO isn't ashamed of himself right now, I don't know what to think. This guy is considered one of the foremost talents in the entire league, has long been considered "All-Star quality" despite never putting it together for long enough to actually be an All-Star. He's paid like a 2nd or 3rd banana even though he comes off the bench, and he's supposed to the Lakers ace in the hole. Instead, he's being dominated by a player who's most famously known for being plus sized. I'm not trying to take a swipe at Davis, he clearly has a good place in this league for a long time to come, but the concept of him being able to dominate Lamar Odom is almost unfathomable.
Therein lies the major concern for the Lakers going forward. They HAVE TO get more from Odom if they are going to win this series, because it seems clear that the health of Andrew Bynum's knee is heading in the wrong direction fast. Bynum played only 12 minutes last night, and unless things change dramatically, that number will not improve much. So Lamar will be playing big, big minutes over the next few games, and the margin of his error will be gone. He can't pick up stupid fouls (and I guess you can look at that as some small area of positivity last night) and he can not be dominated by the only player in the NBA who can out-eat him in a candy store. Until now, Odom has always reserved his best moments for when the Lakers needed him most. If he does so again, I feel confident the Lakers will win this series. If he doesn't, the Lakers might once again be forced into thinking "What if Andrew Bynum wasn't hurt" the entire off-season.
The Lakers have other players. The Lakers have better players. But, with Andrew Bynum's injury becoming more and more of a limiting factor, Lamar Odom is now the most important player on the Lakers roster. We know, both good and bad, what he's capable of. The good is a player who can dominate both ends of the floor and is worth about a max contract. The bad is a player who can disappear completely. He's paid right about in the middle, because his good to bad ratio is about 1:1. In order for it to hold true in these Finals, he'll need to have three straight good games to match his output from the rest of the series (though, if he does play well, two might be enough).
Lamar Odom, and the rest of the Lakers, now need to play with desperation themselves. In the past two years, they've never trailed in a playoff series. They've been tied at 2-2 4 times, and always won game 5, but game 5 has always been in the friendly confines of Staples Center. Now, in the 2-3-2 format (who's advantage seems to change by the game, no?), game 5 will be on the road, and the Lakers need to play with the same desperation the Celtics did tonight in order to try and take it. It's an emotion the Lakers have rarely needed to tap over the past two seasons, but if they want to know how, it shouldn't be hard. All they have to do is look into the eyes of their opponent.