Did the Lakers just get beaten almost exclusively by the likes of Glen 'Big Baby' Davis and Nate 'Cheerleader' Robinson? Did the Lakers just effectively choke, for the second time this series? Someone care to explain this to me? Unfortunately, I don't think even the Lakers themselves would be able to explain what exactly happened in that fourth quarter of Game Four. You can't remember something when you were essentially unconscious while the event was unfolding, after all.
Through the first three quarters of this Game Four, the Lakers executed better on the offensive end, simply by virtue of making shots while the Boston Celtics missed, and matched the Celtics on the defensive end. With the l evel of ugliness the Celtics were at offensively, in that period, one would not be remiss to expect a double-digit Laker lead, but alas it was not to be. A combination of Laker turnovers and Celtic offensive rebounds, as highlighted beautifully by C.A. in his piece earlier today, kept the Celtics in the game until they could finally push through. The Celtics were only down by two before the start of the fourth, and then a group of rested, energetic and simply desperate reserves blew the combination of tired Laker starters and incompetent Laker reserves out of the water.
Give the Celtics a lot of credit. As I stated in my preview of Game Four, this game was to go to whatever team wanted it more, was more willing to fight for it. And on both counts, the Celtics prevailed. They played hard and physical, hustled and fought. Despite being far shorter than the Lakers, they outrebounded them 46-37. Despite being far older, they held the edge in fast break points 15 to 2. They had 12 steals to the Lakers' six. They won all the hustle stats.
The Lakers need to stop trying the 'get everyone involved' cliche and start feeding the hot hand. Quite simply, it's impossible to get everyone on this Laker team involved, they're just too airheaded. Shannon Brown thinks with his legs, Lamar Odom is smoking something and Ron Artest is downright crazy. And, somehow, 'getting everyone involved' always end up with those three taking a number of terrible shots. Partially because defenses want these guys to shoot, partially because these guys just like shooting; but consequentially it kills the offense even more than riding the hot hand does.
In the third quarter, Kobe Bryant finally decided to get himself involved a bit and dropped five threes in the period, along with some other tough shots, prompting the commentators to suggest that he could potentially break Ray Allen's record for threes in a half/game. Then what happened? The quarter ended, the team went into a huddle, and when they came back out the team left Kobe to chill on the weakside while Odom and Fisher tried playing Mamba. Kobe would make the initial pass to get the offense started, and then invariably the ball would only ever work its way back to him if there was less than four seconds left on the clock, otherwise the possession would end in a downright stupid shot by someone else. This left Kobe totally out of rhythm for the closing minutes, up until the Lakers FINALLY decided to let him try winning the game, when it was already too late.
Also on the note of Kobe, he needs to be more decisive in his action while driving. Often, he would fake, drive in, only to realise he had no idea what he was doing and make a rushed pass out of the trap, resulting in several of his seven turnovers. He needs to take it aggressively to the hoop, or pull up earlier out and take the jump shot. Some of this is on his teammates for not moving to the correct positions to help him out, but Kobe needs to recognise that he doesn't have the speed to blow by whole teams with utter ease like he used to be capable of, and that the Celtics are a good enough defensive team to effectively trap him on his drives. He needs to adapt.
Really, I don't even know what offense the Lakers were running. The ball wasn't going inside enough for it to be the Triangle, and there were no screens involved, let alone a screen-and-roll. Whatever it was, it was ugly.
Speaking of going inside, forcing the ball inside to Pau Gasol while he's defended by Rasheed Wallace isn't really a good idea. Pau's figured out KG, and Perk still gives him some issues but Pau can negate that by taking him off the dribble; but Sheed straight-up harasses Pau. Pau is left to take exceptionally tough shots over Sheed's length, or to try and create off the dribble and often turn the ball over. I'd take Kobe on Allen over Pau on Sheed any day of the week.
This is also one of the areas where Andrew Bynum comes in. With Bynum in the game, Pau gets a significant number of minutes being defended by the likes of Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett, favourable matchups both. When Bynum is not in the game, Pau is often defended by Rasheed and Kendrick Perkins, both of whom are known to give Pau problems, primarily due to their strength, physicality and defensive instinct, but also in Rasheed's case his length.
Quite simply, the Lakers NEED Bynum to be healthy. There are numerous reasons for this, all of them crucial to LA's title hopes. Primarily, without Drew, Pau will die of exhaustion before this series ends. Pau's been playing 43 minutes a game this series, often playing the whole second half, and his exhaustion is tangible in fourth, or even earlier. I remember one instance late in the third where Pau Gasol's exhaustion was obvious in how he plodded down the floor whilst KG sprinted in for the dunk, and at that point I was begging Phil to put in Drew for Pau. Of course, Phil put in Drew for Odom instead, leaving Pau to suffer, but I'm beyond questioning Phil's decisions - that path can only lead to clinical insanity.
Also, Bynum's impact on the inside is tangible. The more active and effective Bynum is, the harder it is for the Celtics to covert points in the paint. Quite simply, the Celtics' inside shooting this series has been utterly subpar, and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have been the prime causal factors for this. Take Bynum out, and half of that effect is missing. The Celtics have less fear of getting blocked going to the basket, the Lakers have no true inside presence, and there's six fewer fouls for LA to use.
Then there's the rebounding. The Lakers' rebounding last game sucked. Andrew Bynum only played 12 minutes. Normally, correlation does not imply causation, but this time an exception can be made. Maybe if we actually had a true big body out there, Big Baby wouldn't have earned as many easy points.
Finally, there's the fact that when Bynum's sitting, Lamar Odom is on the floor. Lamar has sucked this series. He's been subpar all season, even throughout the playoffs, but boy have these Finals been something else. Games One and Two were a joke. Game Three was an efficient offensive spurt, but he still was not aggressive enough. Game Four was mediocre offensively and terrible defensively.
And oh God, Lamar Odom's defense. While much is being made of his lack of aggression on the offensive side of the ball, he's been LA's worst defender all series. He has had one block in four games. One. Conversely, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have combined for 21 in the series - hell, even Kobe Bryant has had four. Lamar's been abused by Celtic bigs, bodied out of position effortlessly and giving up offensive boards, and has probably given up more three-point plays than anybody else in the series. Ugly, ugly stuff. Big Baby-level ugly (pun not intended).
On the topic of Lamar and Glen Davis, if Lamar had correctly boxed out instead of consistently allowing Baby clear inside position, Baby wouldn't have grabbed so many offensive boards on the fourth. If Lamar had bodied up Baby and kept him out of deep position, Baby wouldn't have manhandled him on the low block. Really, no comment on Lamar's defense of Big Baby was more apt than Phil's concise 'I don't wanna talk about that'. Frankly, there's nothing to say to it, but WAKE THE HELL UP, LAMAR! It's a safe bet to say that's the message that Lamar will be getting drilled into him all through the next two days. Hopefully, he listens.
Odom's attitude isn't helping things, either. Instead of asserting that he needs to play better, he's saying crap like 'I'm not going to put a win or a loss on myself. We need to defend better as a team, rebound better as a team [etc, etc]'. Essentially, he's deflecting the blame from himself, and putting it on everyone else. His body language and facial expression on the court are despicable, as well, I'd almost prefer Nate's cheerleader antics to Lamar's apathy.
The bench needs to step up. They don't need to provide 36 points in a game, like the Celtics' bench did in Game Four (though it would be nice), but they need to be able to hold the fort for a good 12 or so minutes a game. Kobe and Pau cannot be expected to win games in the fourth quarter if they've had to play nearly every minute leading up to that point. At the onset of the fourth, the Lakers had Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar out there with three core players in Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Pau was absolutely exhausted. Kobe was essentially ignored. Lamar was too busy staring at the pictures of his wife Khloe Kardashian in the crowd. Shannon and Jordan simply aren't that good. The Celtics' unit, consisting of four reserves, outran and out-hustled the Lakers to start the fourth, catching the purple and gold by surprise and essentially blowing them out of the game. Kobe and Pau were too tired to do anything about it at the other end.
Pau, especially. 13 points in the first half, 21 by the end of the game. 10 free throws attempted in the first/early second half of the game, none down the stretch. The deterioration in his play due to sheer exhaustion was blatant. Phil really should have thrown DJ Mbenga out there for at least two or three minutes in the third to provide some size, defense and rebounding while allowing Pau to catch a break before the crucial fourth quarter.
Also, I would've liked to see some Luke Walton out there in the fourth, to try and return some semblance of the Triangle to the offense. And, I can't believe I'm saying this, but free Sasha Vujacic! He's a hard-nosed defender, hates the Celtics, can spread the floor, knows the triangle and, quite simply, he's not Shannon (seriously, Shannon sucks).
The Celtics starters as a whole have been subpar this whole series. Their two wins have come from a phenomenal shooting performance from Ray Allen and an explosion of effort from their bench. Both the C's wins this series have come in the fourth, and essentially the Lakers' starters have been too tired to do anything about it.
This exhaustion is both physical as well as mental, as not only have the Lakers not been fast enough to keep up with the Celtics defensively, they've made some boneheaded offensive decisions in crunch time. From Pau's careless outlet pass to having no idea what offense they're meant to be running, the Lakers have collectively looked like they want no part of the fourth quarter in any of these games. 'Why' is inexplicable, and troubling. The Lakers have two days to either solve the 'why', or figure out a way of winning the first three quarters so handily that their reluctance to play in the fourth is irrelevant. Otherwise, there will be trouble.
PS: With the nature of this series, it just wouldn't seem right to write a post about this game without mentioning the officiating. Do not misunderstand this, by no means do I contend that the officiating directly favoured the Celtics in any way whatsoever. All I have to say is that the officiating is still pretty atrocious, as it has been all series, but the bad calls have been pretty evenly divided both ways, just as it has been all series. This Game Four, however, the refs loosened up on the calls to an extent, particularly in the first half, allowing some more physical play. The key would be which team would capitalise on the allowance of more physical play, and this game it was the Celtics, entirely to their credit. Nonetheless, the officiating is going to remain crap all series, and both teams need to play through it. As I said in my Game Four preview, whichever team plays through it best will win the Championship, and will deserve to win the Championship.