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Lakers 86, Celtics 92: Kobe Stands Alone


If you're a Laker, you have but one request for the flight back to Los Angeles tomorrow morning: a seat other than the one next to Kobe Bryant. You don't want to sit by him, you don't want to look at him, you frankly shouldn't be breathing the same air. Just find yourself a spot in the luggage hold, and stay out of his sight. The Mamba's anger has been on a low simmer all playoffs long, and after tonight's calamity, an 86 to 92 Game Five loss to the Boston Celtics, we can officially put Kobe on core-meltdown alert. He did what he could to keep the Lakers alive in this one, ripping off 38 points, but from his supporting cast exactly no one came even close to matching his effort or production.

Brink, meet the Lakers. Lakers, brink.

The Celtic defense put the Lakers on lockdown tonight. They were incredibly sound in their positioning and rotations. They hardly ever blew an assignment and were almost always in the right spots. The Lakers didn't miss a lot of open shots because there weren't a lot of open shots to miss. Except for Kobe, no one was good enough to beat their man one-on-one. The screening wasn't forceful, and the cutting wasn't quick. Had it not been for Kobe's one-man heroics, this would've been a blowout.

Boston finally got the breakout performance we knew would come at some point from Paul Pierce. Taking advantage of mismatches created by the high pick-and-roll, and otherwise straight beating Ron Artest, Pierce scored 27 points without a turnover. Kevin Garnett scored 18 points against the rather feeble defense of Pau Gasol, and for the first time in the series Rajon Rondo found success at the rim, hitting 9 of his 12 shots. The Celtics also continued to do work on the offensive boards. For the game they rebounded 28% of their own misses, which they turned into 13 second-chance points, both pretty good marks for them. Laker defensive rebounders weren't strong with the ball. On a number of occasions, a rebound was in their grasp, only to be knocked away by a Celtic for a second-chance opportunity.

In the first half, Boston gradually built up a six-point cushion with hot shooting and by shutting down the Lakers' inside game. None of the Laker big men was at all effective. Andrew Bynum, fresh off a knee-draining, surprisingly played 32 minutes but had trouble making a mark. Artest looks like a man bereft of confidence in his own shot, and for good reason. Pau these days little resembles the low-post monster that dominated opponents in the first three rounds of the playoffs. From the outset tonight, all three of those guys were outplayed by the Celtic bigs. Lamar Odom, obviously inspired by the flak he took for his poor Game Four performance, detonated for two first-half points and eight on the night.

In the third quarter, the Celtics scored on 9 of their first 10 possessions to build the lead up to 11. The Lakers failed to exert any defensive pressure in this stretch, and the Celtics punished them by working the ball easily inside. The Lakers were kept in the game, barely, by 17 points in six minutes from Kobe. It was clear, though, that he was battling alone out there. Nobody else was doing the work necessary to find good looks and overcome Boston's in-your-shirt defense. Everyone else that Phil Jackson ran onto the court shrunk from the moment. Toward the end of the third, the Laker bench unit managed to get some stops, and five late points from Gasol, one of his only brief stretches of effectiveness, chopped the lead to a theoretically manageable eight.

For the first half of the fourth period, the game remained tight. The Celtics finally cooled off a bit from the field, and when Lamar collected an offensive rebound and dropped in a short jumper with six minutes remaining, the lead was only six. From there, the Lakers committed four straight turnovers. Off one of them, Rondo got a fast-break layup, and with 3:56 left he outbattled Bynum for an offensive rebound and tip-in to push the lead to 12, pretty much ending whatever suspense was left. Both teams shot a lot of free throws down the stretch, neither shot them well, and that was that. The Lake Show missed all eight of its three-point attempts in the fourth quarter.

There are a number of things the Lakers actually did better than the Celtics in Game Five. They committed fewer turnovers, they got to the line more, they shot better on threes, and despite occasional weak spots they won the overall rebounding battle. The problem is that the one, most crucial thing they did worse than the Celtics - namely, make their two point shots - they did way, way worse. The Celtics converted 63% of their twos, compared to an abysmal 41% for the Lakers. That's on the Laker bigs. They didn't guard the paint well, they didn't protect the rim, and when they got the ball themselves in the post, they got shut down by the Celtic frontline.

Their free-throw shooting was pretty bad as well. The Lakers missed nine of their 26 freebies. Artest, Gasol, Odom and Bynum combined to honk six of 10 attempts. If they miss, say, only three of 10, it's a very different game down the stretch. Basically, the Laker frontline couldn't have been owned any worse unless Bill Simmons hooked up with Khloe Kardashian and then made a Karate Kid joke about it in his column tomorrow.

(Also, Derek Fisher seems to have reverted to his mid-February form at exactly the wrong time. Since his epic fourth quarter of Game Three, he's 5 for 15 from the field. Intangibles: UR DOIN IT RONG.)

The benches weren't terribly important in this one. Both reserve units had a few good moments, but there weren't any game-swinging runs a la the Shrek-and-Donkey show on Thursday night. Game Five was about the top-line talent, and how Boston's starting five overwhelmed their Laker counterparts. Four of them, at least.

Game Six is Tuesday night back at Staples. It'll be the Lakers' first elimination game since their Game Seven against the Houston Rockets in the second round last year. That thing we're all staring into right now? I believe it's called the abyss.











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