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Lakers 102, Celtics 89: Who's Soft Now?

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Having the two best players in the series is no guarantor of success in the NBA Finals - Lakers fans need only think back to June of 2004 to be reminded of this - but it's an awfully good place to start. Here in June of 2010, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are the two best players in the Finals, and the drop down to number three is steep. Kobe and Pau tonight put their full panoply of skills on display against a Boston Celtics team that seems poorly equipped to stop them, with or without the assistance of wheelchairs, and the result was a resounding 102 to 89 Laker victory. As you'll hear maybe once or twice in the next few days, Phil Jackson-coached teams are eleventy billion-and-oh when they prevail in Game One, so have fun chewing on that factoid, Celtics fans.

Tonight's contest was slowly paced, choppy, tightly whistled and who the hell cares because the Lakers won. For two years now the Lakers have had to hear and read endlessly about how they were pounded and bullied in 2008. About how Kobe was strangled by a vicious Celtics defense and how Gasol shrunk in the face of Boston's rugged inside play. This evening, those two rose up to announce that this Finals series would be different. Kobe scored 30 points, in the process drawing enough fouls on Ray Allen to make the Celtics gunner a nonfactor. Pau enforced near-complete ownership of the paint, scoring 23 points, collecting 14 boards and swatting away three shots. His eight offensive rebounds matched the total pulled in Boston's entire team. Next to Pau's agile and aggressive play, Kevin Garnett looked straight-up old.

The Lakers sparkled tonight on both ends of the floor. Facing a Celtics D that had allowed playoff opponents to score only 1.02 points per possession (PPP), the Lakers ripped off a sterling 1.16 PPP. They earned (in a few cases, "earned") 31 free-throw attempts, a great total in a game that had merely 88 possessions per team. Fifteen of those FTAs came in the third quarter, when the Lakers scored 34 points to blow the game open. Their offensive approach was, except for a brief stretch at the beginning of the fourth, intelligent and disciplined. Eschewing the quick outside shot, they combined zippy inside passing with decisive dribble-drive penetration. As a result, their looks at the hoop were solid, and when those looks didn't fall, players were in good position to recover the caroms. The Lakers tonight rebounded an awesome 36% of their own misses, leading to 16 second-chance points. Boston looked almost nothing like the defensive menace that throttled both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.

Working largely against the two Allens (Ray and Tony), Kobe orchestrated the attack masterfully. On the surface it wasn't a vintage Kobe shooting night - he took 27 shots to get his 30, using the term shots here to include free throw possessions - but given the level of competition, his production was just fine. There were few of the challenged 20-footers that we've seen him settle for at times this season. No, his looks were varied, carefully chosen and within the flow of the offense. His six assists were nice, and his six defensive boards were crucial in limiting the Celts' second-chance opportunities.

Gasol, as great as he played this evening, was but one component of a Lakers front line that brought it hard. Andrew Bynum continues to produce despite a bum knee. He gave us 28 minutes of hard work, doing just what the team needed: battling on the glass and finishing (10 points on eight shots) reliably at the rim. It's time that Drew get a little love from all of us in Lakerdom. When it emerged that his meniscus was torn and would require surgery, there was an unstated assumption that the kid would fade into irrelevancy, as his injuries forced him to do in the past two postseasons. Instead, he's ignoring the pain and its attendant effects on his game, forcing opponents to account for him on the court.

Drew is one big reason this series isn't going to be like 2008. Ron Artest is another. The Slightly Insane One had a real solid first-ever Finals appearance. He continued his strong run of outside shooting, making three of five three-pointers, and more important, he battled Paul Pierce on defense all night long. Although Pierce's final numbers (24 points on 19 shots) look solid, 13 of those points came in the fourth period when the outcome was pretty much no longer in doubt. Until that point Artest did a great job of forcing the ball out of Pierce's hands and limiting his looks. Where have you gone, Vladimir Radmanovic?!

When the Celtics had the ball, they struggled mightily to score from anywhere other than the free-throw line. Rajon Rondo found gaps in the Laker D but couldn't finish effectively over the Laker bigs. Ray was in foul trouble all night and never found a groove. They were impotent on the offensive glass. (Seriously: they had exactly zero second-chance points.) KG looked less like a former MVP and more like a really old version of Cherokee Parks, at one point blowing consecutive unguarded layups in the fourth quarter. Also, KG? Your two defensive rebounds in 35 minutes played? Amare Stoudemire thinks that's weak.

Rondo was the only Celtic guard who showed up tonight. Off the bench came the egregious threesome of Tony Allen, Michael Finley and Nate Robinson. They combined to score four points on eight shots and "helped" the Celtics to a 1-for-10 mark from downtown. This is the team that used to employ Eddie House, right? They traded him away why again?

Basically, Game One was all kinds of delicious. We now have three days to savor it before Game Two on Sunday night. If there's any justice in the world, Garnett and the Celtics will have to spend the next three days answering questions about their toughness, or lack of it.











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