That was too easy.
The main storyline of these playoffs (and rightfully so, with apologies to my Laker brethren) has been the resurgence of the Boston Celtics' incredible defense. Through three rounds, they've been amazing. OK, so slowing down the Miami Heat doesn't exactly scream "We are championship worthy", but holding the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic both to 1.03 points per possession (well below the averages for the 6th and 4th best league offenses, respectively) is an impressive feat.
On the other side of the bracket, the Lakers offensive performance improved just as much as the Celtics defense did. We've been talking for the past month about how the ball movement is crisper, possessions are more focused, the execution more pronounced, and the shooting more um ... successful. However, it's easy to write off that offensive performance because of who it came against. The Utah Jazz (minus AK and Memo Okur, who is important for size purposes only) and Phoenix Suns aren't exactly great shakes on the defensive end, so one could theorize that the Lakers should have improved production, because the competition wasn't that strong. And the Lakers did struggle with the OKC Thunder, the one team they've faced that plays the D well. Combine the two storylines and it's easy to see which one appeared to be more legitimate on paper. It was generally assumed that the Lakers offensive performance would suffer dramatically, even in this space. We conceded the fact, counting on the Lakers defense to come back to the fore and make it just as difficult for Boston to score.
Boy, were we all wrong. One game isn't enough to make definitive statements that overturn 2 months worth of tangible results. The Lakers will have to prove they can do that again before the storyline officially changes. But the Lakers just dropped 1.16 PPP on Boston, and it didn't look the least bit out of place.
That so many points (in a very slow, choppy, game mind you) were scored isn't a storyline by itself. That can be a random occurance. LeBron James and Mo Williams went bat-shit crazy and helped Cleveland throw up a 1.43 PPP mark on these same Celtics, while failing to top 1.0 PPP in all 4 of their losses. It's the how that makes one wonder if the Celtics can turn things around.
That how? The ease with which the Lakers got their points at the rim. The Lakers shot 34 of 76 shots at the rim, 44% of all their attempts. Add the 9 shots from less than 10 feet, and you've got 56% of all field goal attempts, which is fitting, because that's also the success rate the Lakers had in close, 56% shooting. Whether the attempts were created from great interior passing between Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, offensive rebound putbacks from those same two guys, or the surprising ease with which our perimeter players blew by the C's in one on one situaitons, the Lakers were executing fantastically on offense.
Let's take a moment to point that last part out specifically. In the past three years, I don't ever remember a game against the Celtics in which any Laker could get that easily from the 3 pt line to the rim, much less all of them. It's not terribly surprising to see Kobe Bryant do it, although he certainly has never had that kind of success agains the C's since 2008. But Jordan Farmar? Shannon Brown? Granted, at least a couple of their rim attempts came at the expense of Michael "Cement Shoes" Finley, but, good God, where was the help?
This is where we talk about the decline of Kevin Garnett. Yes, his two consecutive putback attempts in the 4th quarter were a clear sign that he's not the player he once was, so much so that if he were any other player or this were any other situation, I'd feel sad for him. But that wasn't when it first struck me. That occurred in the 3rd quarter, when Jordan Farmar blew by his man on the perimeter, KG rotated over in good position, and Farmar basically said "Fuck you, you can't stop me from making this layup." This isn't the mamba, we're talking about Jordan Farmar here. And KG couldn't. The KG of old gobbles that shit up so badly that we feel the need to avert our eyes. The KG of now watches as a bit part role player treats him like a cardboard printout. There are two important lessons to be learned from that one play. First, at least for this one game, the Celtics did not have enough athleticism in the front line to stop the Lakers rim forays. Second, the Lakers knew it, and were therefore unafraid to attack. If (and I have no idea how likely the if is) the Celtics don't get that figured out, this series will be a lot shorter than I thought. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that the C's just had a bad game defensively. But, after that first game, the Celtics are going to have to work real hard to instill the fear in the Lakers that saw them win this match-up two years ago. They have to prove the Lakers still have reason to be afraid, and as of now, I'm not sure they can.
Instead, it might be the Celtics who become afraid of attacking the Lakers in the paint. Again, it's just one game, but Boston found surprisingly little succes around the brick circle. Only 27 attempts at the rim (lower, but not significantly, % wise than the Lakers), but much more important was their success rate. They shot only 44% from at rim attempts ... which is a bad overall shooting percentage. Rondo in particular struggled, connecting on only 1-6 layup attempts. The Lakers may not have Dwight Howard and his mile-high vertical. But they do have two players on the court at all times that can form a forest of wingspan around the hoop. Last night, Rondo couldn't find the angles amongst the trees. In this area, I expect him, and the Celtics, to improve.
The other major factor, something I've been highlighting for a while now, is the Celtics complete lack of perimeter depth. They play 4 guys at 3 positions!! That is insane. And, when two of those guys have foul trouble (as the Allens did), they are forced to choose between Finley and Nate Robinson, which is just brutal. Finley has already been discussed, and Nate Robinson is the equivalent of JR Smith, except if the hurts the team/helps the team ratio is more like 9:1 instead of 1:1. When Tony Allen picked up his 3rd foul in the 1st quarter (with Ray Ray already on the bench with 2) is when the game changed for good. There's no doubt Ray Allen had a tough night with the whistles, and his lack of inclusion in the C's offense was a big deal. But when the other team has Kobe Bryant, and your team literally can not afford for two defenders going against him to pick up fouls, that's a tough situation to be in.
Because of the rough calls on both sides, both teams had to dig deeper than they were comfortable with in this game, and we saw a key difference in the two teams. Both the Lakers and Celtics roll with about an 8 man rotation. You go outside that rotation, and it tends to be bad news. However, the Lakers have much more versatitily in that depth (with 3 options at every position except center) and they got monumental efforts from Pau Gasol (over 46 minutes played, and despite so many minutes, his 4th quarter production closely resembled his 1st quarter production) and Andrew Bynum (20 minutes in the 1st half). Besides, when the Lakers go outside the big 8, its bad, but when the Celtics do it, it's catostrophic.
It's funny how quickly things can change from game to game. Pretty much all the storylines coming into this game were proven false. The Celts played poor defense and were out physicaled. They could very well change back to the former if a different Boston team shows up on Sunday night. The question now is whether that different Boston team, the one with an active and intimidating KG, the one that rotates so well that other teams don't even bother trying to score at the rim, the question is whether that team still exists.
[Author's Note: I'm still working out the kinks of figuring out how to use all the content obtained via my press pass, so you'll get a full on NBA Finals experience post, complete with post game soundbites and pictures, tomorrow.]