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Lakers 94, Celtics 103: 'Twas Not the Best of Nights

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For the first time since the 2009 conference finals, the Lakers have coughed up home-court advantage in a playoff series. I can't say I really enjoy the feeling. Life's more pleasant - food tastes better, the light of Los Angeles shines brighter - when Laker opponents carry the weight of needing to win on the road. That burden now sits heavily on the shoulders of the purple and gold, as they turned in a crummy 48 minutes of basketball this evening, falling to the Boston Celtics94 to 103, in Game Two of the NBA Finals. On Tuesday, the series relocates to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for three games in the Celts' home gym.

The Lakers looked out of it on both ends of the floor tonight. On offense, their guards played a sloppy and thoughtless game, wasting another strong scoring effort from Pau Gasol and a once-every-few-weeks outburst from Andrew Bynum. The worst, though far from only, offender was Ron Artest. Reverting to the confusion and impatience he showed at the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs, the Ronster scored only six points on 14 shots and chipped in three turnovers, no extra charge. Kobe Bryant was off his game as well. In foul trouble all night long, he had a couple brilliant moments, including a steal and three-pointer at the end of the first half, but on the whole struggled to find the basket.

On defense, the Lakers' woes were equally woeful. They allowed a pretty ordinary Celtic offense to rip off 1.14 points per trip, fueled by an insane Ray Allen hot streak that saw him knock down a Finals-record eight longballs. The Lakers tightened up on Ray in the second half, but other leaks sprung, in particular on the defensive glass. Down the stretch the Lakers succumbed to a complete inability to get stops. From the 3:23 mark of the fourth quarter, when the Lakers led by one, Boston scored on nine out of nine possessions, while the Lakers managed the stately total of four points. The Celtics' crunch-time execution was better by orders of magnitude, as a result of which it's possible the last game of the season has been played at Staples Center.

Right off the jump, it was clear that Game Two would be no mere continuation of the Lakers' dominance in Game One. The Celtics' offense was far more crisp and aggressive than we saw on Thursday. Rajon Rondo controlled the flow of the game, finding seams in the Laker defense and expertly distributing to Ray for open jumpers. Which he made, over and over and over again. None of the players assigned to check Ray -including, at various times, Kobe, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown - did an adequate job of keeping tabs on him. Given even 12 inches of airspace, Ray used that incredibly quick release of his to launch his shot get the Celts off to a strong start. His 10 first-quarter points were in stark contrast to Kobe's two, on 1-for-5 shooting.

The Lakers kept Boston within sight by drilling the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum. The two bigs combined for 15 in the first period. Even so, problems that would later prove fatal were making themselves felt. The offense sputtered from overdribbling: in a 12-possession stretch straddling the end of the first and start of the second quarters, the Lakers scored a solitary point. Outside looks weren't falling, and Boston was doing a far better job of locking up the defensive glass than in Game One. Also, foul trouble was taking shape. By the end of Q1, Lamar Odom had three fouls. By halftime, Kobe would have two as well. In that regard the Celtics fared just as poorly, if not worse. Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis all had three fouls at the half.

The Lakers fell behind by 13 in the second, but that deficit was erased at the 8:45 mark of the third, when Pau hit a face-up jumper from the right baseline. The offense took off when they more or less abandoned the Triangle and began a steady run of pick-and-roll plays involving Kobe and either Gasol or Bynum. This generated close looks at the rim, which were converted into either easy makes or Boston fouls. The Lakers converted 67% of their two-point shots in the third and 9 of 12 free-throw attempts. They couldn't, however, put any real distance between themselves and the Celts, as the latter, for the first time all series, broke through on the offensive glass. Through the first six quarters of the NBA Finals, the Celtics generated no second-chance points. Just in the third this evening, they generated nine, and they would add four more in the fourth. Gasol and Bynum, for all their substantial contributions, didn't do well on the defensive boards. Together they pulled in only eight defensive rebounds in 81 combined minutes.

The final period was neck-and-neck until those fateful last few minutes. That's when the Laker offense bogged down in Kobe isolation play - what happened to those beautiful pick and rolls? - while Rondo cranked his game up a few notches. Over the final nine possessions he came up with a block, a steal, six points and a crucial offensive rebound. Down the stretch, he was the best player on the floor.

Between now and Game Three, Lakerdom will be aflame with complaints about the officiating. Some of them are more justified than others. At least one of the fouls on Kobe, a charging call toward the end of the first half, was a fairly obvious flop by Ray. That sucked, but it's not like no one on the Lakers has ever flopped for a call. It was a bad whistle, the ref should've got it right, but there were dodgy foul calls that went the Lakers' way as well. On the night the Lakers enjoyed a gargantuan (41 to 26) free-throw advantage that would have us bitching up a storm if the numbers were reversed.

What's a bit more hard to stomach was an out-of-bounds call that awarded possession to Boston with 1:59 to play and the Lakers down three. Replays showed unambiguously that Garnett last touched the ball, but the refs failed to reverse the initial call despite consulting those exact replays. I honestly have no idea what they thought they were seeing. Would getting that call right have changed the outcome of the game? Maybe, maybe not. Rondo finished that possession with a made 20-foot jumper that stretched the lead to five. That's a significant difference with so little time on the clock. On the other hand, the Laker offense was truly a hot, nasty mess in those final minutes. It's very possible they'd have botched things anyway.

What's especially irksome is that the Celtics prevailed despite awful games from both Garnett (six points on six shots, apparently having lost even more explosiveness than any of us knew) and Paul Pierce (10 points on 14 shots). Credit splendid performances from Rondo and Ray, and cast an accusing eye on pretty much any Laker wing player you care to single out. In ways big and small, they all failed tonight.











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