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Lakers 96, Celtics 109: Time For Recriminations


My reaction to this game is a bit paradoxical. What's troubling me most isn't everything that went wrong - although that's troubling me plenty - but everything that went right. Against the Celtics at Staples this afternoon, the Lakers forced a load of Boston turnovers, went to the free-throw line early and often, shot well on threes and got a masterly performance from Kobe Bryant. It should've been enough.

But it wasn't. It wasn't close to being enough. The Celtics played splendidly, shooting the lights out from the second quarter on and taking away every non-Kobe offensive option the Lakers threw in their direction. Quickly erasing a seven-point deficit in the third quarter, the Celts blasted the champs in the second half and won going away, 109 to 96. The Lakers have lost four of their last seven and continued their season-long trend of coming up small in their biggest games.

The purple and gold didn't much resemble the squad that put down Boston in Games Six and Seven of last year's Finals, and not merely because of their ridiculous ‘80s throwback uniforms. The Lakers of last June played with intelligence and fire. They had big men capable of standing toe-to-toe with the Celtics' front line. They had a small forward who could sway the outcome with ferocious defense. They had role players stepping up to reward Kobe's trust in them. None of that was present today. The names were the same, but nearly everything else has changed.

Early on, this game was an unsettled, choppy affair. The first quarter saw a lot of fouls and a whole lot of missed shots. The Celtics briefly got separation at 16 to 9, but a Laker run late in the period cut their cushion down to one. It kind of felt like the Staples crowd had yet to wake up and/or shake off the effects of brunch. We were already, however, seeing a few problems flare up. For one, the Ron Artest-Paul Pierce duel was heading in the wrong direction: Pierce finished the period with 10 points while Ron missed four of five field-goal attempts. For another, the Celtics were getting too many rebounds, and by "too many" I mean more than zero. As discussed yesterday, Boston's the worst offensive-rebounding team in the league, but in the first period this afternoon they pulled in three of their own misses, leading to six second-chance points.

A bout of horrendous Laker defense inaugurated the second quarter. Getting an energy infusion from reserves Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels and Glen Davis, the Celtics scored 14 points on their first six possessions to restore their nine-point lead. Finally, after a timeout, the Lakers showed some fight. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom scored inside, Pau made Kevin Garnett's head bleed, and Derek Fisher made his one and only basket of the night. When Kobe dropped in a couple free throws with a second left, it seemed like the champs would go into the break with some nice momentum. Odom had other ideas - in particular, he had the idea to foul Big Baby about 300 feet from the basket and with a fraction of a second left on the clock. Davis made two of three free throws and were I the type to keep guns around the house, I'm quite sure I would've put a round threw my flat screen.

Quarter three was truly appalling. Pierce tore apart Artest and Luke Walton en route to scoring 14 in the period. Ray Allen and Garnett got loose for easy jumpers. It was a wholesale collapse of the Laker D, and it allowed Boston to score 1.42 points per possession over those 12 minutes. When the Lakers had the ball, they struggled in the face of the Celtics' increasingly stout defense. They shot only 5 of 17 for the period and compounded their troubles by missing 3 of 9 free-throw attempts. Entering the fourth, the Celtics led 77 to 72.

More terrible Laker defense ensued. Guys couldn't keep up with Celtic shooters as they curled around screens, and Robinson and Allen duly knocked down a couple more triples. Rajon Rondo patiently sliced apart the champs by getting the ball to whomever was flashing open. The Celtic attack was deliberately paced but withering. Thanks to a burst of Kobe shotmaking, the Lakers for a moment gave the impression they might keep up, as they trailed by just four with a little over five minutes remaining. But Kobe ran out of magic, and by then the Laker D had essentially surrendered. Boston scored 1.45 points per trip in the fourth quarter and 1.44 in the second half.

Before we dive into the recrimination round of our program, let's tip our lids to the Celts. They were magnificent today. Doc Rivers had them ready to compete, and they were just better at nearly every position. Pierce scored 32 points on 21 shots (including free-throw possessions), a fantastic performance. Allen scored 21 on 13 shots, Garnett scored 18 on 12 and added 13 rebounds and five assists, and Rondo presided over the attack with admirable aplomb. Every one of the Celtics' key players had a terrific game.

The same can be said of just one of their Laker counterparts: Kobe Bryant. The Mamba did what he could to keep his team in the game, scoring 41 points on 32 shots and committing only a couple turnovers. That he took 32 shots and collected zero assists while the Lakers lost will inevitably drag us into a tiresome discussion about whether he shot too much. No. He didn't. I'm perfectly willing to rip Kobe when he's not taking the right approach, but it's not fair to do so today. He was the only Laker not getting shut down by the man guarding him. None of his teammates - not the big guys, not Artest, not his supposedly trusty sidekick Fish - was making good moves, getting to the right spot on the floor or proving their ability to be sound with the ball in the face of the Boston pressure. Did Kobe play a perfect game? Of course not. But if you're making a list of people to blame for this debacle, Kobe's name should be at the bottom.

Who's at the top? Honestly, I'm tempted to say Phil Jackson. It's his responsibility to get the team ready to compete, and right now, in the biggest games of the regular season, it's not happening. He was outcoached by Rivers today. Particularly confounding were some of his rotations toward the end of the game. Why, for instance, did he go almost four minutes late in the fourth quarter with both Fish and Steve Blake on the floor? That's two guys who are defensive liabilities and who can't create shots for themselves. I'd understand a little if they were the hot hands, but that wasn't the case.

Gasol and Andrew Bynum deserve a healthy share of criticism. If the Lakers are ever going to start competing with the best teams in the league - and let's face it, they haven't even been keeping these games terribly close - the two seven footers have to play well. Gasol needs to be the creative post scorer that commands multiple defenders in the post. Bynum needs to make the painted area a no-fly zone for opposing scorers, and he's got to be better on the defensive glass. Today Drew pulled in just three defensive boards in 28 minutes.

As for Ron Artest, he was atrocious at both ends. Pierce might as well have been working against Luke all day long. That's how much difference Ron's D made. Also, Ron shot 1 for 10, and no, he wasn't injured. Kevin Ding confirmed it with Phil after the game.

Finally, a note to the Lakers' marketing people: stop the gimmicky uniform shit. Seriously. Knock it off. Your team has the best uniforms in basketball, and there's no reason to use anything other than their standard home, away and Sunday white kits. Every time you try something gimmicky - whether it's the short shorts, or the Grinch shoes on Christmas, or those idiotic ‘80s throwbacks - the Lakers lose. And no one is asking for them! Do you honestly think there's a person on earth who thought to themselves today, "You know, I wasn't really interested in this game, but now that I see the resemblance to what the Lakers wore in 1988, I'm totally going to watch"? Stop trying to be cute, because it's just annoying.

It'll take a while to sort through all our thoughts about what happened today. For now, I'll leave you with what I thought were a couple insightful postgame tweets. First, a note of calm from Gary Collard (@LakerGMC):

Fans on a ledge: it's a process, never overreact to any game where nobody gets seriously hurt. Trust in Phil, he knows how to prepare them.

Very good points. Reasonable and focused on the big picture. These are things we should all remember to do.

But perhaps capturing the moment better than anyone is @unicornrockstar:

I have neither the booze nor the chronic, the Lakers suck, and today is not a good day.

No. No it is not.











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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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