In the weeklong preamble that lead up to the 2010 edition of the NBA Finals, perhaps the biggest question was whether the Lakers would once again be bullied, beat up, and pushed around by a more physical and imposing Boston Celtics squad.
The question was certainly valid, as two years ago the Celtics outworked, out-hustled, and outfought Los Angeles. The debate as to whether the Lakers had learned anything seemed central to the question of whether they had a shot in this series.
But perhaps we were all asking the wrong question. After Game 1 on Thursday night, it seems worthwhile to ask not whether the Lakers are the same team that was bulldozed in Game 6 in 2008, but instead wonder aloud of this is the same Celtics team that did the bulldozing.
Thursday night, it certainly didn’t look like it.
Immediately off the tip, Boston was sloppy with the ball, a trend that would play out throughout the whole game. Those turnovers seemed more a product of Boston’s carelessness with the basketball than anything in particular the Lakers did defensively. That reckless ball movement and an ongoing struggle to rebound effectively were the Celtics’ pain points all year, and both problems reared their head in Game 1.
Moreover, Boston allowed Kobe Bryant to get to the rim with impunity at the start of the game; it is not an exaggeration to suggest Bryant got to the basket without getting knocked down more in Game 1 than in the entire series in 2008.
Those mostly uncontested looks were due equally to Bryant imposing his will on offense as they were the Celtics not being able to be as physical with him and knock him over. Why is that though? How can it be that Boston’s defenders cannot stay in front of Bryant, who is himself two years older and a step slower than in 2008? Why is it that they need to foul so much just to slow down the Los Angeles offense?
To skew former Celtics coach Rick Pitino’s famous rant, maybe it’s because ‘James Posey isn’t coming through that door…P.J. Brown isn’t coming through that door…the real Kevin Garnett isn’t coming through that door.’
That Boston is missing Posey and Brown’s toughness and defensive aggressiveness is obvious. Tony Allen and Ray Allen simply cannot execute the Boston coaching staff’s mandate to ‘shrink the court’ and take away Bryant’s space and ability to put the ball on the deck. That is to say nothing of the ‘matador’ defense practiced by Michael Finley in the first quarter, who looked so slow that I’d be shocked if we see him again all series.
More interesting, and perhaps more consequential, is the decline experienced by Boston’s defensive and emotional leader, Kevin Garnett. Put simply, the Kevin Garnett we saw and loved to watch from two years ago is gone, probably forever. It is not for lack of fire, or heart, or passion – The Big Ticket still wants to win as badly as any player in the league. The trouble is that his body has betrayed his legendary competitively. His knees have broken faith with his desire to still be the baddest big man in the game.
The old Garnett would never let Pau Gasol muscle him around for physical tip-ins. He certainly would never have let Gasol grab eight offensive rebounds, and 14 in total, while himself only pulling in a lowly four. Further, he would not have stood for the sort of body language and indifference the Boston bench showed for much of this game.
Most of all, vintage-Garnett would never have blown back-to-back uncontested lay-ins at the rim as he did in the fourth quarter. Those should have been rim-rattling, violent, ‘hide-the-women-and-child’ type dunks. Instead it was as if Father Time himself blocked those looks.
Now that is not to say that the Lakers had nothing to do with their own success. Outrebounding the Celtics by 11 for the game does not happen simply by accident, nor does holding them to just 10% from three. Los Angeles held their ground admirably.
Kobe Bryant was still Kobe Bryant, to the tune of 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. There will be considerable time in the weeks and months ahead to fawn over his greatness, so let us save this for the near future.
Pau Gasol certainly responded to anyone still wondering if he was “soft”, pouring in 23 points and snatching the aforementioned 14 rebounds. He was not baited into anything foolish when Rasheed Wallace got physical with him to start the fourth, and should be commended for his great play.
The Lakers also have to love what they got from Andrew Bynum (10 points, six rebounds in 28 minutes) given his health being such a big question mark. His size caused problems for Boston the entire first half. And let us not go without mentioning Ron Artest, who not only played intelligent offense, but smothered Paul Pierce for much of the game and came out with a plus/minus rating of +26 for the night.
In Game 1 the Celtics did not intimidate or browbeat the Lakers. They were not the bully they had been two years ago, who seemingly punked the Lakers for their lunch money. Perhaps that swagger and defensive strong-arming will return. Boston had better hope it does Sunday for Game 2, or they will be staring up at a rather serious problem.