The Los Angeles Lakers did not look good against the Boston Celtics during their Game 5 matchup. Besides the obvious 3-2 deficit they now face, the Lakers also allowed Boston to gain confidence and develop their game plan.
On top of that, the Celtics are a very good road team. They’ve already proven they can win one game in Los Angeles, and one victory is all they need to win their 18th NBA championship.
If the Lakers are looking to overcome the first deficit they've faced during the 2010 NBA Playoffs, they must find a way to address the following problems:
1. Paul Pierce owns Ron Artest.
Through the first three games of the series, Artest did a solid job of guarding Pierce. As a result of his defense, Pierce went 23 of his first 36 and seemed generally out of rhythm. Many began crediting Artest with playing the type of defense he played against the Oklahoma City Thunders' Kevin Durant, and said he had successfully shut Pierce down.
It’s important to note, in order to justify his time on the floor, Artest had to play great defense. He’s been an offensive disaster from the very start of the series, and is noticeably scared to shoot 3-pointers at this point.
Unfortunately, Pierce found his touch in Game 4.
With Doc Rivers devising a plan to run more ball-screens for Pierce, the Lakers had to decide whether they wanted to switch over or fight the screens. More often than not, the Lakers chose to switch, allowing Pierce to either shoot over the smaller defender or step back and use his quickness against the larger player.
Then, in Game 5, the Celtics reduced the amount of ball-screens they ran, and increased the amount of iso-plays called for a very hot Pierce. In theory, Artest’s strength and quickness should have been enough to keep up with Pierce -- as it was in the first three games -- but, Pierce instead torched Artest to the tune of 19 points in Game 4 and 27 points in Game 5. Worse yet, the points came from an extremely efficient 7-12 in Game 4, and 12-21 in Game 5.
Again, Artest is a liability to have on the floor if he is not locking Pierce down. He needs to find a way to slow the Celtics captain down on isolation plays, and be able to fight through screens rather than allowing for someone to switch onto Pierce.
2. Kevin Garnett has woken up against Pau Gasol.
Early on in the series, the talk was that Garnett was done. Even Gasol came out at one point, and said that Garnett had clearly lost a little something.
Well, ever since Game 3, Garnett’s found it again.
Following a 25-point explosion in Game 3, Garnett has caused all sorts of problems for the Lakers. To start, Kobe Bryant has had to keep an eye on him, allowing Rajon Rondo to sneak by for easy cuts that weren’t being exploited in Games 1 and 2.
Then, whenever Bryant would return his attention to Rondo, Garnett would attack Gasol with offensive moves we hadn’t seen from him since 2008. The Big Ticket has done everything from facing Gasol up, to driving with his right hand and smoothly laying it past the Spaniard’s outstretched arms.
On top of that, his effectiveness offensively has made Garnett more assertive defensively. Through his tough, gritty play he has forced Gasol to miss at least half of his shots in Games 3, 4 and 5. In the last game, it was primarily KG’s defense that held Gasol to a mere 12 points when Bryant was desperately looking for a teammate to lighten his scoring load.
This brings us to the third major problem facing the Lakers…
3. Kobe Bryant is not scoring efficiently.
Before we get into Bryant’s play, it’s important to note that he is the best player in this series. Without him, the Lakers would be dead in the water. Some might argue that it’s not even fair to criticize Bryant, but it must be done.
Going into Game 5, Bryant shot 41 percent from the floor. Not a great clip to be shooting at, even if he didn’t have to throw up a few prayers because his team was down and needed to get back in the game.
While Bryant did manage to score 38 points in Game 5, he did so while falling into the Celtics’ trap of encouraging him to force shots. Luckily for the Lakers, these shots went in. However, when Bryant is the only player jacking up jumpers, his teammates go cold. Then, when he cools down, there is nobody around to pick up the slack.
Further, in drag-screen efforts with the Lakers’ bigs, Bryant could not turn the corner because Boston would constantly throw help defenders at him. They could afford to do so because all they had to do was leave Artest open, and everyone knows he’s not a threat to score, regardless.
On the defensive end, Bryant had been doing a good job, though it’s clearly wearing him down. When playing Rondo, the Black Mamba doesn’t provide much on-the-ball pressure, thus allowing Garnett to become more effective in the post. Bryant can’t really change this, as if he did try to put a little more pressure on the ball, the much-quicker Rondo would simply run around him.
If the Lakers have any chance of winning Game 6, Phil Jackson has to find the balance with Bryant’s minutes. It’s clear that despite heating up at times, the Lakers’ captain is worn down by the time the fourth quarter rolls around and is not able to play the Captain Planet role that the Lakers are used to him playing.
All in all, the Lakers still have a good -- not great -- shot to win this series. As troubling as it is to see everyone oh so confident that there will be a Game 7, there is a reason for that. The Lakers are still the most talented team in this series, still have the best player in the series and still have history on their side.
Remember: No Jackson-led team that’s gone up 1-0 in a series has ever gone on to lose that series.