LOS ANGELES – They have watched it and re-watched it and two days later the Celtics still don’t have an explanation for why they didn’t play up to their capabilities in Game 1 of the NBA finals.
They’ve given credit to the Lakers, who certainly had a lot to do with it, and they’ve beaten themselves up and accepted responsibility for their failures, but now they have to move on and no one expects them to play that poorly again in Game 2, especially their opponents.
“I expect their whole team to be more aggressive,” Pau Gasol said. “It’s just the reality.”
The reality for the Celtics is this: If they come back to Boston down two games to none, their ability to win a championship will be severely damaged. It won’t be impossible, no matter what the historical register indicates or whatever Phil Jackson-coached teams have done in the past, but it will be that much harder.
“It’s rare that your team shows up not to play,” Doc Rivers said. “It happens sometimes for whatever reason. It just happens.”
If they are to get a split they will have to do the things that they didn’t do in Game 1; namely rebound and get stops. That won’t guarantee a victory, but if they don’t do either of those things it will lead to a loss.
The Lakers did pretty much what they wanted offensively in Game 1. Their guards got into the paint, their wings got into the gaps of the Celtics defense and their big men played taps with rebounds.
With all that, they were still one good run away from getting right back in the game. The run never came because the defense remained porous and the Celtics are one of the rare NBA teams that generates their offense from their defense.
It will take a complete reversal in Game 2 if they are going to earn their split, but here are five things that will be under the microscope Sunday night.
Kobe Bryant had one of the more efficient 30-point games that no one really talked about. He took 22 shots and made 10, while also playing a role in getting both Ray and Tony Allen in constant foul trouble.
He took 13 of those shots within 10 feet of the basket and 10 of those were at the rim, with only a third coming from beyond 15 feet according to the website Hoop Data. The Celtics would like to reverse those numbers in Game 2, and while it’s tempting to put this on Ray Allen, that’s not really the way the Celtics defense works.
“It’s really not a matchup with me and Ray Allen,” Bryant said. “It’s really me trying to find gaps and holes in their defensive scheme and the help they provide.”
Bryant has expressed his admiration for Tom Thibodeau and the way the Celtics play defense and he has studied extensively what they did to him in 2008. He is going to score, but the Celtics want to make his attempts much more difficult.
They also need to figure out a way to keep Ray Allen on the floor for more than 27 minutes. Without him, their offensive spacing collapsed and their halfcourt sets stagnated.
The Celtics had great success in stretching fouls between Allen and Paul Pierce against LeBron James and the Cavs. Look for them to employ a similar tactic against Kobe, especially because Pierce has had success defending him.
They also need to get a steadier game from Tony Allen when he comes off the bench and they may get a boost from the probable return of Marquis Daniels who has missed the last two games with a concussion. Daniels went through a full practice Saturday and it’s likely he will be available.
“We have the flexibility to do that,” Ray Allen said. “We have enough guys. [Daniels] buys time, but you know he’s been in the final before [with Dallas]. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t been available for us.”
GARNETT VS. GASOL
These two didn’t need a media-generated war of words to bring any more heat to their battle, but they got it on Friday when some of Gasol’s words were relayed to Garnett without the true benefit of context.
Garnett will be fired up in his own unique way, but words won’t matter that much anyway. Garnett’s been beating himself up the last two days in the words of Rivers and watching so much tape that the coach actually had to tell him to cool it.
“That’s who he is,” Rivers said. “That’s what Kevin does. He’s as healthy as he’s been all year. Listen, he’s not who he was two years ago. I’m not either. Ray, Paul, Rondo none of us are.”
There are two sides to the KG-Gasol matchup and the most obvious one was on defense where Gasol had his way in the paint getting eight offensive rebounds. But offensively, the Celtics also have work to do regarding Garnett.
“We have to do a better job of getting him the ball in his spots,” Rivers said. “He had a lot of touches outside the paint.”
Garnett made only three of his seven long jump shot attempts and also struggled inside, shooting 2-for-6 at the rim. Despite Gasol’s length, Garnett has his go-to fade-away jump shot that is basically unblockable, but he also has to get the ball in his favored position.
As to whether things will get heated between the two, Bryant for one, downplayed that aspect. “He’ll be fine,” he said of Gasol.
It’s asking a lot for Garnett to outplay Gasol at this stage of their careers, but he has to shrink the gap considerably in Game 2.
GETTING RONDO GOING
Funny thing about Rondo’s Game 1 performance: He actually made three of his five long jump shots, it was inside where he struggled, converting just one of six shot attempts at the rim.
The Lakers big men did an outstanding job of not over-committing to Rondo’s drives and forcing him to shoot over the top of them in Game 1, a strategy Andrew Bynum mentioned on Friday and Bryant reinforced on Saturday.
“It’s a full-time job,” Bryant said. “He’s very smart and he gets after it quite a bit.”
Of course, the best way to get Rondo going is to get him out on the break, but the Celtics fast break opportunities were limited by the Lakers offensive rebounding and 31 free throw attempts.
“We’ve got to get stops,” Rivers said. “Rondo’s not going to get going if we don’t get stops. Our offense is directly connected to our defense.”
Rivers revealed that Rondo has been dealing with a strained glute muscle and he can often be seen stretching it during timeouts and before practices.
How much that has hampered him remains a closely-guarded secret, but nothing restricted him more than the Celtics constantly taking the ball out of the basket in Game 1.
So much of what the Celtics didn’t do offensively, stems from their inability to execute their defense that it’s almost impossible to judge their performance on that end of the floor.
We do know this, however. The Celtics can’t expect to beat the Lakers in a slow, grind-it-out game. If they are going to win Game 2, they have to play faster and that starts with their defense.
THE BENCH NEEDS TO BE STEADIER
There were two bright spots from the Celtics reserves in Game 1: Rasheed Wallace scored nine points and had four rebounds in 18 minutes and Nate Robinson played a solid floor game despite missing all three of his shots.
Beyond that though, the bench struggled. Michael Finley was beaten badly defensively and his chances may have come to an end. Glen Davis played hard, but his lack of size was a problem against the Lakers big men.
The biggest issue though was Tony Allen who had perhaps his worst playoff game to date. Allen got himself into immediate foul trouble and was unsteady offensively, turning it over twice and missing three of four shots in just 17 minutes.
Allen actually played better in the second half so there is hope that he can turn himself around in Game 2. Wallace also became fatigued after missing so much practice time with his tight back.
The Celtics don’t need their bench to win this game, but they can’t lose it either. There is ample room for improvement in this department.
STOPPING DRIBBLE PENETRATION
This is the last thing on our list, but it might be the most important item. The Lakers guards got into the paint at will in Game 1, particularly Bryant and Jordan Farmar. That made the defense react and that opened up the rebounding gaps for Gasol.
This has been the root of the Celtics defensive problems all season and they simply need a better effort on the perimeter, as well as a few subtle tweaks.
The Lakers spaced the floor particularly well in Game 1 and in that they have learned from 2008. The key to beating the Celtics lies in finding the gaps and seams in their help-oriented defense and in handling the pressure that they exert on ballhandlers.
They weren’t able to apply the pressure because the first move put them back on their heels. For all the talk about aggression and physical play, the Lakers simply executed far better than the Celtics and that’s what ultimately turned Game 1 into a decisive outcome.
The Celtics have heard for two days how poorly they played, but momentum is a tricky thing in the playoffs. It swung wildly in the Cleveland series and it almost got away from them against Orlando.
If they can correct their flaws and play their style of basketball, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to fly back to Boston with a split and momentum back on their side.