Welcome to the NBA’s bizarro finals, where whatever was true the day before is uncertain the next.
We have seen the Lakers manhandle the Celtics inside, and the Celtics return the favor. Ray Allen couldn’t miss a shot, then he couldn’t make one either. Kevin Garnett is old and washed up, and then he’s the best player on the floor.
In this series that aren’t so much trends, as there are moments. Each game has taken on a life of its own, completely divorced from the ones that came before it.
The Celtics are facing an uncertain future in Game 4 Thursday night. If they win, they are right back in the finals, and we will be looking at a long series and a return trip to Los Angeles. If they lose, they will face a very long and difficult road. Not impossible perhaps, but arduous.
There are several factors that point to the Celtics accomplishing their goal and forcing a split. Outside of Game 1, their defense has been sound. They have avoided turnovers, and they are at home and while the road team has won two of the three games, they can expect another juiced up crowd.
But if they are going to get their split, the Celtics have a lot of work to do, because whether they ultimately win or lose this series, the Lakers have shown that they have tremendous resilience.
Many people have suggested that they couldn’t have won a game like Game 3 in 2008, and while we’ll never know for sure, the fact is they didn’t win a game like that in 2008.
So, with the understanding that Game 4 will probably lead us down several more avenues in the compelling series, let’s take a look at five things to watch for in Game 4:
WANTED: TWO THIRDS OF THE BIG THREE
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett have each had games where they led the team in scoring and they have each had games where they have been limited by foul trouble. The latter part is a reoccurring theme that was all the talk during Wednesday’s media availability, but the former is a cause for concern.
Allen will just as soon go 8-for-11 from 3-point range and he will go 0-for-13 from the floor, but the Celtics should be able to count on him for 15 to 20 points. Pierce and Garnett are the wild cards.
Pierce has generated 20 of his 49 points from the free throw line, but he is shooting just 36 percent and has particularly struggled with long jump shots. Since Game 1 he has missed all seven of his shot attempts from 16-23 feet, according to Hoopdata. He did rediscover his 3-point stroke in Game 3, but Ron Artest deserves credit for his work on the perimeter.
Pierce is the one player on the team who can initiate his own offense, but he hasn’t found anything that has worked for him yet. Still, Pierce is to be commended for remaining patient and not trying to force his stamp on the series.
“You know, we need Paul,” Garnett said. “We need Paul to be Paul Pierce, The Truth. But it has to be something that is a flow and within everybody's flow of the game.”
Garnett, meanwhile, was a completely different player in Game 3. Pau Gasol has tried to play him tight and take away his jumper, so the Celtics got the ball to Garnett in the left block and allowed him room to turn and face the basket and beat Gasol off the dribble.
“You can’t really be too deep in the paint because he’s always going to be ready to shoot it and they look for him a lot, so that does change your defense a little bit,” Gasol said. “I always try to get into him and make sure if he does step back and look for that jumper I’m there to contest them. [Tuesday] night, he was effective and aggressive and had a big game.”
Doc Rivers noted after Game 3 that he wanted 20 to 25 shots from Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins suggested that both sides be more forceful with getting his frontcourt partner the ball.
“I don’t think we went to KG enough,” Perkins said. “We sometimes over think our offense. We ran one play and they couldn’t stop it. Kevin’s got to ask for the ball more. Sometimes it’s OK to come to the sidelines and say to Doc, ‘Go to me.’”
Garnett, of course, would rather misread a pick and roll the interrupt the flow of the offense.
“It had nothing to do with force feeding and shoving the biscuit down the baby’s throat, so to speak,” he said. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
They both have a point. The Celtics are at their best when the shots and points are distributed among them, but so far they haven’t had a game where there was an equal balance. They have had one game where they received huge production from two of their four stars (counting Rondo) and that was the game they won.
DEREK FISHER AND HIS DEFENSE
Phil Jackson’s comments about Kobe Bryant’s foul trouble in Game 2 got most of the attention, but he made a far subtler, and more effective point about Derek Fisher’s defense on Ray Allen.
“We just have to adjust to the ballgame to what the referees are going to call,” he said after Game 2 when Allen went off and scored 32 points. “Are they going to allow us to take direct line cuts away from him so he has to divert his route and get a foul called on Fisher? That makes for a totally different type of ballgame.”
That led Rivers to say the following on Wednesday about Fisher’s defense:
“Derek? What, besides flopping, he doesn’t do a lot extra. He plays hard. He’s been in the game long enough to understand. I thought he got away with a lot [Tuesday] night. I thought there was a lot of holding going on and a lot of flopping going on, and finally he showed that last one.
“But as far as the off-the-ball action, single double action, you are not allowed to hold. You’re not allowed to bump and you’re not allowed to impede progress. I read that this morning, and I’m positive of it. So you know, when that happens, then that has to be called.”
OK, so Fisher’s defense on Allen has just become a sideshow attraction. It was suggested to Allen that he could be a little more demonstrative to help sell a call when Fisher is holding him and he shot back, “I’m not a flopper.”
More to the point, the referees have become an unfortunate third party in this series and both coaches show no sign of letting up their attacks.
One way or another, most of this relates to how Allen is able to maneuver in the halfcourt. The Lakers made some smart adjustments by having their big men disengage from the player setting the screen and leaving Fisher an alley to run through. They also popped out on Allen when he did get the ball.
They are very concerned with Allen because if he gets off again, that would force them to switch Kobe Bryant off Rondo and that would obviously be a boon for Rondo. While his shooting is bound to return to normal levels, he is becoming a barometer for how each game has played out.
ANDREW BYNUM’S KNEE
Bynum has been playing with a torn meniscus since the Oklahoma City, and rumors have been swirling around the Lakers camp that he may not be able to play in Game 4 after he experienced swelling in his knee.
Bynum assured everyone that he would play Thursday, and Jackson said he was optimistic that he could. Whether he can or not, Bynum was nowhere near as effective after the quick turnaround in Game 3 than he was in Game 2 with two off days.
While Lamar Odom played well in his absence, the Celtics would take that trade-off, because Bynum does such a good job of protecting the rim. Bynum said that his injury affects him the most when he’s running up and down the court and that’s another reason why the Celtics have to get their transition game in gear.
All of this goes back to rebounding and that remains the one constant in this series. The team that rebounds better has won every game. The stability of Bynum’s knee may be a huge factor in Game 4.
BIG BABY OR PERK?
Kendrick Perkins didn’t see the court in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and that had to do with two factors: Odom’s presence in the frontcourt alongside Gasol and Glen Davis’ production.
“No conspiracy,” Rivers said. “Baby was playing well.”
Perkins has been a non-factor offensively, which he acknowledged Wednesday. “I didn’t really have one,” he said to a question about his offensive game.
Perkins is on the floor for his defense, but with Bynum on the bench, Davis is a better fit because of his energy and hustle.
“I thought Baby played terrific last night,” Rivers said. “He made it difficult. They went small, I guess small, when Odom is at the 4, so it made it easier for us to keep Baby in. And Baby was playing great. He played with great energy.”
Along with that, the Celtics are hoping Rasheed Wallace’s back allows him to stay on the floor for longer periods of time. Rivers expected to play Garnett and Wallace together because of the Lakers size, but because of Garnett’s foul trouble and Wallace’s back acting up, he hasn’t used that lineup.
Wallace played great individual defense in Game 3, but he was often laboring behind on the fast break and his shots were way off. Rivers said he was feeling better Wednesday and if so, it would be a huge boost for the Celtics.
ONE MORE, ON THE OFFICIALS
Whether it’s been foul trouble for star players, the sheer amount of fouls and free throws or the finer aspects of perimeter defense, the referees have been an X-factor on this series. Too much of one, in fact.
Rivers amped up his rhetoric on Wednesday so much that after a non-related question he gave an answer about how the games were being called. Told that the question wasn’t about the refs, Rivers responded, “Oh.”
Thursday morning’s announcement of the three officials assigned to Game 4 will be as closely watched as status reports on Bynum’s knee.
It would be great if we could get one game where the officials weren’t part of the story and if that were to happen it would probably play into the Celtics benefit. The less calls the better as far as they’re concerned.
One way or another, however, both teams are going to have to play through the calls and find a way to win when they don’t get the whistle they want.
Either way, the Celtics are faced with the stark reality that Game 4 is the proverbial non-clinching “must-win game.”
They have been backed into a corner twice already in the postseason and responded favorably both times. First in Game 4 against the Cavs, when Rajon Rondo went crazy and turned that series around, and then in Game 6 against the Magic when everyone was expecting a collapse.
Thursday will be yet another test of their resolve.