Give the Celtics credit for this much. They had a ready-made excuse for their second-half crash and burn against the Lakers. With only 10 players available at the start of the game, and two of them rookies, their numbers took another hit when Nate Robinson left the game late with a bruised knee and didn’t return.
But they wouldn’t bite.
“We got to do what we got to do,” Paul Pierce said. “It is what it is. The guys we have out there just got to be able to contribute and not make excuses and win these games. This is a game we can win on our home court with the players that we got. At the end of the day we’ve got four All-Stars we can put on the court and we’re not hurt. We’re more than capable of winning these types of games.”
The Celtics came undone in the second half in a 92-86 loss (click here for a full recap) and it was that old problem – rebounding, or the lack thereof – that ultimately sealed their fate. The Lakers were plus-7 in second-chance points and killed the Celtics in the paint by a 50-32 margin.
It wasn’t hard to wonder if any of their injured 7-footers would have made a difference. “I don’t worry about it,” Doc Rivers said. “They weren’t here. We had what we had. We had enough bodies to rebound tonight, we just didn’t do it the way we wanted to.”
Rivers had another explanation for the Celtics problems and it wasn’t one that’s normally associated with his team.
“I just thought mentally we were not a very tough team tonight and usually we are,” the coach said. “I didn’t think we fought hard enough through adversity and we’re great at that, usually.”
It’s only going to get tougher from here with Miami coming to town Sunday. What looked like a chance to assert their dominance against the best teams in the league has turned into a battle of survival. The Celtics were able to get away with their lack of depth behind Pierce at small forward against the Lakers, but that won’t be the case against LeBron James.
Neither Shaquille O’Neal nor Semih Erden is expected to be back, and if Delonte West plays before the All-Star break next weekend it’s more likely to be Wednesday against New Jersey than Sunday against Miami.
The Celtics have lost three of four and two straight for the first time all season. Taken individually they can survive injuries to just about everyone, but right now there are simply too many banged-up bodies. It’s not an excuse, but it is their reality and they didn’t find a way to play through it.
Here are three more points:
THE KOBE-RONDO BATTLE
Kobe Bryant scored three points in the first half and finished the game with 23. He also played distributor, setting up Pau Gasol for what might have been the game’s biggest basket, an easy jumper that gave the Lakers a 90-83 lead.
He also helped get Ray Allen and Von Wafer into foul trouble in a third quarter that completely unraveled the Celtics. That was the biggest concern for Rivers going into the game. Not the rebounding or the lack of big men, but foul trouble for either Allen or Pierce. And, as Rivers put it, “Once he saw there was a chance to win, Kobe was going to be Kobe.”
But as great as he was offensively, Bryant put his biggest imprint on the game on the defensive end where he once again held Rajon Rondo in check. Rondo tried to be more assertive. He took 14 shots and was all over the offensive glass, but once again Bryant proved to be the stifling rebuttal to Rondo’s inventive quirkiness.
“Listen, Kobe didn’t win the game with his offense,” Rivers said. “Kobe won the game today with his defense. I thought defensively he was absolutely phenomenal. He was everywhere.”
The Celtics didn’t help matters by reverting to their bad tendencies on offense. They simply have to work harder for their shots than all of the other elite teams and when the ball doesn’t move they effectively stop themselves.
“We were totally not aggressive that second half,” Kevin Garnett said. “We can’t beat anybody like that.”
Garnett took some of the blame upon himself, noting that he passed up a couple of decent shots to try to facilitate better ball movement, but ultimately this is Rondo’s responsibility.
The Celtics shot over 50 percent in the first half, but it wasn’t the kind of offense they like to play. “Fool’s gold,” Rivers called it. They shot 30 percent in the second and simply won’t get it done against anyone, let alone the Lakers.
The Kobe defense remains the one problem Rondo hasn’t been able to solve and if he gets another shot, it won’t be until the finals.
LAMAR ODOM: X-FACTOR
It’s really very simple. You can take all the numbers and all the strategies you want, but when Lamar Odom plays well, the Celtics have a very hard team beating the Lakers.
This wasn’t a vintage Odom game. It was a vintage half. After scoring just two points on 1-for-5 shooting in the first 24 minutes, Odom was a different player in the second, collecting eight points and eight rebounds.
Even at this point in his career, Odom remains an enigma. He can do so many things on the court, yet sometimes he accomplishes very little. Phil Jackson rode him hard in the first half, and whether it was that or after he knocked heads with Pau Gasol and came back sporting the KG-butterfly bandage, he suddenly came alive.
“I thought he was trying to do too many things individually,” Jackson said. “The second half he played the game we know he can play.”
Even with the injuries, the Kobe factor and everything else that goes into this rivalry, there is very little to separate these two teams. Odom is one of those things and Thursday night he was a difference-maker.
A LITTLE VON GOES A LONG WAY
If there was one bright spot for the Celtics – other than Ray Allen breaking Reggie Miller’s 3-point mark – it was the play of Von Wafer.
Wafer put together his best game of the season with eight points in 20 minutes and one where-did-that-come-from blocked shot on Ron Artest. Unfortunately all of his production came in the second quarter.
When Allen picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, Wafer came in and was tagged with three fouls as Bryant smelled blood.
Still, Wafer offered some relief to the Celtics biggest problem right now – depth on the wing. Unless Danny Ainge is able to swing a deal for a new swingman, Wafer is what the Celtics have to back up Pierce and Allen.
Rivers said he wouldn’t rush Delonte West back for Sunday’s game, even if Nate Robinson’s bruised knee keeps him out.
West asked the doctor to clear him for the Lakers game, but according to Rivers, there wasn’t a consensus opinion that he could play. “They were going back and forth on it,” Rivers said. “I said if we have to go back and forth on it then the answer is no.”
As it stands, it’s a better bet that West may see some action against New Jersey next Wednesday than Sunday against Miami, and even then it would likely be for short minutes.
This is the hand the Celtics have been dealt and they’ll just have to make do with three big men and two experienced reserves. No excuses.