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Garnett, Celtics making best of matchups
Now that the defending champions are on the ropes, let's borrow from the deep thinkers involved in boxing to help explain what's been happening during the 2010 NBA Finals.
OK, sweet scientists often remind us that disparate styles make great fights. And while the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics bout has been far from technically great, it has evolved into a bit of a roundball rumble. Since contrasting styles often are diminished over the course of a playoff series and coaches begin to micro-manage each possession, individual matchups usually take over in defining the outcome even more than they already do.
Boston's 3-2 advantage, fortified by Sunday's 92-86 triumph over a Lakers team that's becoming mentally softer each day, has occurred through recent domination in most of the matchups.
We can begin with the headliner co-starring Celtics forward Paul Pierce and Lakers defensive mercenary Ron Artest. Before digging into how and why Pierce is now winning this battle, please note that Artest shooting three crooked free throws in four late attempts and being out of position twice when fouling Rajon Rondo in the final minute might have helped. Anyway, Ron-Ron had been doing a swell job against The Truth through the first three games of the Finals. Pierce had missed 23 of 36 field-goal attempts during that span and the Cs were refusing to give Artest much of the credit.
Artest, who had excelled in reducing the efficiency level of Kevin Durant during an opening-round victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, seemed to have the muscle and enough first-step lateral quickness to keep Pierce -- who likes to create space by dipping a shoulder -- under control. When Game 4 rolled around, the Celtics started increasing the ball-screen frequency for Pierce, forcing the Lakers to make difficult (for them) choices on whether to switch or fight over the picks. The Lakers often chose to switch, giving Pierce the latitude to either beat a bigger player with his signature step-back jumper or simply turn and shoot over a smaller player.
When this switching commitment blew up in the first half of Game 5, the Lakers changed tactics, leaving Artest to defend Pierce in the isolation events he had excelled in during the early games. But the Cs' reluctance to publicly praise Artest didn't seem to inspire Ron to greater heights of one-on-one defense. After being beaten on three consecutive step-back moves in Game 5, Artest then bit on a step-back fake and was beaten to the hoop off the dribble. Pierce, who made 7 of 12 shots and scored 19 points in Game 4, went for 27 -- on 12-of-21 shooting -- in Game 5.
On the other end, Artest -- with occasional moments of offensive clarity -- continues to be a train wreck with the ball in his hands. OK, he's not much better off the ball, often cutting through the lane and bringing defensive help to ruin a Bynum or Gasol post-up.
The co-stars of our next showcase matchup are Lakers 7-footer Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett, who -- following an L.A. rout in Game 1 -- was politely dismissed as a bit over the hill by the player he was guarding. Thanks to foul trouble early in Game 2, the KG uprising didn't happen until he scored 25 points in Game 3. Yeah, the Celtics lost Game 3, but Garnett's offensive salvo inspired Laker Kobe Bryant to spend more time attempting to double-team the Celtics' power forward and allowing Rondo to score on basket cuts that weren't impeded by Kobe's asleep-on-the-weak side teammates.
With his confidence growing, the historically pass-happy KG has been more willing to attack Gasol (and convert) during crucial stages of recent games. Gasol, seemingly uncertain about where his defensive help is going to come from (if anywhere), either allows Garnett to face up and drive with his right hand or shades him way too much when forcing KG left.
On offense, Gasol -- who had been looking very much like the genetic cross between Tim Duncan and Big Bird -- has failed to make at least half of his shots the last three games. While his offensive demise has been a Boston team effort, KG deserves the most credit for limiting Gasol to a dozen points in Game 5.
But we have to point out that the Lakers aren't exactly blameless for the fall of Gasol. After he had little opportunity to score in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Lakers began Game 5 using Gasol and big-man buddy Andrew Bynum in what are referred to as "drag" screens. A drag screen is one that's made by the trailer early in a possession, usually as part of a team's secondary fast break. With Bryant handling the ball, Gasol and Bynum spent the opening stages of the first quarter setting these high ball screens that are designed to create space for Kobe and allow the Laker bigs to get to the low post while on the move. This also makes it harder for the defense to present weak side help. In L.A.'s typical triangle-offensive pattern, the low post player simply runs to that spot and attempts to present a target.
However, Boston's bigs had been allowed to push Gasol off the block (mostly without penalty) and out of his sweet spot. So the strategy was to put Gasol and Bynum on the move.
It worked ... for a few possessions. When the Celtics adjusted by dropping a help defender into the lane, the Lakers didn't adjust by bringing their second big up high to empty out the backside. So the drag-screen scheme died fairly quickly and Gasol sort of disappeared. When the ball did find him later, he seemed intimidated and didn't go strong to the rim.
With only one more victory, Garnett will have gone from allegedly over the hill to back on top of it.
Our next featured matchup has Bryant squaring off with the Boston Allens, Ray and Tony. This one's pretty simple -- Ray works hard, but has little chance of winning this defensive battle unless Kobe is reluctant to take the ball inside against Boston's length and is missing contested jumpers.
Conversely, Tony really digs in against Bryant, giving him no cushion to either shoot a jumper in rhythm or use a couple of bounces to set up a clean drive into the lane.
Bryant, who entered Game 5 shooting 41 percent from the floor in the series, scored 19 points in the third quarter while working mostly against Ray.
While Kobe scored 38 points overall and would have made at least 50 percent of his shots had he not needed to hoist threes late in the game, he's done very little in this series to make life easier for his teammates. With Boston's defense loading up, the failure of other Lakers to make shots at a high rate has encouraged Kobe to force the issue ... just like he did in the 2008 Finals.
In Sunday's drag-screen efforts with Gasol and Bynum, Bryant was unable to turn the corner with any regularity because Boston's vigorous help defense was able to crowd the lane and leave Artest unattended on the perimeter. They also can leave Derek Fisher a bit, because -- even though he's a clutch shooter -- Fish has a slow release and isn't a huge threat when getting into the lane after a shot fake.
Kobe generally matches up with Rondo on the other end, still backing off the Celtics point guard and not blocking out when he sneaks in for offensive rebounds. With Bryant providing zero on-ball pressure when Rondo looks to pass inside, Gasol's inability to handle Garnett on the post has been magnified.
Since Fisher's fourth-quarter heroics in Game 3 and Ray Allen's star turn in Game 2, that battle has offered considerable entertainment (in terms of hand-to-hand combat) and little statistical performance. We'll call it a wash of late.
After getting clobbered from a productivity standpoint in Game 4, the L.A. bench matched Boston's in scoring (13 apiece) in Game 5. Bench players from each team made hustle plays in Game 5, but the Celtics' were more timely.
The coaching matchup is more difficult to quantify. Without having access during strategy exchanges, it's hard to tell which adjustments were made and carried out and which were made and not executed on the floor. While great coaches typically are those who have their ideas translated into success on the floor, it's hard to imagine the Lakers' hideous work -- at both ends -- in Game 5 was the result of bad planning by a guy with 10 championships.
But we will admit that the network-provided sound bites from the Lakers' and Celtics' huddles are pretty interesting. While Lakers coach Phil Jackson delivers the message in matter-of-fact terms, Boston's Doc Rivers spends more time appealing to his players' emotions and the importance of teamwork.
When all of these matchups are pieced together and added up, the level of teamwork could define what happens when the series resumes in L.A.
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