Still waiting on Boston's Big Three
Through three games of the 2010 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics find themselves at a terrific disadvantage in the category of historical mojo.
For the record, they also trail the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 and burped up a home-court edge that had been purloined in L.A. during the fourth quarter of Game 2. But, based on numbers that must be crucial because we constantly hear and read about them, the Cs are in huge trouble.
OK, we all are aware that teams coached by Laker philosopher Phil Jackson are 47-0 when winning the first game of a playoff series. Give them a check on that one. And it's no secret that the team winning Game 3 of a Finals series that begins 1-1 has triumphed in a whopping 28 of 32 previous cases. Based on Tuesday's 91-84 victory in a clumsy exercise that may have set the sport back a dozen years, the Lakers have that one covered, too.
So what can the Celtics, a team with playoff cache up to their throats, do to rally from this colossal deficit of karma and simple mathematics? Well, they could light up cigars and dream of a game that features above-average performances from each member of their notorious Big Three.
We're referring, of course, to the veteran and (most likely) Hall-of-Fame bound trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. After their harmonic convergence in the summer of 2007, these guys willed the Cs to a title in 2008. But with three games in the 2010 Finals bank, Boston has received only two legitimate star turns in a combined nine efforts.
That scorecard gives us Allen's unconscious 32-point salvo -- including a Finals record eight 3-point baskets -- in Game 2 and KG's 25-point eruption in Game 3.
Pierce, thanks to consistent foul issues and his inability to bully Lakers defensive stopper Ron Artest, has been far less than the world's greatest player he claimed to be following the 2008 Finals.
Anyway, let's take a look at how the actions of both teams have affected what occurs relative to the Big Three.
We'll start with Pierce, who typically takes opposing small forwards to the elbow off the bounce and nails a step-back jumper after lowing his shoulder to create space. This doesn't exactly work against the physically mightier Artest. Interestingly, the Cs and coach Doc Rivers have not provided Pierce with many ball screens to either force a switch that their leading scorer can exploit or force Artest to make an alternate decision on how to deal with this screen.
What really makes it interesting was Rivers' eagerness to use this tactic to free Pierce in previous playoff series.
Boston also has not required Artest to chase Pierce through staggered screens that are the province of Allen's ability to exploit opposing defenses. We might expect the Celtics to use Pierce on screen-roll and off pin-down picks in Game 4 ... just like we expected it for Game 3.
This brings us to Allen, who took advantage of the Lakers' silly tactics in defending him on staggered screens to blow their socks off in the first half of Game 2. This Allen surge was allowed to happen because Lakers guard Derek Fisher -- the offensive hero Game 3 -- did a poor job of riding Allen's hip while chasing him around these screens.
It should be noted that Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who loves to make public declarations of his team's defensive shortcomings, was the most frequent culprit of failing to make timely rotations on defense in addition to attempting to go over the top of screens when matched against Allen. Kobe's slick maneuver permitted Allen to fade to the corner for wide-open 3s.
But, with Fisher in his pocket coming off most of the same screens in Game 3, Allen was unable to square and fire. We also should point out that despite receiving no defensive pressure from Bryant, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo missed some easy assist opportunities when Laker post players stepped out to bump Allen as the Boston two guard tried curling to the basket off these screens. When Pau Gasol, for example, stepped out to impede Allen's progress, Garnett stepped to the rim, but was rarely rewarded with a pass.
Beyond the Lakers' upgrade in defending against off-ball screens, Allen simply clanged a few wide-open looks. Although such icy moments happen to every player, the truly great scorers recognize this and attack the basket -- either off a lift-fake and drive, or just putting the ball on the floor and going to the rim. For years, Ray-Ray has frustrated observers for failing to do this; it's truly frustrating because he has the quickness and ball skills to make such plays.
After bagging 8 of his 11 3s in Game 2, Allen missed all 13 of his shots from the field and barely scratched for a pair of three throws in what the number-crunchers assure us was the pivotal Game 3.
Garnett, after riding the bench in foul trouble for a nice portion of an L.A. visit that ended with an average of four rebounds per game, put 25 points on the Lakers in Game 3. But after scoring 10 points (outrunning Gasol in transition was the biggest reason) in the opening quarter, KG managed just 15 the rest of the way. He also finished with a measly six rebounds.
If the Lakers continue reminding Gasol that KG is pretty helpless when facing up and putting the ball on the floor with his left hand, it may be tough for Garnett to duplicate that offensive output as the series continues.
OK, the Lakers did a much better job of digging in and making second and third rotations in Game 3, but the Celtics did little to help themselves by not swinging the ball from one side to the other to create driving lanes or block-out issues on the boards.
But with a 24-second shot clock factored in, it might help Boston if Rondo would push the ball into the frontcourt even after Laker field goals; just having another second or two on the clock would make reversing the ball a viable tactic rather than an event that requires an emergency maneuver before the clock expires.
Unfortunately, traditional NBA thinking has made this series really difficult to watch. Through isolation and Boston's insufficient use of decoy action on the strong side while Allen works off a down-screen, Boston's offense is making it easier for the Lakers to dig in.
And the Lakers' seeming refusal to pound the ball inside and either score off single coverage or make basket cuts off of double-downs has encouraged Kobe forcing shots as the shot-clock dies.
Boston fans could be encouraged by this year's widespread addiction to overreacting. For example, the post-Game 1 chatter pretty much eliminated all hope for the Celtics. The Lakers were goners after losing at home in Game 2.
So, with the seeming mortality of the Big Three on the table, it might be time for KG, Pierce and Allen to simultaneously go nuts in Game 4.
At least we know they have that ability.