Through five games, the 2010 NBA Finals still seem to lack a cohesive storyline. Instead of consistent trends unfolding over the course of the series, or even adjustments swinging momentum back and forth, this has been more of a series made up of five individual games, with little or no cohesion between them.
Game One saw the Boston Celtics unable to contain Kobe Bryant, with Ray Allen hampered by foul trouble. Game Two was Allen's unbelievable first-half shooting display, which he's naturally followed up by missing his last 18 three-point attempts. In Game Three, the Lakers overcame Bryant's off night and a phenomenal effort by Kevin Garnett by containing the rest of the Celtics' stars. For posterity, we'll remember Game Four as the "Shrek and Donkey game," when the Boston bench saved the Celtics' season. And Game Five was memorable for Bryant single-handedly keeping the Lakers in the game, ultimately to no avail.
The common thread there is ... well, there is no common thread, which makes Game Six that much more difficult to peg.
I have exaggerated a bit. There are a few developing trends of varying importance. The first, naturally, has been Andrew Bynum's availability as he deals with a torn meniscus. A question mark prior to Game Five, Bynum was able to stay on the court for 32 minutes, which was a tremendous feat of will. After a strong start, however, Bynum was ineffective. He grabbed just one rebound all game and was scoreless after the first quarter. With him on the floor, the Lakers were outscored by 12 points. They were +7 with Lamar Odom on the court.
Odom was not at 100 percent himself, battling flu-like symptoms on Sunday. Odom ended up playing 26 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, but his illness probably forced Phil Jackson to use Bynum somewhat more than he would have wanted. Getting Bynum down to about 20 minutes could help him remain strong. I wonder if it might not make sense for Jackson to reverse his usual rotation of playing Gasol the entire first quarter and substituting Odom for Bynum early. That would allow Bynum to stay on the court when he's warm while getting Gasol the rest he needs. It was after he sat down that he struggled in Game Five. Maybe that was inevitable no matter what, but trying something different could pay dividends for the Lakers.
Both because Bynum has been sidelined and simply because he hasn't been himself while on the court, the Lakers' defense has lost some of its tenacity the last two games. After allowing no more than 107.3 points per 100 possessions in the first three games, the Lakers have surrendered Offensive Ratings of 112.2 and 110.5 the last two games.
The extent to which the Lakers broke down in Game Five may have been exaggerated. Ultimately, that probably depends how much you believe that Boston's turnover woes were self-inflicted. The final numbers, which were better than in Game Four, do also reflect the fact that defense is about more than just forcing misses. The Celtics' 56.3 percent shooting overstated how effective they were because the Lakers kept them off the free throw line, limited three-pointers and were reasonably effective on the defensive glass. At the same time, during the third quarter, as in the fourth quarter of Game Four, the Lakers simply could not get a stop for an extended stretch.
At the other end of the floor, the problem is clear: The Lakers aren't executing their triangle offense and have had to rely on creating shots one-on-one, a tougher method even for a team with Kobe Bryant. What's not entirely clear is whether the cause of the problem is about the Lakers willingly abandoning their system, as was the case much of the regular season, or Boston taking away what the team wants to do, as was the case in 2008.
It's funny that for all the criticism Bryant has received over the last two days for going into hero mode during the third quarter, nobody has pointed out that it was actually Bryant's backcourt-mate Derek Fisher who got the Lakers off to a poor start on offense by repeatedly going one-on-one in the first quarter. Fisher was hardly the lone culprit, but it was an interesting counterpoint to the praise he got for his veteran heroics just five days earlier.
The issues go back further than that, however. The Lakers got few assists in any of the three games at the TD Garden, a trend that went largely ignored in the wake of a Game Three victory that was their second-best offensive performance of the series. As important as I think ball movement is to the Lakers, it's hard to draw a clear connection between them assisting on a high percentage of their baskets and having success on offense, either in the regular season or the postseason.
Against the Celtics in particular, it may simply be more effective to load up on isolations and pick-and-roll plays. The latter have been especially effective for Bryant in this series, according to Synergy Sports' data. That said, I think the Lakers have to at least try to get back the ball movement that has made them so special at times. Pounding the ball in to Pau Gasol and playing inside-out at the start of Game Six could help accomplish that. Jackson could also go to Luke Walton earlier, especially if he can match up against Tony Allen at the start of the second quarter when Paul Pierce is resting. By the time Walton entered Game Five, it was far too late for his ability to pass and settle the team to make any difference.
If there's one trend these Finals have continued from the postseason, it's this: Between-game momentum is a myth. Game Five was the first in the series that wasn't won by the loser of the previous matchup. Boston entered the fourth quarter of Game Four 12 minutes away from being written off for the umpteenth time this season; instead, after a comeback win and their more complete Game Five victory, they've now become the heavy favorites in this series. Certainly, there were times on Sunday where the Lakers looked to have no answer, save perhaps Bryant, for what the Celtics were doing. Having seen how quickly Boston was able to turn things around, however, we would be wise not to write the Lakers off prematurely.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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