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June 18, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
The Finals, Game Six

by Kevin Pelton

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Celtics 131, Lakers 92

After Game Five, I wrote that nothing that could happen in Tuesday's Game Six of the NBA Finals would surprise me. It turns out I lied. Even in a series as full of twists and turns as this one was, who could have imagined that the Boston Celtics would dominate the deciding game the way they ultimately did?

Over the last three decades, no team had won the deciding game of the NBA Finals by even 20 points. The Celtics nearly doubled that; their 39-point victory was the largest in a deciding game in Finals history. The only drama in the fourth quarter was when Doc Rivers would pull his starters. Ultimately, the Big Three (and yes, we can now officially give them that name) returned to the bench as champions at the 4:01 mark to thunderous applause from a TD Banknorth Garden crowd that offered Boston a true home-court advantage throughout the season.

To some extent, a game like last night's defies analysis. Everything went right for the Celtics, especially in the second quarter, while the Lakers could not get it going. We know Boston is not in fact 39 points better than the Lakers, but it was clear throughout this series that the Celtics had an upper hand that the Lakers could only better for stretches.

The weaknesses Boston exploited were on display during this game. One telling series kicked off the 11-0 run the Celtics used to take command of the game. Boston got not one, not two but three offensive rebounds before James Posey knocked down a three-pointer that roused the crowd. The Celtics' dominance of the glass and their hot three-point shooting both hit their peak in Game Six. Boston was just average on the offensive boards, but limited the Lakers to two offensive rebounds in 36 opportunities to completely dominate the defensive glass. Meanwhile, behind 7-of-9 shooting from Ray Allen, the Celtics hit 13 three-pointers in 26 attempts. For the series, Boston grabbed 79.3 percent of available defensive rebounds and shot 43.0 percent from downtown.

Last night was also the culmination of another important trend: The Celtics containing Kobe Bryant. Bryant scored 11 points in the first five and a half minutes to keep the Lakers even. As in Game Five, however, the quick start proved to be fool's gold. Even more than they did earlier in the series, Boston packed the lane and dared Bryant to be a jumpshooter. He shot 7-for-22 from the field for the game and had 11 points over his final 37 minutes.

It would be one thing if, in stopping Bryant, the Celtics sold out defensively and gave the Lakers all sorts of other opportunities. That was not the case. In the first half, the other Lakers had just eight field goals. At halftime, Pau Gasol had six points and Lamar Odom four. Odom got to the free-throw line in the second half, but neither player could pick up for Bryant.

Through the first four games or so of the Finals, I kept waiting for the Lakers to get into their triangle offense and be able to execute the way they did all season long. It never happened, and at some point it became clear that Boston's defense simply would not allow that to happen. Credit Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the Celtics' coaching staff with devising a brilliant defensive scheme, and give the players credit for executing it with few lapses in focus or effort.

Game Six made it difficult to choose a Finals MVP. Oh, it was something of a foregone conclusion that Paul Pierce would in fact win, and well within reason. He delivered at both ends throughout the series. Even last night, when he wasn't shooting the ball well, Pierce handed out 10 assists for a double-double.

Yet reasonable arguments could have been made for any of the Big Three. Game Six saw Kevin Garnett deliver the kind of performance that, even without it bringing him a long-awaited championship ring, would have silenced anyone who wanted to nitpick his performance in important situations. Garnett had 26 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and did not turn the ball over in 36 minutes. Meanwhile, Allen overcame several factors working against him to post a big game. Allen had taken a redeye back to Boston early Tuesday morning after staying in Los Angeles an extra day to be with his ill son. He had to return to the locker room during the first half after being hit in the eye. Nonetheless, Allen came up with 26 points in 32 minutes on 12 shot attempts.

The Celtics' role players contributed plenty themselves. Rajon Rondo took an amazing 20 shots to score his 21 points, but Boston was happy to accept that because of the energy Rondo offered at both ends of the floor. He was everywhere in the first half and finished with eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals with only one turnover in 32 minutes. The bench chipped in 39 points, and while that total was padded in the fourth quarter, the Celtics' second-quarter run started with three reserves on the floor alongside Garnett and Pierce. That group was headlined by Posey, who made all four of his shot attempts--three of them threes--to score 11 points.

I came into this series rooting, to some extent, for the Lakers. Honestly, I mostly pull for my picks at this point, in no small part because pride and credibility are on the line (and I came up short in the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown, finishing ahead of only Henry Abbott's mom after placing second a year ago). However, it was hard as an NBA fan not to feel good for the Celtics in victory. For Allen, Garnett and Pierce--and also for veteran reserve P.J. Brown--this was a long time coming. Having covered Allen for four-plus seasons, I know what kind of professional he has been. Even a casual NBA fan knew of Garnett's hunger to win after falling short time and again in Minnesota, and winning a title helps cement Pierce's spot amongst the Boston legends. This championship is vindication, too, for Doc Rivers, who after deservedly drawing criticism in the early rounds of the playoffs coached a masterful Finals series and outshined Phil Jackson, the legend on the other bench.

At the end of this series, we're left with a key question: Why didn't we see this coming? The Lakers were the overwhelming favorites amongst fans and analysts alike, with the most common pick (including mine) having the visitors celebrating after tonight's Game Six, not the hosts.

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel like I was overly dismissive of a point I touched on briefly in my Finals preview. The Western Conference Finals were more competitive than their five-game length would indicate, and the Celtics were highly similar to San Antonio but better and healthier. The Spurs had good three-point looks throughout the series, for example, but their role players were too tired or too ineffective to make the shots. Boston knocked them down.

Beyond that, the obvious answer is we were led astray by the Celtics' uneven performance in the first two rounds of the playoffs. At times during the Finals, I found myself thinking, "Where was this team against Atlanta?" In fairness, Boston dominated the Hawks but lost three close games on the road while winning by lopsided margins at home. It was Cleveland that ultimately gave the Celtics their toughest test en route to the title. Maybe that series was more about the Cavaliers playing well than we realized at the time.

I think we also might have seen a Boston team that needed those challenges and learned from them, while the Lakers drew less from their romp through the Western Conference. When they were challenged by the Celtics, the Lakers did not have the same kind of resiliency to draw on. Their primary answer when times got tough was for Bryant to freelance and try to carry the team. When he was unable to do so, the Lakers did not have an answer.

In the wake of this series, Jackson will draw some flak, and not undeservedly. As the difference in Rivers' performance between the early rounds and the Finals demonstrates, we need to be careful reading too much into a coach's work in a single series, and this year was considered one of Jackson's best coaching jobs through the conclusion of the conference finals. Clearly, however, this was not Jackson's finest hour; other than the adjustment to freelance off of Rondo with Bryant, the Lakers' coaching staff offered little in the way of key adjustments when it became obvious the default game plan was not working.

The danger in breaking down this or any series at its conclusion is to be too quick to criticize the losers without recognizing that, especially by the NBA Finals, it's usually a matter of one team winning much more than another losing. It didn't always feel that way in this year's Finals, but ultimately the Celtics demonstrated, as they did throughout the regular season, that they were the NBA's best team.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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