Conn Smythe was the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey league (NHL) from 1927 to 1961. His famous credo was "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice." In his memoir, he describes it as the most misunderstood remark he ever made. Rather than meaning that his players should go out and bully the opposition, he meant the opposite, that his players should refuse to be bullied by the opposition.
Prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night at STAPLES Center, Smythe's credo should be recited, over and over again, by players and coaches alike, in the locker room of the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers must win Tuesday's Game 6 to avoid elimination and deny the Boston Celtics their 18th NBA title. In their Game 5, 92-86 loss, on Sunday in Boston, the Lakers were out run, out hustled, out muscled and simply out worked by the much-hungrier Celtics.
For the first time in this postseason, the Lakers trail in a playoff series. They have not been in this kind of territory since last year's postseason series against the Houston Rockets.
More importantly, 80% of the time that a team wins the fifth game in an NBA Finals, after the series has been tied at 2-2; that team (now having gone up 3-2) has gone on to win the NBA championship.
Let's look at some statistics from Game 5:
The Celtics won Game 5 by winning the battle for 'hustle' points. Boston outscored the Lakers 14-3 in fast break points, and had a commanding 46-32 advantage on points in the paint.
Despite Kobe Bryant's spectacular 3rd quarter performance, the Celtics were able to offset that. Bryant scored the Lakers first 19 points after half-time, but the Celtics made 9 of their first 11 shots, and outscored the Lakers 28-26 in the quarter.
Whichever team has controlled the boards has won each game thus far. In Game 5, though the Celtics won the rebound battle by just one, 35-34, it was their domination of the defensive boards, 28-18, which worked to their advantage. This helped get their fast break started, and limited the Lakers second chance opportunities.
The Lakers 86 points is their lowest point total in the 2010 postseason.
The Lakers shot a wretched 31-78 (40%) from the field, while the Celtics went 40-71 (56%).
The Lakers poor shooting failed to take advantage of a 16-7 edge in offensive rebounds.
The Lakers had just 12 assists on their 31 field goals. Boston had 21 assists.
The Lakers went to the line twice as many times as their opponent, but failed to capitalize on it. The Lakers shot 17-26 (65%) at the charity stripe, while Boston went 9-13.
Boston had a commanding edge in blocked shots 7-1 (the Celts blocked 3 of Pau Gasol's 12 shots), and used that to their advantage. If you recall, in Game 2, the Lakers set an NBA Finals record of 14 blocks, but lost the game 103-94.
Speaking of Gasol, he was the only other Laker, other than Kobe, to score in double figures. The Spaniard finished with 12 points and 12 boards, but shot just 5-12 from the field. The Celtics had 4 of their five starters finish in double figures, led by Paul Pierce's 27 points (12-21 FG).
Ron Artest continued his dismal Finals performance, failing to contain Pierce, and continuing to take ill-advised shots. The forward shot 2-9 from the field.
The Lakers bench continued their struggles. They finished with 14 points, 8 of which came from Lamar Odom.
Boston had 7 of their 9 players finish on the positive side of the ledger in +/- points. The Lakers Lamar Odom was the only Laker to finish on the positive side in +/- points. Plus/minus points is the differential of points scored by your team, as opposed to the other team, when you are on the court.
Looking at some statistics through the series thus far:
The Lakers are averaging 92.4 points in the series. That is significantly lower than their 101.7 ppg average during the regular season.
The Lakers are averaging 14.8 assists vs. the Celtics. During the regular season, the Lakers averaged 21.1 assists per game.
The Lakers 29% 3 point field goal average in the series which is down from their 34% average during the regular season. The Celtics are averaging 32% from beyond-the-arc in the series.
The Lakers are averaging 6.4 blocks to Boston's 3.8 per game.
Kobe Bryant is 14-37 from 3-point range vs. Boston, and 35-38 from the free throw line.
Pau Gasol's 21 offensive rebounds through 5 games leads all players. Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum are the next leading Lakers with 9 each. Boston's Kendrick Perkins leads the Celtics with 14.
Derek Fisher is 16-43 from the field and 0-8 from 3-point range. He is a near flawless 14-15 from the free throw line.
Ron Artest is 13-43 from the field, and 6-19 from 3-point range vs. the Celtics. He is shooting 7-15 from the free throw line.
Jordan Farmar is 7-19 from the field and 2-8 from 3-point land in the series.
The Celtics Ray Allen is a perfect 16-16 on his free throws. His teammate, Kevin Garnett is 16-18 from the free throw line.
For the Lakers to remain alive to even see a Game 7, they have to take high percentage shots, limit their 3-point shooting, control the boards, limit their turnovers, cut way down on the Celtics points scored off transition, go after every loose ball, play with hunger and desire for the full 48 minutes, get substantial contributions from their bench, which thus far in the series, has been missing in action (M.I.A.). They need to look back on what worked for them so well in their victories in Games 1 and 3. And they need to find a way to stop the momentum and confidence that the Celtics have, now holding a 3 games to 2 edge, having won 3 of the last four games.
Most importantly, they have to get back to what they said they needed to do at the start of the Finals: play physical, get the ball inside to Gasol, Bynum (for whatever minutes they can get from him), and Odom (who must play with emotion and a positive energy). Perhaps Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson should consider inserting seldom used center DJ Mbenga for brief stints, to pose a physically intimidating presence.
Putting into practice and paraphrasing the words of Conn Smythe, might just be a good place to start. With their backs against the wall, in Game 6, when it comes to the Boston Celtics; if the Lakers can't beat 'em in the alley, they can't beat 'em on the court.