Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES -- Defense wins championships, and the Celtics played D like the champs they almost are.
Sasha Vujacic's defense? Well, let's just say if we knew the Slovenian word for matador, we'd be typing it right here.
Whether you call Boston's 97-91 victory Thursday night in Game 4 of the NBA Finals an epic comeback by the Celtics or an epic collapse by the Lakers, there was one play that encapsulated the night-and-day difference between the defensive capabilities of the two teams.
It came late in the final minute of the fourth quarter, long after the Celtics had erased every last bit of an early 24-point deficit. The Lakers needed a stop, the Celtics needed a score, and Ray Allen found himself with the ball at the top of the key, isolated against Vujacic, with Kevin Garnett starting to come out top to set a screen.
|ESPN CLASSIC: INSTANT CLASSIC|
ESPN Classic will air the historic 24-point comeback of the NBA Finals, Game 4: Celtics at Lakers, as an INSTANT CLASSIC, Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.|
"Paul [Pierce] was exhausted, and you could see it. He didn't want to come to the ball. It was really supposed to be a middle pick-and-roll with Kevin and Ray, and Ray waved Kevin off because he liked the matchup that he had, so he didn't want to bring in another defender to help," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "It was a great call by Ray, and then him getting to the basket was huge. The layup was just tremendous."
The layup wasn't merely tremendous, putting Boston ahead 96-91, it was practically uncontested.
Vujacic simply allowed Allen to drive around him, waving a hand toward Allen's midsection but failing to move his feet to deny Allen the lane, and no help defenders came over in time to seriously contest the shot.
"The whole game, from the minute I came in, they called fouls on me. He fell down, foul. I was trying to find a way to guard him for 48 minutes, and everything I did was a foul. He got me. He went to the basket, and it was a good basket. I don't know what else to say," Vujacic said, half-forlorn, half-disgusted as he stood in front of his locker in a morose Lakers dressing room.
Did he expect Allen to drive left instead of right? Did he expect stronger help to come?
"I wanted to stay with him, I wanted to stay aggressive, but again, there would be a foul. So I kind of stood back, I gave him the room to operate, and he went to the basket, so that was a bad defensive decision on my side," Vujacic said. "It doesn't matter, help or not, we came out and were supposed to be more aggressive, and not let him breathe at the top of the key. It's a tough loss, it hurts, but we're not done yet."
Well, the Lakers will be done -- perhaps Sunday, perhaps back in Boston next Tuesday or next Thursday -- if they don't find a way to get their offense back into whatever gear it was they found in the first quarter in opening a 35-14 lead, scoring two more points in those 12 minutes than they would score in the entire second half.
|LAKERS VERSUS CELTICS|
Boston 3, L.A. Lakers 1
Game 5: Sun., 8:30 ET, at LAL
Lamar Odom was 6-for-6 in the opening period and 7-for-7 at halftime when Los Angeles still held a 58-40 lead and was dominating virtually every statistical category (outshooting Boston 50 to 35 percent, outrebounding the Celtics 26-16, out-assisting them 15-4 and holding a 14-1 edge in second-chance points.
But Boston outscored the Lakers 31-15 in the third quarter (for the series, they've outscored Los Angeles by an average of almost 11 points in the third quarters) to cut the deficit to two, then went ahead for good when Eddie House knocked down an 18-footer with 4:07 left.
From there, Boston held Los Angeles to three buckets, the last of which -- a dunk by Pau Gasol with 40 seconds left -- preceded the key possession on which Allen was isolated against Vujacic.
"Kevin ran up to set a screen, and as he was setting the screen, I told him: 'Let me take him one-on-one,'" Allen said. "I made my move, and I looked up and he was behind me, and I had the whole basket free and clear."
The layup gave Allen the last of his 19 points on a night when the Celtics also got 20 points from Pierce, 16 from Garnett and a totally unexpected 18 from James Posey.
But the numbers that really made the difference for Boston were reflected in the second-half totals: holding the Lakers to 33 points on 33 percent shooting, outrebounding them 24-15 and knocking down four 3-pointers to the Lakers' zero.
"We let a huge opportunity slip away, so I'm upset, hurt disappointed. It's a huge loss, no doubt about it," Kobe Bryant said. "It was terrible."
Yes it was, unless you were watching that game clad in green and white. For Celtics' fans, there was nothing terrible about it.
And with one more win, we'll be talking all summer about how defense -- and Vujacic's lack thereof -- was a major, major reason why a 17th banner will be hanging from the rafters at the new Boston Garden.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
LOS ANGELES -- There's a reason the Celtics succeeded in Game 4 where the Lakers failed in Game 2 in the historic task of coming back from a 24-point deficit in the NBA Finals. That difference was personified when Pau Gasol checked back in with 6:06 remaining in the fourth quarter Thursday. The most important moments of the year call for great defensive play. The Lakers aren't equipped to do that.
The final half of the game's final quarter was a referendum on the two landscape-changing trades of the past 12 months. The two individuals who brought renewed hope to their franchises were both on the court, with the tenor of the Finals hanging in the balance. It would be a brand-new series, all squared at two, or the only remaining detail would be the date of the parade in Boston.
The Lakers got this far because of the added dimension Gasol brought to their offense as a skilled shooter and deft passer who made the Lakers a threat from every position on the court. He has become even more critical to the Lakers' identity because the Celtics' defense has kept Bryant from dominating in every game except the third one.
Bryant's 17-point game was a function of the early effectiveness of the other Lakers and his willingness to pass to them in the first half, but Boston was directly responsible for yet another Bryant stretch of more field goal attempts than points in the second half.
See, the Celtics built their brand on the defensive intensity of Kevin Garnett.
To read the entire column, click here.
LOS ANGELES -- Entering this series, the one mismatch everyone pointed to wasn't on the court, but on the sidelines -- nine-time champion Phil Jackson against Finals neophyte Doc Rivers.
Well, it's been a mismatch all right. Just not the way we expected.
Doc -- the same Doc who Boston fans were clamoring to fire a year ago, and the same Doc who as recently as a few weeks ago was pounded in the media as the Celtics struggled -- is tooling around the legendary Zen Master and has the Celtics one win away from the title as a result.
All series long it's been Rivers, not Jackson, who has pushed the right buttons and given his team the upper hand. That was never more evident than in Thursday's Game 4. Rivers' in-game adjustments helped the Celtics shake off a three-touchdowns-plus-a-field-goal deficit, while Jackson was left fumbling for a response all the way through the final seconds, when the Lakers burned two timeouts to advance the ball with 15.7 seconds left after they'd mistakenly inbounded the ball before using the first.
The biggest adjustment was Rivers' decision to go small by inserting Eddie House and James Posey into the lineup. Those two 3-point shooters provided the spacing Boston lacked with Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo on the court, and repeatedly burned the Lakers when they tried to double Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It was something Rivers had been considering heading into the game, and once the Celtics fell behind and Perkins hurt his shoulder, he rolled the dice.
To read the full column, click here.
Paul Pierce, Celtics forward: He not only talked coach Doc Rivers into letting him cover Kobe Bryant in the second half but also stuffed the box score to the tune of 20 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds.
Sasha Vujacic, Lakers guard: One game you're a hero, one game later you're not. The Machine was broken, scoring only three points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field in 24 forgettable minutes.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"Well, it's not over. This is not over. The series is not over."
-- Lakers coach Phil Jackson on what he told him team after Game 4
LOS ANGELES -- "Kobe," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "might be the best help defender since Pippen."
In the first quarter, that reality was a grave problem for the Celtics.
Rajon Rondo was not having his best night, and Kobe Bryant was leaving Rondo at will to harass other Celtics. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce did not enjoy the attention, and combined to shoot 1-of-7 as the Lakers went up by 22.
It is hard to imagine a better recipe for the Lakers. So the Celtics changed the ingredients.
Rivers peered down his bench and called for No. 50.
To read the TrueHoop blog, click here.
It's pretty black and white. Kobe's Lakers have to do what no team has ever done in the NBA Finals: come back from a 3-1 deficit.
LOS ANGELES -- There were many heroes in the Celtics amazing come-from-behind win over the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Give credit to Doc Rivers. His leadership during timeouts was critical. He never let his team give up on the game ... urging them to hang in and get the deficit down to single digits.
The Celtics tightened their defense in the second half considerably. The Lakers were shooting 50 percent at halftime, but shot only 33 percent in the second half.
Paul Pierce's outstanding block of a Kobe Bryant jump shot was the signature defensive stop of the night.
In the final analysis, the Celtics increased their intensity level forcing the Lakers to become a passive team and that cost them the game.
Legendary coach and Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay serves as lead game analyst for the NBA on ESPN Radio.
Before Thursday, Phil Jackson's teams had lost only one playoff game in which they had a double-digit halftime lead. That was in Game 1 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Knicks defeated the Bulls after trailing by 10 at the half. Jackson had never previously lost a Finals game as a coach in which his team led by at least seven points at halftime.