Commentary

No such thing as momentum

Updated: June 10, 2010, 12:45 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com


BOSTON -- If you're trying to determine which team in the NBA Finals will be able to sustain momentum, you'd be better off searching for a real-life leprechaun or an actual laker (whatever the heck that's supposed to be).

Momentum is a myth. It doesn't exist in the playoffs. For an example, look no further than Ray Allen's 3-point-shooting accuracy, which went from record-breaking in Game 2 to futile in Game 3. If there were such a thing as momentum, how could a man go from an all-time display of marksmanship to a complete inability to put the ball through the hoop in less than 48 hours?

Think about inertia, momentum's cousin in physics. Newton's first law of motion states that objects in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force (such as friction or gravity). In the playoffs, those forces can be venues, crowds, injuries or officials. There are even factors you don't see or consider. Robert Horry once said the reason he was at his best in the playoffs is that he plays better when he's warm. June games meant outlasting most NHL teams, so the ice beneath the courts had been removed.

In the case of Allen, one difference was the better job of switching on screens by Los Angeles Lakers big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who, starting with the second half of Game 2, jumped out on Allen and provided a long-armed impediment to the Boston Celtics guard's shots. In-game and between-game adjustments are reasons momentum are so elusive. Notice how the team that got off to the good start in both of the past two games wound up losing? No squad capable of reaching the Finals is going to sit back and allow its opponent to shoot continual layups throughout an entire game.

If momentum could override everything else, why would people fret about the 2-3-2 format? Some say it's unfair to the team with the better record because it's forced to go a long time between home games. Some say it's unfair to the "lower seed" because it is asked to go on a three-game winning streak to hold serve -- and winning three consecutive games at this stage is too much to ask. If momentum existed, it would stand to reason that the boost from returning home would spill over to the next two games. Instead, only two teams, the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat in 2006, have won the middle three games at home since the format was adopted in 1985.

Three road teams -- the Pistons in 1990, Bulls in 1991 and Lakers in 2001 -- have won the middle three games, evidence that there might be such a thing as negative momentum. When things go bad, or when the shots won't fall, it can compound. Sometimes, not even the home crowd is enough to stave off elimination when both sides come to the realization that one team is superior.

So there's something to be said for winning to avoid negative momentum -- and creating a positive data file. That could be what the Lakers accomplished in Game 3. Although they had won their past two regular-season games in the Garden, the previous time they had played a Finals game in that building, they had suffered the worst postseason blowout loss in franchise history.

Lakers reserve Luke Walton described the ominous buildup to their Finals return in 2010:

"Ever since we got here [Monday], staying at the same hotel again, going to the same restaurants, it kept bringing back what it felt like to lose in '08. It's just kind of been getting darker and darker as each hour goes by."

But the sun was shining Wednesday morning after the Lakers had a victory in their pocket and a 2-1 lead in the series.

"We understand that we can win here," Lamar Odom said. "We're in a good place when it comes to trying to take a game from these guys on their home court."

Odom was even able to laugh off the thousands of Khloe Kardashian masks floating around the Garden, saying he found them funny.

Kobe Bryant isn't in a joking mood. He took a break from his monotone delivery to offer some extensive and effusive praise for Derek Fisher immediately after Game 3, but, on the off day, he went back to Curt Kobe.

"It doesn't matter where we play," Bryant said. "We feel like, if we do our job, we give ourselves a heck of an opportunity no matter where we are. So from that standpoint, whether it's here or Utah or Oklahoma, we feel comfortable."

From that standpoint, what happened last series or even last year can be more relevant than what happened last game. The Lakers have closed out four consecutive series on the road dating back to 2009, something they can draw on if they're in position to finish off this series here in Boston in Game 5. Similarly, the Celtics can reflect on their comeback from a 2-1 deficit against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semifinals. There is enough collective experience on both sides to cover just about every scenario that can arise for the duration of this series, be it a 24-point deficit or a Game 7.

So don't make the mistake of believing a victory in Game 3 means the Lakers have the edge heading into Game 4.

"It means that we were able to win a crucial game [Tuesday] night," Gasol said. "Now there's another crucial game. And every game is, pretty much, crucial as you go along. I'm just happy about the win, just really satisfied about our effort, and it should lead to us being able to do it all over again tomorrow."

"Happy" and "satisfied" have to be the last words a coach would want to hear from his players in the middle of a series. And perhaps that's been the reason neither team in this series could follow its initial victory with another victory immediately afterward. Perhaps, subconsciously, there was just a little less urgency the next time out. A victory in hand, next game at home … an easy lure into the trap that is the belief in momentum.