Commentary

Sympathy for the Lakers? Not until they earn it

Originally Published: June 9, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kobe BryantGarrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe beef: The Lakers weren't happy about the disparity in free-throw attempts in Game 2 (38-10 C's).

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Lakers should know by now not to expect any pity. The Lakers surely understand that they traded away their rights to sympathy, maybe permanently, when they shipped so little to Memphis and stole Pau Gasol.

The infamous foul that wasn't called on Derek Fisher in the San Antonio series won't soon be forgotten, either.

So …

As unfair as a fuming Phil Jackson found the Game 2 free-throw count -- and as frustrating as it had to be for L.A. to fall just short after Sunday night's epic fourth-quarter scramble -- this is the Lakers' reality:

No one with a neutral interest in these NBA Finals is bound to feel sorry for the Zen Men, because the Lakers wouldn't be here without the midseason gift of Gasol from the Grizzlies. Or because they clinched a series-turning road win over the savvy Spurs on a non-call that the league later publicly acknowledged as erroneous.

Or because the Boston Celtics happen to be outplaying them in so many categories.

Jackson justifiably questioned some of the officiating in the Celtics' 108-102 triumph Sunday night, which resulted in 38 trips to the free-throw line for the hosts compared to the Lakers' 10, but he also admitted repeatedly telling his team that "we just can't play any worse than this." Suddenly sporting a five-game Finals losing streak to go with those nine rings, Jackson knows the reason for that, too: Boston has clearly been the better team so far.

The Celtics aren't just faring better with the referees. They're causing a lot of L.A.'s problems.

Said Fisher, Jackson's on-court sage: "By no means do we feel like we're in a hole that we can't recover from, that this series is over."

However …

"We have to clean up some of the things we're doing," Fisher conceded.

It's a rather long list, actually -- a list far longer than pre-Finals forecasts (most of which heavily favored L.A.) would ever have suggested.

Apart from a nightmarish final eight minutes in which the hosts got suckered into trying to run out the clock rather than cement their 24-point lead, Boston has shamed the Lakers with its crisper ball movement, more active bench and overall energy, all areas where the Celtics were thought to be deficient.

[+] EnlargeLeon Powe
Elsa/Getty ImagesLeon Powe's energy and physical play sparked the Celtics in Game 2.

The Celtics are repeatedly finding the open man (31 assists on 36 field goals on Sunday) and hitting their 3-pointers (clutch 9-for-14 accuracy from long range). They're also winning the physicality game on the front line as well as lots of individual battles, whether it's young Rajon Rondo (16 assists) playing beyond his years against the cagey Fisher or Sunday's Cinderella, Leon Powe, who dominated more experienced energy guys like Ronny Turiaf and Luke Walton to score 21 points in 15 minutes.

It likewise didn't hurt Boston that Paul Pierce -- although not quite at full speed after his Game 1 sprained knee scare -- was moving well enough to score a highly efficient 28 points and win his own duel with a certain reigning MVP named Kobe Bryant. Pierce's performance included 4-for-4 shooting from long distance, eight bonus assists and a game-saving block in crunch time. Kobe had to work a lot harder for his 30 points and eight dimes, then failed to even touch the ball on L.A.'s last-ditch possession with 15 seconds to go after Pierce's two free throws put Boston up by four.

Free throws were undeniably an all-night factor, but so was the Lakers' defense, largely because they haven't played much yet in this series. The Lakers are likewise guilty -- as in Game 1 -- of going long stretches without getting the ball inside to Gasol, which was particularly costly in Game 2 because Pau was so hot early. The Spaniard highlighted his 6-for-6 start from the floor with a gorgeous baseline spin and dunk on Kevin Garnett that the Lakers simply had to build on.

They didn't.

Don't forget, furthermore, that the Celtics' lane-packing, kitchen-sink defensive scheme -- which so successfully fenced off LeBron James with help defenders -- wasn't supposed to have worked against the Lakers because there are so many more weapons in Kobe's supporting cast than LeBron's.

But it has.

As Jackson notes: "They're putting two people between [Bryant] and the basket all the time." And Kobe isn't getting enough help; Jackson described Lamar Odom as "confused," just to mention one cast member who's not delivering.

The Celtics, as a result, are suddenly playing with a bounce that has been largely absent for much of this postseason, presumably beaten out of them by the Atlanta Hawks and Cavaliers, who dragged Boston to seven games in the first two rounds. Jackson can only hope that the Lakers' 41 points in the fourth quarter -- which will be recorded as the first 40-point fourth quarter that Boston has ever surrendered on the Finals stage -- erased some of the swagger that was hammered home by Powe's uncontested, end-to-end sprint for a dunk.

"I'm not worried about which Celtics team shows up [in Tuesday night's Game 3]," Jackson countered. "I'm worried about what Lakers team shows up."

Maybe that's because Jackson, even as he branded Boston's 19-2 edge in first-half free throws "ridiculous," realizes that the Celtics are getting to the line more because they're seemingly always in the basket area.

The less aggressive Lakers are not.

They might be 8-0 at home in the playoffs, but the Lakers have yet to see these Celtics in L.A., where the home team must now try to sweep three games to give itself a chance to become just the fourth team in Finals history to recover from a 2-0 deficit, with only one of those comebacks (Miami over Dallas in 2006) coming in the 20-plus years of the 2-3-2 format.

"I thought we were the team driving in the paint and that's why we shot 38 free throws," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "If you attack off the dribble, if you play through the post, if you're the more aggressive team, you can get to the foul line. I thought we did that. But we can't go on the road and [stop doing] that."

Nor can the Lakers bank on the momentum of their furious comeback from 95-71 down to 104-102 in the final minute making it all the way back to Hollywood. Not when there have been so many other holes in their game.

Sorry, Lakerland.

"It's 2,500 miles away," Jackson said, referring to the momentum. "It's too far to carry it."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics