Scouts Inc. breakdown: Lakers vs. Celtics, Game 6
David Thorpe's take
The Lakers did what they had to do in Game 5.
After jumping out to a big, early lead, they held on to earn a trip back to Boston. But little from that game can be carried over because the Lakers still struggled with much of what the Celtics threw at them. Now add a wildly energetic crowd with a team so hungry for a title, and L.A.'s only chance to force a Game 7 is to put together its best effort of the season on both ends of the floor.
On the defensive end, slowing Paul Pierce will be L.A.'s main focus. Pierce has the look of a guy who knows he can't be guarded and is bent on carrying his team to the title. The Lakers tried crowding him most of Game 5 and got killed off the dribble. L.A. hoped to make things tough on him as soon as he caught the ball, then rushed guys over to help on the drive. But L.A.'s lack of consistent effort and its lack of discipline on the ball resulted in Pierce's pulling off the double whammy of scoring efficiency (38 points on 22 shots, thanks to going 16-for-19 from the line) and racking up eight assists. The Lakers' defenders on Pierce, mostly Vladimir Radmanovic, seemed unable to employ the proper footwork to force him to the area to which the rest of the team needed him to move. Pierce went middle when the defenders needed him to go baseline and he went baseline when the team was ready to help him in the paint. Credit Pierce a great deal for this, but blame much of it on poor defense, too.
Inexcusably, Radmanovic often approached Pierce standing straight up, not crouched in a defensive stance, giving him the green light to roast Radmanovic and get into the teeth of the defense. "Starting position" is preached hard to good defensive teams. Watch Boston to see the importance of this defensive strategy -- both in terms of individual stance and team positioning. If L.A. can make a major improvement in this area for Game 6, its defense should provide a tougher obstacle for Pierce.
The bigs for L.A. proved to be excellent ball-screen defenders in the San Antonio series, especially from the side, using quick feet to hedge and slow Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But Boston featured ball screens 30-plus feet from the rim after spreading and flattening the floor with its shooters. This has resulted in open space for Pierce, who uses that room to blow past Pau Gasol. Boston also likes to use whomever Gasol is guarding in these situations, dragging him from the paint and exposing his lack of foot speed in open-court situations. It's tough to trap a player such as Pierce so far from the basket, and if the Lakers do, the court is opened for too many shooters. On screens that far from the basket, asking the player defending Pierce to just go under the screen might be their best answer.
L.A. is having trouble with its basic defensive strategies in dealing with screens. On numerous occasions, players didn't switch during wing-to-wing screens (involving Pierce specifically), which allowed him easy layups and dunks. Boston will continue to try to get Pierce involved in as many screening actions as possible, hoping to ride his talent and the "zone" he is in to win a title. To counter this, L.A. must iron out its problems, making steadfast rules on any screening actions, particularly the ones with Pierce. Whether it is to switch, run a helper over early, go under the screen or trap, the Lakers must be consistent or risk giving up too many easy baskets. Remember, their margin for error on defense is razor thin to begin with, so when the strategy is to have two guys marking Pierce -- but more often than not, the execution results in no one guarding him -- only bad things can happen.
L.A. did a better job of keeping Boston off the offensive backboards in Game 5 -- Kendrick Perkins' being out helped. Having the crowd behind likely it will create more energy for Boston in this area, so L.A. must be even more focused on this part of the game.
Phil Jackson, as expected, was quick to try anything possible, personnelwise, to stay alive in Game 5. Sasha Vujacic has played two bad games in a row, on offense, at least -- he's shooting 3-for-19 -- and saw his playing time drop because of it. He tied his series low in minutes played. He's rushing his shots and shooting because he's open instead of because he knows he'll make the shot. Jordan Farmar played his best game in Game 5, and thus was rewarded with his series high of 24 minutes. Jackson will not go back to a set rotation in Game 6, instead playing the guys who are playing the best. And we shouldn't expect to see Chris Mihm, who made a brief but terrible appearance in Game 5. He just has not played enough minutes in the postseason to be able to contribute.
There are two X factors working for L.A. in Boston. Lamar Odom clearly has taken on a stronger and more assertive role for the Lakers offensively, and he has scored 39 points on 16-for-21 shooting in their past two games. L.A.'s chances of winning in Boston go up if Odom plays with confidence and toughness. His rebounding numbers were up, as well, and are equally important.
Bryant is the other X factor. He's had incredible halves in this series, but never a full game of awesome production. No one can question his effort, as he came up with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals. But he hasn't had that incredible game -- scoringwise, that is -- and it looks as though the Lakers need that kind of game from him to advance to a Game 7. But he must pull it off without isolating his teammates, who certainly will need to make plays of their own, as well. It's going to be a tough balancing act.
Although L.A. is just a disastrous third quarter in Game 4 away from its own 3-2 lead, Boston is playing with a lot more confidence as it heads home. Doc Rivers has his team totally focused on the minutiae of each game, so the Celtics will play each quarter on its own merit instead of thinking about the end of the game and the potential celebration. L.A. must do the same and must avoid any big quarter against it. L.A. has not been able to play a great game yet against Boston, and it's hard to imagine it will be able to now. Boston is just too fundamentally sound, and Pierce has played himself into the starring role, a position he's comfortable with. Kevin Garnett, too, can fill this spot, as he nears his first championship. But if the Lakers can put together their best performance of the season, considering their immense talent, we likely will see a Game 7.
Thorpe's Prediction: Celtics win Game 6
Mike Moreau's take
Coming home for Game 6 with a 3-2 lead is exactly what the Celtics had envisioned before this series started. Although they are right where they wanted to be, there are some concerns that Boston must address to close out this series Tuesday.
In spite of their heroic comebacks, the Celtics can't afford to spot the Lakers another double-digit lead in the first quarter of Game 6. A combination of early turnovers and poor transitional defense helped the Lakers race to those early leads in Games 4 and 5. To take control of the game, Boston must address those turnover issues in its first few possessions of Game 6 .
The turnovers were due mostly to a lack of ball and player movement, so Boston needs early offensive production to play from the lead and work the home crowd into a frenzy. Rivers can orchestrate this by "scripting" the Celtics' early offensive possessions with set plays for his big guns.
Look for the Celtics to run stagger sets to get Ray Allen going early in Game 6, which will have him and the basketball changing sides of the floor, getting him into an aggressive-attacking mode. Flex screens for Pierce coming across the lane with pick-and-pop opportunities for Garnett will provide better movement and variety to attack the Lakers' suspect defense.
The Lakers' defense has been good on the initial help or trap action for most of this series, but their defense becomes more suspect with each additional pass. With more action early in these possessions in Game 6, easier opportunities should open up later in the shot clock for Pierce and Garnett if they have to go one-one-one.
The Lakers have no real answer for Garnett on the left side of the post or for Pierce at the top of the floor. Garnett has had his way with Gasol, and Pierce took six different Lakers defenders to the rim off the dribble in Game 5.
Rivers must make some key decisions about his use of Rajon Rondo in Game 6. Rondo has been the quarterback of the NBA's best team all season, but Jackson has effectively put the Celtics point guard on the bench for much of the series by using Kobe Bryant as his primary defender and roving off Rondo to trap, help and clog up the middle.
Rivers' countermove to Jackson's has been to play Eddie House and Sam Cassell extended minutes. Both have provided scoring and perimeter shooting, which has helped the Celtics get the one win they needed on the road in Game 4 and almost close out the Lakers in Game 5.
However, neither player can provide the speed, dribble penetration and creation for others that Rondo can on the offensive end. House and Cassell also struggled against full-court pressure, which can be expected from the Lakers in Game 6. More important for Boston, neither House nor Cassell is anywhere close to the defender Rondo is. Defensively, Rondo gives the Celtics ball-hawking man-to-man pressure as well as steals, deflections, rebounds and just the creation of general havoc.
With Farmar playing an extended role for the Lakers and hurting Boston with dribble penetration, look for Rondo to play more minutes in Game 6 to give the Celtics back some of their defensive pressure. Tony Allen's contribution in Game 5 is a good sign for Boston on the defensive end, as well, as he can provide a bigger presence at either guard spot.
To counter Kobe's roaming with Rondo on the floor, Boston must reverse the ball quickly to Rondo's side so he can knife into the paint from the weak side or sneak behind the defense for an easy layup. Both looks are there if Boston rotates the ball with haste -- screening Bryant as that pass is made will make it harder for him to rotate and recover.
Perkins' injury is a big blow to the Celtics' defense, as he is the big body and primary help and rotation defender on the backside. His presence is sorely missed on the defensive end. Garnett responded poorly to Perkins' absence in Game 5 by picking up unnecessary reaching and hand fouls that opened the door for Gasol to attack Garnett at will.
Hampered by his foul issues, Garnett allowed Gasol to attack the middle of the paint, and he gave too much ground, allowing Gasol to finish right at the rim. In Game 6, Garnett must play a more disciplined defensive game so he can dig in and force Gasol to post farther from the basket.
When Boston's bigs take away the middle and Gasol is forced to turn back to the baseline, he becomes much less effective using his left hand to finish -- especially when he is pushed outside the lane line. Both Gasol and Odom should be expected to attack the basket in Game 6. The Lakers can't win if those two don't produce.
If Perkins can't go, look for a possible P.J. Brown start on Gasol in Game 6, which will protect Garnett early in the game. This also will allow Leon Powe to play his "energy guy" role off the bench, which is the role in which he is much more effective.
Boston also must find an answer for the Lakers' high/low passing action between Odom and Gasol, as the Celtics allowed the high-post pass at will in stretches of Game 5. Film study and a renewed commitment to denying this pass should stymie this part of L.A.'s offense and force the Lakers' role players to score from the perimeter.
With Perkins out and Rondo in a limited role, the Celtics are playing without two starters who were keys to their 66-win season and major factors in their getting to the Finals. The contributions of the Celtics' bench have demonstrated what a deep and talented team this is, but there is a reason some players start and play more than others. Whether Boston's bench can continue its high level of play will be a key in Game 6.
L.A. saved face by winning Game 5, and with the pressure shifting to the Celtics, look for the Lakers to come out loose and aggressive. With the game's best player on their side and some newly found grit from their big men, the Western Conference champions are still dangerous and capable of winning the series.
The Celtics must avoid the "We have two games to win one" mentality. Game 6 at home is what they have played this entire season for, and this is where it needs to end. This isn't about responding to pressure; it's about finishing what they started and closing out one of the best seasons in their franchise's history. Expect great defense, a few key offensive spurts, a hungry crowd smelling the kill -- and another banner.
Moreau's Prediction: Celtics win Game 6
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
2008 NBA FINALS
And then there were two -- the Lakers and Celtics. Who will win the NBA Finals? Let the games begin.
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