It took me a while to recover from the ridiculous Game 4 of this series, the most amazing Finals comeback I’ve seen, and probably of all time. Then we almost saw it happen again in Game 5 – the two biggest comebacks in Finals history could have happened back-to-back. Despite a lot of people saying this series has not lived up to the hype, and has not yet delivered a blockbuster game where both teams have played well, there is one thing it has had plenty of… Drama.
(eerily enough the first guy in this clip is Paul Pierce and the last guy is Kobe Bryant… and this was made over five years ago)
In game 1 Paul Pierce gave us more drama than I thought was humanly possible in a basketball game. Game 2 saw the Lakers almost pull off the fastest and most furious comeback in Finals history. Game 3 came down to the last minute and was finished off by another heroic performance from Kobe Bryant. Game 4 was probably the best game in Boston’s long and proud history. And Game 5, despite it being ugly, again came down to the final minute. We have not yet seen a well contested game that makes me think “these are the best two teams in the league slogging it out”. But man, have we had drama.
My thoughts over the last few days have been all over the place, so rather than try and tie them together in some well-crafted prose, I thought I’d just thrown them down here for your perusal.
The Lakers seem incapable of putting together four good quarters in a row. When they’re at their best, they’re awesome, and they remind me why I tipped them to win this series in five games. The first half of game 4, the first quarter of game 5 – they played on a level no other team can play on, not even the Celtics. Odom has started causing the match up problems we all thought he could. Gasol is looking meaner (although Perkins going down has a lot to do with that… by default Perkins is the meanest looking guy on any basketball court, and probably the world). J-Farm and Sasha start sinking shots, Kobe balances his scoring/passing act, D-Fish doesn’t make mistakes, Luke Walton looks coordinated… it all adds up to a wonderfully orchestrated ballet that Phil Jackson choreographs from the sidelines, leaving most NBA fans in awe. They’ll erase a 20 point lead in five minutes. They’ll explode for 39 points in a quarter against the league’s best defensive team, in a Finals game. When the Lakers put together one perfect quarter it’s a thing of beauty. They’re so good that one quarter is almost enough for them to win a game. Almost.
Unfortunately for them this Boston team is incredibly stubborn and has a truckload of self-belief. Unfortunately for them Paul Pierce thinks he can carry his team to a championship even if he had both his legs broken (the more this series goes on the more Paul Pierce looks like he is channeling Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie… Pierce will end up with his head bandaged, shoulder strapped, knee braced, and random patches of blood and car grease smeared on his jersey before he loses this one). Somehow the winningiest team in the league and the sexy “Big 3″ became the hard-nosed, tough son of a bitches that wanna beat you no matter how ugly it is, now matter what big guns their opposition is firing at them. It reeks of another Finals match up in recent years… one involving the Lakers, but more on that later…
The Boston Celtics look like a championship team. It’s hard to explain, it’s just a feeling I get when watching them. They play great defense. They hustle. They never lose belief in themselves. They have star players who are unguardable. They have role players who know their role and don’t try and play beyond it. They have a superstar who is clutch. They have role players that are clutch. They are playing like a championship team, a team who has been to war with each other.
It’s a realization I had while watching the end of game 4, when Posey and House were making big plays down the stretch. It’s the same realization I had during ‘06 while watching D-Wade and Posey do the same thing against my Pistons. That year the Miami Heat stuttered and stumbled in the first round against the Bulls (just like Boston did), a series some people even tipped the Bulls to win. The Heat escaped in an unconvincing six games, and looked a lot better against New Jersey in the second round. It was halfway through that series when everything started to click for them. Their role players (Walker, Posey, Payton) were huge, Wade went completely mental on an MJ-scale, Shaq’s defense came to the fore, guys were making clutch plays when they needed to… everything went right. It was no fluke. That Miami team had suffered a tragic loss on their home floor in a game 7 the year before – they were five minutes away from playing in the Finals. To realise what it took to win a championship they had to taste that pain together. But that’s where the analogy to this Boston team breaks down, doesn’t it?
In an ironic twist, the Celtics unexpectedly long and grueling post season (they’ve played an equal-record 25 games so far) has subjected them to the equivalent adversity and experience of two or three post season runs. Most championship teams have to learn the hard lesson, losing in the playoffs, perhaps even the Finals, before tasting glory. MJ and the Bulls were schooled by the Pistons in successive post seasons before they could bond together to form the greatest team of the modern era. Shaq and Kobe dealt with several painful post season exits before three-peating, and the Spurs too failed time and time again (mostly at the hands of the Lakers) before winning their second, third and fourth championships. It’s just the way it is. You have to pay your dues.
This Celtics team? They go from a lottery mess to including two All-Stars and making a run at the Finals – and most likely from here, winning it. Where was their adversity? When did they learn the hard lesson? They learned it in round 1 when they embarrassingly had to take care of the Atlanta Hawks in a series that saw Boston go from title-favourites to playoff pretenders. They learned it in round 2 when Lebron almost sent them on early holiday in that famous game 7. They learned in the Conference Finals when they finally lost at home prompting the entire basketball world to signal their downfall, only to come back the very next game and shove it in everyone’s face. They’ve had three series facing extreme pressure and adversity, the type of series some playoff teams are never involved in, let alone survive. The Celtics did more than survive them – they became stronger. They gained the maturity and resolve that normally takes a couple of playoffs at least. And 26 games later, they’ll tell you they earned it.
I was speaking to a friend of mine at work the other day about Kobe Bryant. It was after the game 4 loss, which prompted a wave of Kobe-bashing across the media, unsurprisingly so. The common theme I was hearing was “say goodbye to the Kobe-MJ comparisons”. I’ve heard these things before – Bill Simmons especially should know better, he said this after game 4:
The Kobe-MJ thing … done. Over. Jordan never would have let that happen in the Finals. Ever. Under any circumstances. Nobody is ever allowed to bring this up again.”
But he said pretty much the same thing two years ago before game 7 of the Lakers v Suns series:
Which reminds me, if Kobe doesn’t completely eviscerate Bell in Game 7, everyone on the planet is banned from making any more Kobe-MJ comparisons.”
Ok he was partly right for saying that, but he’s been riding the Kobe-MJ bandwagon all throughout this season, which just goes to prove one thing: unlike Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, Harold Minor and Vince Carter, when Kobe-MJ comparisons get killed off, they inevitably come back to life.
Anyway, I was telling my work friend that the Celtics defense was so effective against Kobe, forcing him to take bad shots, forcing him into bad situations – situations that MJ wouldn’t have found himself in. He stopped me there. “Kobe and MJ were totally different players, you know”. I paused for a few seconds. The truth hit me. Kobe and MJ are very different players, a fact completely lost due to all the Kobe-MJ comparisons we’ve been swamped with the past few months. Yes it’s true that Kobe’s legacy is approaching MJ levels, especially if the Lakers win this Finals. But they don’t play basketball the same way.
What the Celtics are doing very effectively (except for patches in game 3) against Kobe Bryant is trapping him at the top of the key, outside the three point line, forcing him to pass it. If he doesn’t pass it he usually finds himself wheeling around a high KG screen, only to find another double team running at him again, which Kobe usually responds to with a pull up jumper before the double team can get there. He isn’t beating the initial trap (because Pierce/Allen + KG are playing excellent 1-on-1 defense) and he isn’t getting to the hoop because the help defenders are swarming him so quickly. It’s a total team effort. Speaking about this to my work friend I asked him “What would MJ do?”. And that’s where the difference between Kobe and Jordan becomes obvious: Jordan rarely had the ball in those situations.
There are two main differences, in my opinion, to the way Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan play at the offensive end of the floor. Kobe is a better ball handler (MJ fans, feel free to interpret that as “Kobe likes to handle the ball more”), and Kobe is a better three point shooter (feel free to interpret that as “Kobe likes to shoot more threes”). Michael Jordan was rarely given the ball 10 feet beyond the three point line and asked to break down the defense (I’m talking more nineties-Jordan here… championship-Jordan). It just wasn’t a smart option for the Bulls, with Scottie being a great ball-handler and perfect operator of the triangle, and Paxson/ Kerr/ Armstrong/ Hodges all being superior three-point shooters to MJ. So instead Jordan found himself with the ball at the elbows a lot of the time, or even posting up (watch this clip and look how many times Jordan is taking 12-15 footers as opposed to the 17-20 footers that Kobe takes, also note where he is catching the ball). His strength and turnaround jump shot is superior to Kobe’s – he was a much better player with his back to the basket. When the double team came Jordan either kicked it out to a three point shooter, or shot over the defenders. And even when the double team was effective, you had Jordan passing out of the post, or around the 15-20 foot region.
You contrast that to what is happening to Kobe right now. Because he handles the ball more and shoots more threes, he has the ball in his hands 35 feet from the basket. When the trap comes Kobe is passing the ball 30 feet from the hoop, and all his team mates are in front of him. When MJ saw a double team coming he usually had players in front of him (closer to the basket) and behind him (three point land) – it kept the opposition a lot more honest, because MJ was right in the thick of things. MJ played from ground zero. Kobe is being forced to do damage from the edges.
The answer to this? It’s two-fold. Firstly, Kobe has to use his supposed advantages to make the Celtics pay, that being, his outside shooting ability. You saw it in the first quarter of game 5. Kobe was draining threes before the Celtics defense could get set, before the trap came, before the wave of help defenders. In a matter of minutes he had 15 points – it looked so damn easy, the easiest 15 points he’d had all series. I know coaches will tell you three point shots are low percentage, and getting the ball inside is most efficient way of scoring. But for the Lakers to win they need Kobe scoring, and for Kobe to score he needs to be making his threes. This Celtics team is too good otherwise.
Secondly (and I’m aware this sounds contradictory, but stay with me), the Lakers need to try getting the ball to Kobe in the post or at least closer to the basket. They often inverted their offense during the season to allow Kobe and Lamar to catch it more in the post, I’m not sure why they’ve gone away from that – probably because Gasol came along with a better post game than both of them, and also probably because of KG’s presence. But if I’m Phil Jackson I’m going to start letting D-Fish and Odom handle the ball a lot more on the perimeter, and look for Kobe on the inside. Go away from the Triangle if you have to. Just find a way to get Kobe easier looks. Right now there is too much emphasis on Kobe being a “distributor” – it’s like every assist he makes proves he can be a team player. Screw that. Did you see MJ dishing out 8-10 assists in Finals games? Hell no (MJ fans, I know what happened against the Lakers in ‘91, but MJ averaged a bit less than 6 assists per game throughout his Finals career which is what Kobe is averaging right now). He scored. He was a scorer. Kobe is a scorer. Get him some shots Phil.
I can’t see the Celtics losing game 6. Like I said, this Finals reminds me of one a few years back – the Detroit v Lakers Finals in ‘04. Everyone tipped the Lakers to win that series. Detroit shocked them in game 1, almost stole game 2 as well, before going home to take care of business. But even when the Pistons were up 3-1, with game 5 to play at home, I was utterly amazed at what little respect people were giving them. “If the Lakers win game 5 they’ll go on to win the series” was the leading sentiment. As a nervous Pistons fan, part of me agreed, but standing back and looking at that series objectively, that was a ridiculous statement to be making. There was no way the Lakers were winning that series. They were completely outmatched against the Pistons, and their main weapons were nullified – Shaq was covered by Big Ben who remains the only person I’ve seen effectively defend Shaq 1-on-1 before he became old and fat, and Kobe was hounded by Prince (and helped by the Wallaces as well). The Pistons played relentless defense much like this Celtics team, and even in the game they lost you could say they threw it away – much like the Celtics in game 5 (I’m looking at you KG).
The popular belief going around now is that the Lakers could make history, that they’re poised to be the first team to come back from 3-1. That if Kobe Bryant can get going they will be unstoppable. That Pierce might be slowing down under the weight of his injury. That the entire Boston team might be fatiguing after such a long post season. Much like the school of thought going into game 5 of the Pistons v Lakers game in ‘04, all of that will be shown to be garbage at the end of tomorrow. The Lakers will not make history and come back from 3-1. Kobe Bryant won’t get going because he’s been effectively muted all series (just like he was in ‘04, but still, people were waiting for Kobe to explode). Pierce’s injury will disappear once he steps on that Boston court and hears the roar of his fans. Boston are not fatiguing – more the opposite, they’re gearing up for the biggest game of their season.
Nothing that happens in the Finals is a fluke. It’s no fluke Boston are up 3-2. It’s no fluke Kobe Bryant is struggling. The best team always wins a 7-game series. Right now, the Boston Celtics are the best team. It’s basketball logic.
Not that I’d ever let logic get in the way of good drama.