"When you're looking at your grave you're going to fight." That's what Lamar Odom had to say on NBATV after the Lakers forced a Game 7 by beating the Celtics 89-67. The Lakers certainly showed up last night playing their best game of the series so far. It was simply a matter of energy. It's amazing how erratic both of these teams can be. But last night it was the Lakers who had the energy and whose bench came up huge. LA dominated every aspect of this game practically from the tip and for the first time since 2005 the NBA Finals goes the distance.
There's going to be a lot of talk of Artest's "breakout" game. He hit 6 of 11 shots for 15 points including 8 in the first quarter. The thing is Artest was simply adequate. The bar has been set so low with him that last night's display will be viewed as some sort of phenomenal performance. He hit 3 of 6 open jumpers and when he looked to score when he was covered he hit 3 of 5 but also had two turnovers. He wasn't exactly shooting lights out. This is a player that has routinely been his team's second-leading scorer. The Lakers should expect no less of him than his performance last night. With just an average Artest the Lakers would probably win 85% of their games.
Practically every game the announcers talk about Bryant feeling out the game and deciding what's best for his team. Should he become a scorer and take the majority of shots or should he become a facilitator? Usually I think it's a lot of B.S. but last night Bryant struck the perfect balance for what his team needed from him. He finished with 26 points but it was an easy 26 points. It wasn't like in Game 5 where he hit some of the toughest shots you will ever see. Last night he got four layups and hit all seven of his free throws. That's an easy 15 points. It also wasn't the case of Bryant creating one-on-five. The ball was moving around and that opened the floor for Bryant to drive or get off jump shots with only one defender in his face. Bryant only had 3 assists but he had a bunch of hockey assists as well.
He also set the tone on the defensive end. He had 2 early steals and 4 for the game and also finished with 11 rebounds. Don't underestimate that rebound total. Those are rebounds that the Celtics had been getting. Those are rebounds Rajon Rondo gets if Bryant isn't hustling for every single one of them.
Win or lose in Game 7, Bryant is going to be the MVP of this series.
Bench Brings the Energy
The Lakers bench has been horrendous this series. But they came up big during a critical stretch in the second quarter. Kobe Bryant came out with the Lakers leading 36-23 about four minutes into the quarter. When he returned three minutes later they had extended the lead to 45-27. They got solid contributions from Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. In fact, the Lakers bench outscored the Celtics 24-0 before the Celtics got their first bench points two minutes into the fourth quarter.
After Game 6 I mentioned there were a few plays you could point to to show how the Celtics outhustled the Lakers. Last night the Lakers had their share of those type of plays. There was Jordan Farmar diving on the floor and tipping the ball to Bryant, there was Farmar's dunk on Kevin Garnett, and there was Pau Gasol running the length of the floor to grab an offensive rebound for an easy putback. And while they weren't exactly hustle plays, Shannon Brown's two emphatic dunks kept the energy buzzing throughout the Staples Center.
I've always said that intangibles just mean a stat that hasn't been created yet. There will be a lot of talk about the Lakers energy and how it was the difference last night and there are some stats that back it up. You could look at the 25-13 edge from the bench or the Lakers plus-13 in rebounds but neither of those are the best stat to really display how the Lakers outhustled the Celtics. The stat that does do it justice is who won the 50/50 balls. I had never heard of this stat until this series but it's something Doc Rivers and the Celtics keep track of (this stat should be added to box scores immediately). Rivers said that of the 21 50/50 balls, the Lakers got 18 of them. That's a dominant performance.
Gasol As Solid As Ever
Sometimes Gasol gets lost in the shuffle. He's not going to throw it down like Shannon Brown and he's not going to hang in the air and hit a fadeaway like Bryant - but he makes all the right plays and continues to prove he's the most skilled big man in the game. He had his usual all-around great game finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 blocks. Just another day at the office for the Spaniard.
As dominant as this performance was it now means nothing. This
series has been so erratic that no one knows what will happen on
Thursday. The Lakers have a couple things going for them - 1. it's at
home, and 2. the Celtics will likely be without Kendrick Perkins.
Before the series it seemed inevitable Perkins would miss a game in
this series but the thought was it would be due to a suspension for
picking up a seventh technical foul. Instead this injury could keep him
out of the final game of the season. Perkins' knee buckled after
grabbing a rebound in the first quarter and had to be helped off the
court. He could barely walk after the game and will have to undergo an
MRI today to determine the damage. But on the Lakers side, Andrew Bynum
tweaked his knee again and was on the bench icing it for much of the
second half. What the starting lineups will be is as up in the air as
the entire series. Whichever team brings the energy Thursday will be
the team hanging another banner in their building.