Two years ago the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in the NBA Finals. They were the hungrier team. They were more physical and the Lakers were deemed soft. In Game 1, those roles were reversed. Ron Artest, one of the only differences from the '08 matchup, set the tone 27 seconds into the game with his boxing out takedown of Paul Pierce. The Celtics closed the gap in the fourth but the Lakers were in control nearly the entire game winning 102-89. And I think it's some sort of law that I have to mention Phil Jackson's teams are 47-0 when they win the first game of a playoff series.
How the Lakers Won
Commitment to Defense
Throughout the regular season the Lakers would have stretches where they played good defense but it was never consistent. Many (including myself) questioned if they could just turn it on in the playoffs. It wasn't quite like turning on a light switch but more like a dimmer that's now close to 100%. They've ratcheted up their defense throughout the postseason and this was probably their finest performance to date.
The Celtics were never able to get into any sort of rhythm on offense. LA was deflecting balls, blocking shots, switching, and closing out on shooters. They double-teamed at the right times and aside from a few blown switches that resulted in layups, they gave the Celtics little to work with.
Pau Gasol bared the brunt of that 'soft' label from two years ago and he looked determined to shed that reputation. He bumped all night with an aging Kevin Garnett. Garnett had just four rebounds as Gasol didn't allow him to beat him to the ball.
What flustered the Celtics the most was the length of the Lakers (side note: if you were to play a drinking game that involved the announcers saying the word 'length' you'd probably be in the hospital right now). Gasol and Andrew Bynum challenged just about every layup attempt. Rondo was held to 13 points on 14 shots because he never had a chance to get the easy buckets. By the end of the night, he even passed up a few good layup looks most likely because he just assumed the Laker bigs would be there.
Foul Trouble Made Celtics Offense One-Dimensional
Game 1 shows just how important Ray Allen is to the Celtics. Allen picked up his fourth foul three minutes into the second half - that's the problem with him having to attempt to guard Kobe Bryant. Allen played just 27 minutes and missed both of his three-point attempts. Without Allen the Celtics have no threat from the perimeter. Yes, there's Paul Pierce but Artest isn't about to leave his side. Allen is a huge threat off dribble penetration. But without him on the court the Lakers were able to sit back and protect the rim. The Celtics were just one of 10 from three-point range.
Another 30 point game. Yawn. It's getting pretty routine in these playoffs. That's the 11th time he's scored 30 or more in the past 12 games. He was able to get to the rim and get easy shots or get fouled. The Celtics allowed him to penetrate and he took over in the third quarter where he had 14 of his 30 points on just seven shots. He helped push the lead up to 20 by the end of the third and that pretty much sealed it for LA.
The Celtics Can't Run
Sometime in the first half, Doc Rivers pleaded for his team to get out and run. But the Celtics couldn't do that for two reasons. One, that's not what they do. And two, the Lakers shot selection prevented run-outs. The Celtics haven't looked to run through most of the playoffs. How does Rivers think they'll just turn that around now? It's definitely something they should try in order to get Rondo going but it's a lot to ask of a team that's not used to pushing the pace.
One of the things that got the Suns offense going in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals was missed three-point shots. The Lakers were settling for three-pointers and putting them up at an alarming rate. Last night they took just 10 three-pointers and made four of them. The Celtics never had a chance to get those long defensive rebounds and push it.
This slow pace benefits the Lakers. The general consensus is they have the best starting five in the league. With a slower game, those five starters can play more minutes. The Celtics bench isn't that much better than the Lakers but the Laker bench has been known to give up some big leads.
Lakers Outhustled Them
You can pour through the stats and pick apart individual plays but the bottom line is the Lakers were hungrier. They came out with a fire that the Celtics couldn't match. The Lakers are one of the tallest teams in the league and all year I've said they should never be outrebounded. But it did happen occasionally when they didn't hustle. That wasn't the case last night. They outrebounded the Celtics 30-23 and the most shocking stat was the Lakers advantage in second chance points: 16-0. Clearly the energy was not there for Boston.
One Positive Note for the Celtics
They were finally able to get Paul Pierce going in the fourth. Ron Artest had done a tremendous job disrupting Pierce. He held him to 12 points through the first three quarters. But the Celtics finally figured out a way to get Pierce involved. Through a high pick and roll he was able to shed Artest and it gave him an open shot or a little separation to be able to drive. This is the same strategy the Thunder used to free up Kevin Durant. Pierce scored 12 in the quarter and can carry that momentum into Game 2 Sunday night.
Other Things on My Mind
-Can we stop with the Ron Artest is crazy talk? So, yes, off the court he's a little batty. He hired a model to pose with him in a photoshoot. He made Craig Sager give a shoutout to Queensbridge. Clearly he's not a normal guy. But on the court, Artest has been nothing like the player that was involved in the Malice at the Palace. Artest is calm, cool and collected. He plays physical but hasn't thrown any cheap shots and when tensions rise, not only is he not instigating but he's pulling his teammates away and calming them down.
-I've been a big proponent of LA's chant for tacos. If you don't know - fans get free tacos from Jack in the Box if the Lakers hold their opponent under 100 points and they win. But chanting "We want tacos!" in the Finals?? I can't endorse that. I will though, wholeheartedly endorse the chants of "Boston Sucks!"