Images from historic matchup of Lakers, Celtics
Was it that one team, the Celtics of the 30-plus All-Stars, came into this season and these playoffs expecting to win while the less accomplished Lakers were merely satisfied to have gone this far after nearly being broken up early in the season?
Or was it, as all the coaches say, great defense beats great offense?
"Our biggest thing is consistency on the defensive end," said Kevin Garnett, who admitted to being able to "taste" his first championship after the Celtics’ remarkable 97-91 win Thursday from a record 24-point deficit. "We see ourselves as a defensive team that can score."
The Celtics scored enough, but it was another biting defensive effort, the so-called stuff of champions, that shut down and stunned the Lakers, who managed just 33 points after halftime.
"We just wet the bed," said Kobe Bryant, who had just 17 points on six of 19 shooting into multiple defenders. "A nice big one, too. One you can't put a towel over. It was terrible."
A choke? Gag of epic proportions? Perhaps.
But in this record-shattering comeback to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, one in which no team previously has come back from, the veteran Celtics did what champions do. They didn't blink at being in such a deep hole. They didn't panic or pout. They tightened their defensive resolve. Paul Pierce, who was game-high scorer with 20 points, asked to replace Ray Allen on Kobe Bryant, though Pierce benefited from the helping and trapping team defense that made the Celtics the best defensive team in the NBA this season.
And the Lakers melted, looking desperately for Bryant to save them as they shrunk into their own inadequacies. The Lakers seemed to have the size and skill and momentum from defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. But other than Bryant they seemingly weren't ready for the big stage.
"They weren't nearly as aggressive as they were in the first half," noted Garnett. "If you paid attention to this team all year, usually the first half is team ball. Second half is usually Kobe takes over games. It just looked like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and have him sort of finish it off. We were giving Kobe every look we've got in the book, from different matchups to trapping him to a guy on the bottom. We were making other guys make plays."
And they couldn't.
It was a brilliant first quarter in which the Lakers were the aggressor, Bryant had three steals, and Lamar Odom had 13 points en route to a 35-14 Lakers lead. But Odom had just six points the rest of the game and attempted just five more shots.
The result was the magnitude 24 quake that rocked Los Angeles after the Lakers led by 24 midway through the second quarter and by 20 midway through the third quarter.
The Lakers shot 33 percent in the second half to 55.6 percent for Boston as the Celtics went on to the biggest Finals comeback since the NBA began keeping such records in 1971.
The largest previous comeback had been 20 in the opening game of the 1995 Finals for the Rockets.
"It's not over," Lakers coach Phil Jackson insisted. "This is not over. The series is not over."
Though it's difficult to see otherwise with the Celtics effectively outplaying the Lakers all four games and no team ever recovering from a 3-1 deficit to win in the Finals.
It's especially difficult to see the signs of a rally in the Lakers with Pau Gasol and Odom continuing to shrink from the big moments with routinely poor finishes to games. The Celtics have been the aggressor and by far the better team coming out to start the second halves in each game, generally regarded as the sign of the team making the adjustments and showing the greater resolve.
The Celtics have won every third quarter in the series by at least eight points and caught the Lakers with a 31-15 third quarter on Thursday.
"The third quarter is probably the most important because it sets the tone for how it's going to be, how the second half is going to be played," said Garnett.
It was played on the Celtics’ terms, though with a couple of key offensive changes as well that came about through circumstance and cunning.
The Lakers dominated the first half with their offense flowing to shooters and showed considerably more aggression, compiling a 14-1 edge on second half points with six steals and a plus-10 rebounding margin.
The Celtics were slower, and slowed some with point guard Rajon Rondo's bone bruise.
The serendipity was in a shoulder injury to Kendrick Perkins, who was being overtaken by Odom. Perkins went out with about two minutes gone in the third quarter and the Celtics down 12. The Lakers immediately rebuilt their lead to 20 when Celtics coach Doc Rivers opted for a smaller group to open the court and for shooters.
It was somewhat out of desperation, similar to the tactic the Lakers used in Game 2 to come back from 24 down to within two before losing. Rivers went with James Posey for Perkins after a brief run with P.J. Brown. At the same time, Rivers opted for Eddie House over Rondo, and now the Lakers had to defend the corners, a failure to do so which would prove fatal with a pair of Posey threes in the last 5:25.
PBT: Spurs guard Tony Parker repeatedly sliced through the Grizzlies' defense, creating 20 points and nine assists in an easy Game 1 win for San Antonio.
PBT: The Grizzlies haven't faced a team this postseason that can execute its system to the level that the Spurs can. The results were obvious in the series opener.
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