Tonight in the Staples Center it was do or die for the Lakers, down 3-1 to the Boston Celtics. Game 5 would be a test of Los Angeles' mental fortitude and desire to win after one of the greatest comebacks (or collapses, whichever you prefer) in Finals history in Game 4; Los Angeles had a 24-point lead in the first half, even taking a 18-point lead into the half before faltering in the 2nd half and allowing the Celtics to put their backs against the wall. Game 5 was a must-win for the Lakers, and they delivered through a very hard fought, physical game.
In Game 4, the Lakers got off to a hot start breaking a Finals record by holding a 21-point lead after the first period. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers torched the C's in Game 4's opening period, and repeated that only better in Game 5. Los Angeles scored 39-points to open up the game, getting 15-points and four three-point shots out of Kobe Bryant, who looked to be on a mission: "Mission: Get it Back to Boston." Bryant nailed four three-point shots in the opening 12-minutes, reminding fans like me of MJ against the Trail Blazers (minus the hands in the air and the grin). The Lakers shot an astonishing 65% from the field leading off the game, embarassing the Celtics defense. The key moment of the quarter that led me to believe the Lakers meant business was when Derek Fisher drove to the basket and layed it in over the 6'11" Kevin Garnett, simultaneously causing an eruption in the celeb-filled stands.
But, like Game 4 the Lakers allowed the Celtics to claw their way back into the game. Boston went on a 15-0 run during the second quarter, cutting the lead to as little as three-points, getting 13-points out of Paul Pierce who was slashing to the basket with ease both on isolation plays and pick & rolls. Kobe Bryant went silent from the field, not scoring a single point helping contribute to a near seven-minute scoreless drought for the Lakers that allowed the Celtics to storm back. Paul Pierce ended the half with a three-point shot cutting the lead to three-points, reaching 21 for him on the half. At 55-52, the Lakers and Celtics set the stage for a dramatic finish -- something they delivered on pretty emphatically.
The third quarter for the entire series had been the domain of the Boston Celtics; through Game's 1-4, the Celtics outscored the Lakers 116-73. At the 9:59 mark after a few back and forths between the two teams, the Celtics took their first lead of the game off Pierce free-throws. Seconds later, Kobe Bryant got his first field goal since the first half taking back the lead for the Lakers. The quarter continued, eventually morphing itself into an ugly affair, with both teams turning it over profusely and continually. LA finished the quarter with eight-turnovers, Boston with six. All this cullminated into the Lakers finally winning the third quarter for the first time in the series, 24-18 and taking a lead into the 4th.
And that's where things got interesting, of course. Paul Pierce continued his dominance against the Laker defense, taking picks from Garnett and burying himself into the paint, getting to the free-throw line again and again. Even Sam Cassell chipped in early on in the 4th with seven-points, bringing the Celtics closer and closer. The Celtics stayed with the Lakers for a few minutes before inching close enough to take the lead, and doing so. As the game went down the stretch, it literally came down to free-throws. At 95-93, Garnett went to the line, missing both and allowing the Lakers to go down on the other end and exstend the game to four-points. That proved to be the killer for the C's, or maybe it was Kobe Bryant's strip (also reach-in foul) of Paul Pierce that led to a break-away slama-jama, putting away the Celtics bridging the game into its free-throw stage. Kobe only finished with four-points in the fourth, but he made the game's biggest play that helped lead his Lakers back to Boston on Tuesday night, only two wins away from a title.
Keys to the Game
Kobe Bryant: 25-points; 8/21 from field. 11-points since 15-point breakout in 1st Qtr.
Lamar Odom: 20-points, 11-rebounds.
Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher: 34-points.
Kevin Garnett: 13-points, 14-rebounds; five-fouls.
Ray Allen: 16-points, 3/8 from three-point.
Paul Pierce: 38-points.
Looking Ahead to Game 6
The Celtics played extremely hard on both ends, but it was ultimately the first quarter debocle and critical missed free-throws late by Garnett that did them in. They played outstanding defense on Kobe Bryant yet again, but allowed Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol to score considerably. Foul trouble became an issue late in the game, as Paul Pierce was forced to guard someone other than Kobe Bryant, someone he'd been so effective on in the last two games. Garnett and Pierce alike had five-fouls down the stretch, forcing them to play smart and cautious. The plus' for this game were the all-out play of guys like P.J. Brown and James Posey; Brown gave Gasol fits down in the paint fighting for rebounds, Posey just played his heart out -- earning much love from the announcers throughout the course of the game. They kept it close, showing their desire but in the end let it slip away. For them, they can think on the bright side: they can still win in Boston, and have two shots at it. Boston took the first two games of the series in Boston, and it doesnt look like they'd drop two in the slightest. There isnt much for them to work on other than total team defense, by that meaning on everyone other than Kobe. They've proven they can contain and even stop Bryant, and maybe they're the better team -- now it's time to emphasize it in Game 6 or if necessary, Game 7.
For the Lakers, defense, defense, defense. I may be repeating the same things stressed by Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, two of the announcers for ABC, but I watched the game too. The Lakers were horrible defensively against Paul Pierce and the pick n' roll, which was what he used so much to get to the basket and the line. LA has exhibited yo-yo like defense throughout the series, going through periods where they're stellar and others where it's hard to watch. Tonight, there was a bit of both. Pierce scoring 38 and in the fashion he did so is unsatisfactory. Instead of trying to draw charges, they were side stepping and going for blocks/fouls. LA offensively did a fantastic job in getting Gasol and Odom their touches, both players being the big factors for the Lakers when Bryant was dormant from the field. And that's the other thing, Kobe Bryant, he's got to do more. 36-points in Game 3, only 17 in Game 4 and only 25 tonight. Granted, the Celtic defense has been superb in clamping down on him but he's the MVP for a reason. Bryant is and has been a facilitator during this season and these playoffs, but if he expects to win two in Boston he's going to have to shell out at least 30 for the next two contests.