The third quarter of Game 5 last night might always be remembered for Kobe Bryant's 19-point performance, but what should also be recounted is how, in the midst of his scoring outburst, the Lakers failed to get within eight points of the Celtics. Because, despite Kobe finally coming through with a breakout game of sorts (38 points total), the Celtics were able to match the Lakers' scoring in the third frame bucket for bucket, and they did so in the completely opposite manner. As Los Angeles fell back on the shoulders of one single player, the Celtics stuck together as a unit and as a team, and that cohesiveness and selflessness allowed them to overcome a truly great offensive showing from one of the game's great offensive players.
The Celtics held a 45-39 halftime lead, and immediately increased the margin to eight when Rondo converted a layup inside 19 seconds into the third quarter. Little did the Lakers know that they wouldn't find themselves with less than an eight-point deficit for the rest of the frame. So, even when Kobe started burying shots from practically every spot on the floor, pouring in the first 19 points of the third period for Los Angeles, his team wasn't actually making any headway. And it's because Boston countered Bryant's shots with a balanced effort from it's starting five. The quintet of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins all scored in the third period at different times, and that versatility on offense made it incredibly difficult for the Lakers to get the stops they needed to coincide with Kobe's offensive prowess.
Things seemed slightly out of the ordinary through the first four games of these NBA Finals, and we found ourselves waiting for a number of things heading into Game 5. In particular, we were waiting for the game when Allen, Pierce, and Garnett would all be clicking on the same page offensively. And, we were also waiting for the "breakout" game from Kobe, when he would hover right around the 40-point plateau.
Sure enough, as the third quarter unfolded, Kobe found himself in one of those all-but-unstoppable groves that had the potential to bring the Celtics to their collective knees. When a player of Kobe's skill and stature enters a scoring zone like that, it's not really about stopping him, because it's so incredibly difficult to do. Instead, the best course of action is to attempt to endure the onslaught and keep the game as close as possible. Last night the Celtics had the lead as Kobe got going, endured as a team, and ended up increasing the lead when it was all said and done, if just by two points.
And how exactly did the Celtics endure? Why, by relying on each other of course, as they've done all season long. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The burden of winning on this team never falls on the shoulders of one single Celtic. So, while Kobe's teammates fell silent and began star gazing, the Celtics were sharing the ball, slicing to the basket, and utilizing all of their weapons on offense. Take a look at the scoring breakdown for Boston in the third quarter (along with some other stats):
Celtics in the 3rd Quarter: 28 points on 12-19 shooting (63.1 percent)
Rajon Rondo: Two points, five assists (Los Angeles mustered just four assists total in the third frame)
Ray Allen: Six points
Paul Pierce: 11 points
Kevin Garnett: Seven points
Kendrick Perkins: Two points, two rebounds, one block (which led to a Pierce three-pointer on the other end)
Lakers in the 3rd Quarter: 26 points on 10-18 shooting (55.5 percent)
Kobe Bryant: 19 points
Pau Gasol: Five points
Sasha Vujacic: Two points
As you can see, there was certainly much more balance on Boston's part, and they refused to wilt under Kobe's scoring explosion. The Celtics not only maintained their lead, but increased it as high as 13 on several occasions throughout the frame, before ultimately settling for an eight-point edge (73-65) heading into the final quarter.
On the defensive end, the Lakers, unlike the Celtics, had to deal with five threats, as opposed to just one, and were unable to get the necessary stops that would have allowed Kobe's offense to slice further into the lead and possibly eliminate it completely. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Pierce found himself in a legitimate groove of his own, and continued to burn them in isolation situations, most notably with that very difficult step back jumper over an over-matched Ron Artest with 7:56 left in the frame. And when it wasn't Pierce, it was Allen, who managed to convert on two short bank shots well within the three-point arc from which he struggled once again (0-4). And when it wasn't Allen, it was Garnett, converting Rondo's over-the-top passes, drawing fouls, or burying those short range one-handed jump shots of his.
The Celtics should be used to the one-man shows at this point, as they've already ousted two such teams in the first two rounds who relied on the talents of their perennial All-Stars. Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat gave Boston everything he had, but, much like the Lakers in the third quarter last night, his high-scoring affairs couldn't make up for his lackluster teammates and an inability to secure stops on the defensive end. The same can be said for LeBron James, although, one might argue that as each series played out, Wade proved to be the more lethal scorer of the two. But, specifically in the third quarter last night, what made the Lakers different from a team like the Heat? The Celtics absorbed the hit from the team's best star, limited his inferior teammates, answered on the offensive end with a balanced scoring attack, and ultimately emerged victorious.
So far, in these playoffs, the Celtics have simply had too many weapons for opposing teams to effectively combat. And while it still might not have been picture perfect last night, enough of those weapons were clicking simultaneously to disrupt what could have been a potentially lethal third quarter run for the Lakers. In the end, LA's greatest player was all but nullified by Boston's best five.