Game 1 of the NBA Finals was something of a debacle for the Boston Celtics, as a host of issues plagued them throughout the ballgame, many of which were uncharacteristic of the team we've seen steadily develop over the course of the postseason. The fact that so many of the things that went wrong were unusual for the team should give cause for hope heading into Game 2, as things should change for the better. But "hope" and "should" aren't enough in the NBA Finals. If the Celtics are to take Game 2, as well as this series, these seven things need to change.
Defense/Rebounding: The Celtics' front line took a fair amount of heat in the aftermath of Pau Gasol's 23-point, 14-rebound exhibition, but Doc Rivers hit the nail on the head in his postgame press conference when he pointed out the fact that the Celtics' initial problems on defense occurred out along the perimeter, and throughout the course of the game, their big men suffered because of it. When the Lakers' perimeter players drove by their Celtic counterparts into the paint, the C's big men rotated over accordingly to supply the necessary help defense, but in doing so, they rotated out of position to both effectively defend their own respective assignments, and crash the defensive glass. The result was a 48-30 advantage for the Lakers in the paint, along with a 42-31 edge in total rebounds. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Lakers had doubled the Celtics in total rebounds (34 to 17). Gasol finished with as many offensive rebounds (eight) as the Celtics as a team. Kobe Bryant hauled in as many rebounds (seven) as Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins combined. The breakdown of the Celtics' perimeter defense ultimately led to some of these other issues, and that needs to be addressed before Game 2 gets under way. The Celtics suffered from the snowball effect in Game 1, and when it was all over, they found themselves buried in an avalanche.
Rajon Rondo/Overall Team Play: Rondo, whether fairly or unfairly, was labeled as the player to watch for the Celtics heading into the series, largely due to his significant production so far throughout these playoffs. It was said that no one on the Lakers could effectively guard him one-on-one, and, with one game now in the books, it's still unclear as to whether that's true or false. Kobe Bryant received the initial defensive assignment on the Celtics' point guard, and sagged off like we've seen other defenders do (such as Anthony Parker of the Cavaliers). Rondo burned him on a few cuts to the basket, and finished the evening with 13 points, six rebounds, and eight assists. Those numbers are decent for Rondo, but pale in comparison to some of the other performances he's put forth thus far, and it remains to be seen whether he just had an off night (much like his team as a whole), or whether the Lakers' defensive schemes actually bothered him. Perhaps it was a little bit of both, seeing as the length of LA's front line could pose some issues to a guy like Rondo, who thrives on aggressive drives to the rim.
Expanding on this somewhat, besides their defense, the Celtics have really hung their hat on capitalizing on the number of offensive weapons that graces the roster. The Celtics are clearly at their best when they're playing together - something I touched upon a few weeks back. That sense of togetherness simply wasn't present in Game 1, whether it was due to the foul trouble the C's had to fight through, or the defense the Lakers were putting forth. It's never up to one single player to win a game for this team, yet in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics really needed to make a run, it was just Paul Pierce who was doing the heavy lifting. Credit Pierce for picking up the slack when no one else would, but if the Celtics are to succeed, one single man can't bear the brunt of the team's offensive hopes, particularly down the stretch.
Ray Allen's Presence: Ray definitely suffered from a few ticky-tacky foul calls over the course of the game, but I suppose that's to be expected considering he was guarding Bryant on the defensive end. Regardless of the reason, Allen was only able to play five minutes and four seconds of the first quarter before he picked up his first two fouls, and just six minutes and 42 seconds in the middle of the second frame before he was called for his third. His total minutes played for the first half: 11 minutes and 46 seconds. The real damage came in the third quarter, as Ray was called for his fourth personal just two minutes and 57 seconds into the second half, forcing him back to the bench. He returned with 2:10 to play in the third and guess what happened? 31 seconds later (31 seconds!) he was called for another foul on Kobe - his fifth. He collapsed back into his seat on the bench, disgusted, and ripped off his shooting sleeve in frustration. He tallied just less than 15 minutes of action through the first three quarters, and the only reason he reached 27 minutes played was because he managed to stay on the court for the full 12 of the fourth period. Ray was averaging 38.2 minutes per game in the playoffs heading into last night, to put things in perspective.
But by that point, the Celtics were completely out of sync, particularly on offense, and the chances of Ray finding a sudden groove were slim. It's almost comical that, heading into this series, much was made of the Celtics' physical nature, and yet it was Ray Allen, one of the more gentle players on the team, who suffered the most from the tight officiating, as opposed to...say...Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics' two bruisers who are perhaps the leading causes of the team's reputation. They only picked up three personal fouls apiece.
Ray's presence on offense is key due to the majority of his shots coming off of passes from other players (particularly Rondo), which basically means that when Ray's in the game and is involved in the offense, the ball is moving, which is always a good thing for Boston.
Three-Point Shooting: The Celtics shot a rather putrid 1-10 from three-point nation in Game 1, which of course measures out to a measly 10 percent. The lone three was courtesy of Rasheed Wallace, as Paul Pierce missed all four of his attempts, while Ray Allen missed both of his tries. Tony Allen supplanted his surname in the lineup when Ray was plagued with foul trouble, and when he's paired beside Rondo, they can make for a devastating two-man fastbreak tandem, but, at the same time, offer little to no threat from beyond the arc. And with Pierce not in any sort of rhythm from distance in Game 1, when the Celtics put out a lineup of Rondo, Tony Allen, Pierce, Garnett, and Perkins, the three-point shot wasn't much of an option on the offensive end.
Through the first 18 games of these playoffs (including Game 1 of the Finals), the Celtics have attempted 286 three-pointers, and have converted 107 of them, which measures out to a very respectable 37.4 percent. They've averaged 5.9 made three-pointers per game, so you can see, aside from the grizzly percentage, the Celtics' performance from three-point nation in Game 1 was not what we are accustomed to seeing. The three-point shot is definitely a key part of Boston's offensive attack, yet I wouldn't go so far as to say the Celtics are completely reliant upon it. We've seen in these playoffs a few examples of Boston shooting poorly from deep in games they still managed to win.
In Game 1 against the Miami Heat the C's shot just 1-6 from the nation (16.6 percent) and won, 85-76. In Game 4 against the Cavaliers they shot even worse from distance than they did in Game 1 against the Lakers, posting a 1-14 mark from deep (7.1 percent), yet still won by 10, 97-87. And in Game 6 against the Cavaliers (also known as The Clincher), the C's shot a meager (yet much improved, compared to Game 4) 29.4 percent from the nation, and still defeated the Cavaliers, 94-85. And for those looking for something positive to latch onto, before Game 1 Thursday night, the C's shot less than 20 percent from the nation in these playoffs twice (Game 1 against Miami, and Game 4 against Cleveland), and shot at least 53 percent from deep in the following game. This might be a stretch, given the small sample size, but hey, it's better than nothing.
Intensity/Mindset: Is it just me, or did the Celtics not seem to play as though Thursday night was Game 1 of the NBA Finals? The C's just didn't appear to be exuding the necessary effort that is typically associated with winning an important game at this stage of the season. At times they looked sluggish and frustrated, and LA's bench in particular (more on those guys in a moment), really seemed to exploit the Celtics' lack of energy and aggression at the tail end of the first quarter and the opening minutes of the second quarter. As valuable as the six days off in between series probably were for health related reasons, I personally wonder if the C's lost a bit of their edge, and that carried over into Game 1. However, after witnessing every single game of this season so far, I can confidently write that I do not expect a repeat performance from the C's in this department tomorrow night. Thursday had to have been enough of a wake-up call for the guys in green, and a few more, if not most, of the 50/50 balls will bounce their way in Game 2.
LA's Bothersome Bench Brigade: With all due respect to guys like Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, the Celtics cannot afford for guys like them to actually make an impact on this series, and unfortunately, they already have. The pair combined for what might seem like a modest 10 points and two rebounds in Game 1, but it was the manner in which those points came that ultimately helped determine the outcome of the contest. The C's didn't close out the first two quarters in the appropriate manner (more on that in a moment), and in the final forty seconds of the first game, Brown and Farmar accounted for a brief 4-0 spurt, which gave LA it's 26-21 lead heading into the second period. After Brown converted on a drive to the bucket with 24 seconds left, one of the more resounding plays from the evening took place, as Rondo took the inbounds pass lazily, having expected the Lakers to retreat back on defense. Instead, out of nowhere, Farmar blitzed him and swiped the ball away. It was very, very uncharacteristic of Rondo, but chalk it up to the mindset the C's brought into the game. LA had a chance to push it's lead to seven off of Farmar's steal, but Lamar Odom's shot went begging.
Brown would add four more points in the opening minutes of the second quarter, and later in the fourth quarter, Farmar drove right at Garnett on the right side and put in what ended up being a fairly uncontested layup, leading most Boston fans to ponder aloud: "Did that really just happen?" You bet it did. Dealing with Kobe, and Gasol, and Artest, and even Odom is difficult enough, but having to worry about the likes of Farmar and Brown contributing as well simply makes matters that much worse. Now we know how Miami felt when Glen Davis and Tony Allen were wreaking havoc for Boston.
Closing Out Quarters: The end of the first quarter was dispiriting enough at the hands of Farmar and Brown, but the closing minutes of the second quarter were even more unbearable. The C's trailed by a mere four points (39-35) with 2:47 left in the first half. Yet on the heels of a Celtics timeout, Artest stepped forward and buried a three-pointer, pushing the lead to seven, before adding a driving layup on LA's next possession, forcing the lead up to nine. Bryant countered a Kevin Garnett jumper, and Derek Fisher added a bucket of his own inside, giving LA it's first double-digit lead of the evening at 48-37 with 56 seconds to play. The C's would have been facing an 11-point hole heading into halftime, had Rondo not converted that desperation heave along the left wing at the buzzer. What was a very manageable four-point hole had suddenly blossomed into a nine-point trench, and frankly, the C's were lucky it wasn't more. This stretch actually proved to be something of a difference in the entire game, as the two teams matched baskets in the third frame, before LA propelled the lead up to 20, and Boston made a flawed attempt at a comeback late in the fourth that obviously came up short.
Jeff Clark added some other points of emphasis heading into Game 2, and with so many between the two of us, it really shows just how much went wrong for the C's in Game 1. They painted the opposite of a masterpiece in the first game of this series, but fortunately, they'll have a fresh canvas for Game 2 to make amends.