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It's Not Just How You Finish...

A Daily Babble Production

...Sometimes, it's how you start.

It's unfortunate that in some regards, what Game 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals will be remembered for is Kobe Bryant's steal and dunk to seal a tight ball game in the fourth quarter.  It might be remembered for -- to put it mildly -- the rough go of it had by Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter.  If we're lucky, there will be a historical footnote for the superb effort put forth by Paul Pierce in a losing cause.

But, like most games, and especially those that are close at the end, it won't be remembered for the first quarter.

Here's hoping that while the rest of the country spends the next two days thinking about what it saw in the final few minutes, the Celtics will focus on changing what they do in the first 12 minutes.

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I know, I know: The game was tied with 4:24 to play.  Without a doubt, the Celtics had the chance to finish this one down the stretch and didn't.  The C's missed a few big free throws and bunnies and couldn't get a few crucial boards when they were needed, and Kobe made a huge play at the end of the game.  That's frustrating, no question.

But an often overlooked part of the problem with games like the one played last night is that the Celtics not only had little to no margin for error in that fourth quarter, but they played the final three quarters with very close to zero leeway for mishap.

The NBA still lives by the adage that every team makes a run, but that doesn't mean those runs don't require energy.  When a team gets nearly buried in the first quarter of a game, it takes so much out of the players simply to fight and claw their way back into it that they often run into the problem of being able to climb the proverbial hill but unable to get over the peak.

Basketball is too often played in small surges.  The sort of lump-sum comebacks the Celtics made last Thursday night are rare for a reason.  Team A scores three or four straight baskets.   Timeout, Team B.  Mini-run, Team B.  Timeout, Team A.  When a team gets blown out in the first quarter, what happens too often is that the mini-run cuts the deficit to six or eight or ten, and then the response from the opponent pushes it back to double-digits.

Case-in-point: The Celtics began the third quarter with similar momentum to that which they had gained in the second.  They played solid basketball for 6:36 of the quarter, and then 24 seconds of the poor point guard play killed the quarter.  Rajon Rondo committed an atrocious foul to give Derek Fisher an improbable and-one opportunity, and he then followed it up by throwing a pass away on the next possession, which led to a trey for the Lakers.  Those six points turned a 65-64 game into a 71-64 Lakers lead, and the Celts never got closer than four for the rest of the quarter, eventually going to the fourth down by nine.  Going back to the second quarter (when the C's trailed by 19), the Celts had played nearly 19 straight minutes of excellent basketball, but all it took was the length of a shot clock of sub-par play from one player to largely deflate the quarter-and-a-half run.  Fighting to get all the way back into a game from a blowout takes so much that each succeeding run by the opponent is only that much more of a punch to the stomach.  The Rondo debacle wasn't the only run like this the Lakers put together; it's merely the one that comes to mind immediately.  Too many of those runs in a game that doesn't start well make it nearly impossible to win said game.

In a league in which the physical talent difference is constantly referred to as minute, it's an incredibly daunting task to thoroughly outplay an opponent for 25-30 minutes of basketball at a time.  The ebb and flow of an NBA game makes it very difficult to sustain the intensity needed to continue one of those surges all the way through the contest.

But when the Celtics play first quarters like they did in games 4 and 5, that's exactly what they require of themselves.  In Game 4, they thoroughly dominated the Lakers through the entire second half, which gave meant they had just enough to complete a miraculous comeback.

By contrast, in Game 5, they did clearly outplay the Lakers through most of the game's final three quarters.  But when the score of the first quarter is 39-22, it isn't enough to 'clearly outplay' the opponent the rest of the way.

As such, even more than worrying about what happened down the stretch, the concern here is about the trend the Celtics have demonstrated over the last couple of games.  Assuredly, from what we've seen this post-season, it could be one of those issues that only rears its ugly head on the road, and perhaps this team just plays better basketball from the get-go at home. 

But the fact remains that the Celtics cannot afford to continue starting games this way.  They can't be easing into every game.  A few factors come into play here.  The assertiveness in attacking the rim rather than settling for jumpers needs to be a game-long constant rather than a go-to once the situation gets dire.  There needs to be greater care taken toward avoiding both silly turnovers and ticky-tack defensive fouls that can screw up the rotation in a hurry by getting the big boys into foul trouble. 

Most importantly, this team cannot continue to sleep on defense at the beginning of games, and that's exactly what the fellows have done over the last couple of games.  Unwarranted gambles, missed assignments, misguided double teams, the works.  Most of Lamar Odom's baskets in the first quarter of Game 4 came off of him flying through the lane unbothered for Lakers and dunks.  Similarly, the non-Kobe points the Lakers scored early last night were largely due to poor rotations and interior defense.  The Lakers took advantage of a lot of easy looks and open lanes in the first quarter of each of the last two games, and we've seen in each of the last three quarters (and all year) that this defense is better than that.

This team has shown us all year that it is reasonable to expect the green to play good-to-great basketball over the course of a game. 

No team in the history of the game has shown us that it is reasonable to ask for 24-to-36-minute stretches of perfect basketball.

On that account, it's more than worth not digging an early hole next time around.

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