All the Los Angeles Lakers needed was a bit of hometown loving, and that’s exactly what they got in Tuesday nights 87-81 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in downtown LA. Kobe Bryant scored 36 points and led the Lakers to a key victory pulling the series to a 2-1 Boston edge. The win improves LA’s home record during the 2008 playoffs to a perfect 9-0 and again forces the question about whether the Celtics road struggles will continue.
Last night’s display by Bryant clearly showed any doubters why he is in fact the reigning MVP of the NBA. Boston knew the man could flat out play, but they had yet to see him take over a game the way he did Tuesday. When he was given space, he’d nail the open jumper. The minute the double teams came flying his way, he was able to distribute the ball to teammates for high percentage looks. On the defensive end he was able to shut down Paul Pierce, holding him to only 6 points on a 2-14 shooting effort.
The clutch performance could not have come at a better time because no team in the NBA Finals has even been able to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a championship.
“What I tried to do with my teammates is just stay calm,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t the end of the world. They did a great job of defending home court. We knew we had to come here and do the same. They feed off of my confidence and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win.”
During the first quarter, neither team jumped out to a large lead and both looked a little jet lagged coming out of the gates. The Lakers missed their first five shots from the floor while the Celtics started the game only 1-8 from the field. After a huge free throw discrepancy in Game 2 in which Boston attempted 38 compared to LA’s 10, the Lakers were able to get to the line 14 times in the first quarter, setting the tone early.
“We just wanted to play,” said Bryant, whose only blemish on the night was an 11-of-18 performance from the foul line. “I don’t think anyone was feeling desperate.”
With 4:01 left on the clock in first half, Kobe calmly knocked down an 18 foot jump shot which opened up the Lakers largest first half lead making the score 40-29. The Celtics were able to put together a little run to close the quarter and the halftime score had LA on top 43-37.
Boston was able to control play in the 3rd quarter outscoring LA 25-17 to take a 62-60 lead heading into the last frame on play. Ray Allen paced the Celtics scoring 10 in the quarter and finished with 25 on the night hitting five 3-point shots, but it was not enough to overcome Kobe and the Lakers 4th quarter effort.
“As bad as we played, we still had opportunities,” Allen said. “That’s the positive. We can look at it, but I don’t think on either side of the floor we were good. We had so much more room for improvement.”
For the first five minutes of the 4th quarter both teams traded bucket for bucket. The momentum would shift on a pivotal shot that came from Bryant with 6:55 left to play. With the Celtics leading by two points at 68-66, a slow defensive rotation left the MVP wide open at the top of the key. Kobe hadn’t been this wide open since he participated in the 3-point shoot out competition a few years ago during the All-Star weekend. Knowing the importance of the shot, he was able to completely collect himself before draining the 3-point trey which would put LA up for good.
A quick spurt capped by a Pau Gasol tip in would make the score 77-70 in favor of the Lakers and things began looking grim for the Celtics. Coming out of a timeout, Boston was able to roll off six quick points and trim the score back to a two point game, 78-76 with 2:41 left to play.
After a missed 3-point attempt by Sasha Vujacic, the Celtics had the ball with a little over 2 minutes left to play and a chance to tie the score. A broken offensive set resulted in an off balance runner by reserve PG Eddie House that did not fall. The Lakers made them pay for the poor choice in shot selection on the next possession. Vujacic redeemed himself and nailed a 3-point jump shot right in front of the Celtics bench, putting LA back up by 5 with under 2 minutes to play.
With lots of playoff experience, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson was able to calm his young roster down and help them hold on for the Game 3 victory.
“Kobe was fantastic but I thought Vujacic was the key to the game,” Jackson said. “I said before we are going to have to win a game when Kobe Bryant plays well. We know that. But when that happens, we have to shut off the other avenues.”
L.A’s defensive intensity improved dramatically with the change of coasts. In Boston, LA had allowed the Celtics to score an average of 103 points per game in Games 1 & 2 of the Finals. Game 3 they limited the Celtics to 81 points and held them to a .349 shooting percentage, their 2nd worst percentage in 23 games of the 2008 playoffs.
The Celtics certainly had plenty of chances to steal this game but every time they pulled close, Bryant was able to take matters into his own hands.
Even though Bryant’s performance was an unbelievable effort, some C’s fans may still have a little bone to pick with coach Doc Rivers. Before last night’s game, reserve PG Eddie House had seen exactly 10 seconds of action over the course of the Celtics four previous playoff wins. Rivers had been using Sam Cassell for the most part in the role of back up PG to starter Rajon Rondo. For whatever reason, Rivers decided to call House’s number last night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Nothing against Eddie House, he’s a great set shooter and can certainly knock down a 3-point shot when he’s open and has the time to set, but what was Doc thinking putting him in the game last night and giving him the green light to fire away? House attempted a ridiculous number of 8 shots in 19 minutes of action. It may not sound that bad if you haven’t been following the C’s playoff run, but here’s some food for thought. Before last night’s game, House had only attempted 6 shots in the previous 8 games in only 17 minutes of combined action. That’s .75 shots and 2.125 minutes per game.
Did we miss something Doc? Was your plan all along to save Eddie for the big game pressure situation with everything on the line? Does that mean you’re thinking about sending Brian Scalabrine in there for Game 4?
One thing is for sure, for the Celtics to win in L.A. they are going to need the Big Three to all produce. In the Game 3 loss, Pierce and Kevin Garnett both had sub par outings and that cannot happen if Boston expects to win. Lets be realistic, Leon Powe is not going to score 21 points a game, nor is Rondo going to dish out 16 assists every night like their Game 2 lines.
The environment in LA is hostile and nothing like that of Boston, but that’s no excuse. Now is the time for the Celtics to simply make the necessary adjustments and shake off the road loss. They’ve shut down Kobe and the Lakers four times already this year, last night he merely got the best of them.
Hats off to Kobe, but lesson learned, don’t let it happen again.