With 8:45 remaining in the very first quarter of game one, the Celtics looked to set up their half-court offense after Ron Artest made a jumper. The Celtics brought the ball up and gave it to Kevin Garnett on the wing, who swung a two-hand pass to Rajon Rondo on the other side of the perimeter.
It was a simple pass early in the shot clock, the type of thing an offense does before they actually get down to the business of trying to put the ball in the basket. 99% of the time, that pass gets to Rondo without incident. That wasn’t the case with this pass. Before the ball got to Rondo, Kobe Bryant jumped into the passing lane and deflected the ball, forcing Rondo to jump in order to attempt to make the catch.
Rondo failed to get a handle on the ball, tried desperately to save it, and ended up putting the ball directly into the hands of Ron Artest. Artest started a sloppy three-on-two break that ended in nothing but a missed layup, an offensive rebound, and a foul on the floor. In fact, the Lakers didn’t even get a basket on the ensuing possession.
Nonetheless, a message had been sent. The Lakers were not going to give the Celtics anything free, even a pass out on the perimeter early in the shot clock. They were going to beat them to every loose ball, run at every opportunity, and keep the pressure on Rondo and the Celtics at all times. In short, they did to the Celtics in game one what Rondo did to the Cavaliers and Magic in the previous two rounds of the playoffs.
As a player, Rajon Rondo gets his individual numbers by preying on the mistakes of his opponents. Every time one of his opponents fails to locate a loose ball or rebound, Rondo is there to grab it. Every time the other team doesn’t have enough players back on defense, Rondo is going to push the ball. Every time the Lakers help off of Rondo too much, he’s going to cut into the open space. When there’s a lazy pass, Rondo is going to snatch it and start streaking towards the hoop.
As a team, the Celtics pulled off two consecutive playoff upsets because they were the ones controlling the chaos. They pushed the pace, they forced turnovers, they got the early leads, they made teams too nervous to trust their role players and loaded up on their superstars. They didn’t just beat teams; they made them miserable while they were doing it.
On Thursday night, the Celtics got a taste of their own medicine. The Lakers played a high-energy, low-risk, mistake-free game, and they forced Rondo and the rest of the Celtics out of their comfort zone. Without a supply of mistakes to feed off of, Rondo was thrown to the Lakers’ half-court defense and left to starve. Rondo loves to grab long rebounds and start the break; the Lakers only missed six three-pointers all game, and 72 of their 102 points came on points in the paint or free throws. When the Celtics did get the ball in a possible transition situation, the Laker bigs sprinted back to seal off the paint. Thanks to all of those factors, the Celtics only managed five fast-break points in game one.
With the Lakers failing to give Rondo any opportunities to run, he was forced to try and score points against the Lakers’ half-court defense. Things did not work out well for him. Rondo went 6-14 from the field, which isn’t good news for Celtics fans. The worse news is that Rondo went 6-14 while making three of his five shots from outside the paint.
When Rondo tried to drive, the Lakers were waiting for him. His behind-the-back fakes drew no reaction. His reverses didn’t stop his layups from getting turned away. When he looked to drive and dish, the Lakers anticipated the pass. When he looked to go all the way to the basket, a Laker defender was there to draw the charge. Everyone knows Rondo has some very significant weaknesses; the Lakers were finally able to exploit them.
For game two, the Celtics need to do a better job of stopping the Lakers from living in the paint and start forcing them into making some mistakes so Rondo can get the team running. In the half-court, Rondo has to find a way to get some points, whether it means getting more creative with his floaters in the paint or taking a deep breath and trying to draw contact. Rondo and the Celtics have a lot of adjustments to make before game two; if they have another performance like this, they’re going to need three straight wins in Boston to stay competitive in this series.