Before game one of the NBA Finals, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that the matchup between power forwards Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett would be the key to the series. With all due respect to one of the greatest coaches of all time, games two and three of the finals have not been kind to Jackson’s thesis.
In game two, Gasol completely dominated Garnett, scoring 26 points on only 10 field goal attempts and holding Garnett to a measly six points and four rebounds. Gasol looked both powerful and fluid, while Garnett looked like a shell of the man who was named the defensive player of the year after the 2007-08 season. Despite Gasol outclassing Garnett on both ends of the floor, Boston ended up beating the Lakers by a final tally of 103-84.
In game three, it was Garnett who got the better of Gasol throughout the contest. Garnett started the game off with a beautiful up-and-under move and two subsequent easy baskets in transition, and those were the beginning of Garnett’s best game of the series: 25 points and three assists on 11-16 shooting from the field.
It was one of those rare nights where Garnett had all of his moves working. He went to that little face-up rocker step from the midpost that he’s mastered. He hit a few turnarounds from the left block, including a nearly impossible righty baseline hook in the fourth to keep the Celtics in the game. He stepped out and hit a deep two. Garnett has re-invented himself as a defense/intangibles-first guy with Boston, but it wasn’t that long ago that KG won an MVP award by being nothing less than the most complete offensive big man in basketball. (I will say that rebounding remains a concern for Garnett in this series; KG only snagged six rebounds in game two, and let a few key caroms slip out of his grasp because of his tendency to try and snare rebounds with one hand. Jeff Van Gundy has been eager to point out when Garnett does this to viewers, and he’s been correct in doing so.)
Meanwhile, Pau Gasol, who currently holds the unofficial title of the most complete offensive big man in basketball, struggled to get comfortable all game long. Gasol got roughed up in the post a few times early, didn’t get the whistles, and struggled to get deep position.
As is often the case when Gasol struggles early, the Lakers became reluctant to give him post touches, and the Laker offense often devolved into four guys watching Kobe Bryant trying to make crazy shots. Kobe was forced to take tons of shots that not even he can make consistently, and finished the game 5-22 on shots taken from outside of 10 feet. It was exactly what Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the Celtics defense wanted to see the Lakers doing offensively.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and NBA head coaches go oft awry, especially when one of the best shooters of all time goes 0-13 from the floor and a slow, 35-year old point guard scores 11 points in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game. That will make just about any game plan a moot point, and it’s why the Celtics find themselves trailing 2-1 in this series.
I’d love to say that game three was a moral victory for the Celtics because it was the type of game they wanted to play, but I can’t shake the feeling that this game was more of an exception for Garnett and Gasol than a return to form for either one. More importantly, there are no moral victories when your team is two games away from elimination.