One of the toughest things to find when analyzing sports, or any other sequence of human behavior, is the difference between causation and correlation. Everyone who spends a year in the United States Marine Corps is a disciplined solider; everyone who spends a year in the Ford Modeling Agency is an attractive model. However, the two entities are hardly the same.
We all know what’s happened in this series — The Laker offense has looked broken at times, and has devolved into Kobe vs. Boston all too often. The Celtics, from 1-12, have played on a completely different level than they showed they were capable of in the regular season. The fun part is figuring out why these things are happening: is it the fault of the Lakers or the fault of the Celtics? The answer likely depends on your perspective, but here’s PBT’s attempt to take a crack at figuring out why things have shook out the way they have over the first five games of this series:
Question: The classic Lakers chicken-or-egg question: Did Kobe Bryant take 15 more field goal attempts on Sunday because the Lakers had no other offensive activity, or did the Lakers have no other offensive activity because Kobe took 15 more field goals than anybody else?
PBT’s answer: On Sunday, the Lakers’ lack of offense was definitely what forced Kobe into takeover mode. In the first half, when Kobe took 12 FGAs and accumulated all four of his assists, the Lakers managed to score 39 points. In the second half, when Kobe took 15 shots and made all seven of his free throws, the Lakers scored 47 points.
Going beyond that, it’s extremely difficult to run an efficient, balanced offense when your team is behind and failing to get stops. The team begins to panic, the role players don’t want to make plays, everyone plays tight, and the offense grinds to a halt. Playing on the road compounds these problems. When a team is getting lit up, they invariably go to their “panic offense” — give the ball to their best player, give him an ISO or a screen, and hope he bails them out.
The Lakers’ panic offense is giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and letting him shoot jumpers, and it isn’t a bad one. After the Lakers scored 39 points in the first 24 minutes of play, Kobe scored 19 points in the next seven minutes of play. That should have gotten the Lakers back to even, but their defense gave up 22 points over the course of that seven minutes. With the Lakers getting pushed around on offense and allowing a layup line on defense, their only chance was to have Kobe shoot them back into the game. History is the propaganda of the victors, and Kobe has been a beneficiary of this in the past, but Bryant was not the reason the Lakers lost game five.
Question: Is the Laker offense broken, or is Boston’s defense just that good?
Answer: Boston’s defense is just that good. They swarm and recover like no other team is able to. They play physical without losing their heads. They don’t let anybody get to where they want to go, and dictate the pace of the game even when the other team has the ball. They made Cleveland’s offense look broken. They shut down Orlando’s three-point attack and handcuffed Dwight Howard at times. They didn’t let any Heat player other than Dwayne Wade have any kind of success. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t all that hard.) Despite all the injuries they had in the regular season, they finished 5th in defensive efficiency.
In 2008, the last time Garnett was healthy for the playoffs, the Celtics dominated every offense in their path on their way to banner #17. That season, their defensive efficiency was the best in the league. They have the best defensive center in basketball this side of Dwight Howard. They have the best defensive point guard in basketball. Their power forward was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Their defensive coordinator is perhaps the best defensive mind of the last 20 years. At some point, it is not a coincidence that so many teams forget how to play offense when they play the Celtics.
Question: Were the Celtics dogging it in the regular season, were they sacrificing regular-season success to better prepare themselves for the postseason, or were they just injured?
Answer: A little bit of all of them, it turns out. The Celtics certainly rested their starters and didn’t stress that much over regular-season games, but you’re not going to tell me losing to the Nets at home was part of their plan.
Even so, the confidence the Celtics developed over the regular season seems to be helping them now. It seemed like hubris at the time, but as the playoffs have gone it, it’s clear that the Celtics have more players willing to step up at any given time than any other team. They don’t have one guy who they know to go to in crunch-time; sometimes it’s Pierce from the right elbow, sometimes it’s Ray Allen off a screen, sometimes it’s Rajon Rondo in transition, sometimes it’s KG in the post. Sometimes it’s Nate Robinson and Big Baby who save the day. The Celtics don’t care.
While every other team would go to their “panic offense” and let their best player bail them out in the regular season, the Celtics were blowing leads and getting their role players ready to take over. The Cavs won 61 games by keeping games close and letting LeBron take the game over in the final five minutes; when the Celtics got out to leads against them and packed the paint against LeBron, they shrunk. The Magic didn’t know how to operate without Dwight Howard drawing multiple defenders. The Lakers have done better, but their non-Kobe personnel has still looked panicked at times. The Celtics, meanwhile, have the confidence to throw insane full-court inbounds plays and make reverse layups with a Finals game on the line. Show me one other group of three players in these playoffs that could have pulled that off. So far, that confidence has been the difference.
The way the Celtics played all year was certainly unorthodox. But up until now, it’s certainly looked like a winning strategy. If they play 48 more minutes of strong basketball, it will go down in the history books as a championship strategy.