Game five of the NBA Finals featured a little bit of everything. The Celtic defense stifled every Laker not named Kobe Bryant. Kobe hit impossible shot after impossible shot on his way to a game-high 38 points. The play of Ron Artest was, to put it kindly, erratic. Rajon Rondo sliced through the lane with reckless abandon, converting seven layups and committing seven turnovers in the process. Paul Pierce played like a guy who’s got one Finals MVP trophy on his mantle and wants another.
Yet even with all of those great players doing what they do best, game five of the NBA Finals ended up being decided by the simplest of plays. The Celtics didn’t play a perfect game, or anything approaching one; their turnovers were the only reason the game was competitive in the first half, and they gave Kobe way too many chances to give the Lakers the lead in the second half.
If the Celtics hadn’t turned the ball over 16 times or let the Lakers grab 16 offensive rebounds, game five would have likely been a blowout. The bottom line was this: The Celtics shot 56.3% from the field, and could afford to make mistakes. The Lakers shot 39.7%, and could not. The Lakers made mistakes anyways, and now they’re a game away from elimination.
Lakers were flat-out sloppy, and their lack of energy and execution down the stretch gave Boston the game. The Lakers are nearly unstoppable when they run their offense from the inside-out, something they failed to do in Sunday’s game. Andrew Bynum was extremely limited because of his knee injury, but there’s no excuse for Pau Gasol only getting 12 FGAs in 38 minutes of play, especially when six of those 12 shots came when Gasol got an offensive rebound and put a shot back up. For those of you keeping score at home, that means the Laker offense got Pau Gasol got six shots in 38 minutes of play. That’s absurd.
With the Lakers failing to establish Gasol and the Celtic defense swarming everywhere, the Lakers were never able to run their offense the way they wanted to: they finished with 13 turnovers and only 12 assists, and their only consistent source of offense was Kobe Bryant going one-on-five and making some flat-out ridiculous shots that kept the Lakers in the game.
Late in the game, it became painfully apparent that the Lakers were making too many mistakes to beat the Celtics in Boston. With six minutes to play, the Lakers had managed to cut the Celtic lead to six, and there were not a lot of easy breaths being drawn in the TD Banknorth Garden. Fortunately for Boston fans, that’s when the Lakers completely unraveled. Kobe tried to force a drive, got stripped by Rondo, and the Lakers gave two points when Ray Allen scooped up the loose ball and found the streaking Rondo over the top for a layup.
A possession later, Derek Fisher’s entry pass to Kobe was tipped away by Ray Allen. Kobe got the ball back and found Fisher at the top of the floor, but Fisher panicked with both teams scrambling and tried to throw an ill-advised entry pass to the paint from the top of the key. That’s something they teach you not to do at the high school level, and Rajon Rondo was there to make the easy steal. Then the Lakers gave up another possession when Kobe’s nonchalant bounce pass got deflected by the Celtics, leading to a jump ball that Kevin Garnett won. The Celtics missed a three on their ensuing possession, but Rondo was there to tip the ball in after the Lakers failed to box him out.
After that, the Laker mistakes kept on coming. Boston grabbed two crucial offensive rebounds in the last three minutes of the game. The Lakers missed four free throws in the final three minutes. The Lakers took 10 seconds to give an intentional foul, and when they finally gave the foul Ray Allen got to shoot free throws anyways. While the Celtics found the confidence to pull off one of the craziest inbounds plays in recent memory to seal the game, the Lakers struggled to complete the most simple of tasks without incident.
Outside of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers didn’t play the way they needed to play on Sunday night. The energy was not there, and neither was the execution. It was a performance that would get a young, inexperienced team criticized: that a veteran team coached by a Hall-of-Famer went out and played that way in the Finals is downright baffling. Phil and Kobe were both upbeat after the game, because they know the Lakers need confidence more than they need to know the severity of their sins right now. But deep down, Kobe, Phil, and every other Laker know they can’t afford to have another performance like this.
Late in game four, Phil Jackson reminded his team that the Celtics lost more games in the fourth quarter than any other team, and told them that “This team knows how to lose games.” That may be true, but on Sunday night the Lakers were the ones providing all the best examples of how to let an opportunity to steal an NBA Finals game slip away.