In games four and five, the main difference between the Lakers and the Celtics was that the Celtic role players played like they were ready to win an NBA Finals, and the Laker role players played like they were terrified to be playing in an NBA Finals.
You can talk all you want about what type of role players survive in high-pressure situations and which ones don’t; shooters vs. slashers, veterans vs. young players, et cetera. You can talk about the coaching. You can talk about the culture of the team. In the end, it generally boils down to this: role players almost always play better at home, and they almost always play better when their team has a substantial lead than they do when their team is behind. When a team is ahead and the home crowd is behind them, everyone relaxes. Everyone is comfortable running the offense, nobody is afraid of making mistakes, and offensive balance and efficiency generally results.
When a team gets behind, especially on the road, everyone gets tense, the ball slows down, jumpers get missed, and that’s when the best one or two players on a team have to go ISO or pick-and-roll to try and get their team back into the game.
The Lakers are fairly comfortable playing from behind thanks to Kobe — the flip side of that coin is that they sometimes lean too heavily on Kobe, and can have trouble playing four quarters of efficient offense as a result. The (playoff incarnation) of the Celtics is a classic front-running team; their defense keeps the other team from making big comeback runs, and they have too much balance in their offense to allow it to go stagnant if a superstar goes cold.
However, when forced to play from behind, there’s nobody who can jump-start the offense for the Celtics the way Kobe can for the Lakers. Because of that, things can sometimes get ugly when the Celtics fall behind early. In game six, that’s exactly what happened.
The first thing Los Angeles did to get their role players going was to take the pressure off of their role players early. They did that by more or less giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and getting out of his way. Since Kobe’s jumper was on, it was a prudent strategy. Kobe had 11 points and an assist in the first seven minutes of the game. Even better, the pick-and-rolls he ran with Pau Gasol forced the Celtic D to collapse and opened up Ron Artest in the corner for two early threes that got his confidence going.
By the time Kobe and Ron’s mini-onslaught was over, the Lakers had a 26-16 lead with three minutes to play in the quarter. Kobe was on his game, the shots were falling, the crowd was going crazy. (Nothing gets the Los Angeles crowd going like a Ron Artest three — it’s the adrenaline dump.) It was all good news from there for the defending champions. The Lakers put the Celtics on the ropes early, and they didn’t give the Celtics one chance to recover in the final 42 minutes of play.
The final three quarters of game six were less a contest than an extended Laker victory march, and every Laker got in on the fun. Sasha Vujacic came off the bench to knock in some long jumpers. Shannon Brown got four points on two spectacular dunks. Jordan Farmar threw his body all over the court and finished with three steals. Pau Gasol came an assist shy of a triple-double. Josh Powell, Luke Walton, and D.J. Mbenga all actually got into the game.
Meanwhile, the Celtics got a total of 13 points from players not named Garnett, Pierce, Rondo, or Ray Allen. Eight of those 13 points came in the final five minutes of play, and no non-“big four” player scored until the fourth quarter. The Celtic role players looked completely out of their element, and the Laker defense absolutely feasted on their lack of confidence and inability to run the offense.
When they talk about this series 10 or 20 years from now, they probably won’t talk about Tony Allen or Ron Artest. (Well, Artest might get a mention.) They’ll talk about Paul Pierce, Garnett, Kobe, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, maybe Pau Gasol. All the same, it was the bit players on both sides who put the Lakers in a 3-2 hole, and it was those same bit players’ fortunes changing that allowed the Lakers to tie the series with a rout. There’s a very good chance that they’ll be the ones making the extra passes, the quick doubles, the timely steals, or the open shots that will end up deciding game seven and the NBA Finals.