Are we certain this game was played in 2009? Because, judging from Kobe’s performance and his teammates’ performance, it seemed more like a Laker game circa 2006-7: a heroic performance from Kobe himself, not much from his teammates…and the opposing team chugging away all the while.
The news is even worse than that. It took an otherworldly performance from Bryant—featuring his usual difficult midrange jumpers, tricks to get himself to the line, etc.—for the Lakers to even stay in contact. But that otherworldly performance was mostly confined to the third quarter; the Celtics were effective in the first half and contained Bryant in the fourth quarter. The lead was built on those three quarters. And it seems clear that Andrew Bynum was the linchpin for this entire team, the guy who makes everything work: he allows Gasol to be downshifted to the four position, he sets picks, he contests with his length, and at times (when injury permits him to) he is mobile. He’s basically perfect for his role, which is why the Lakers struggle so with him out, particularly Pau Gasol, who would be fine on his own against the 28 other teams in the league—it’s this team he needs his bodyguard, Bynum, to rampage as he usually does. Which he has—three excellent games, one average game, one poor game (today, where he was “meh” on the offensive end and a bit weak defensively).
The other player who has been decisively exposed by the matchups is Ron Artest: by this I mean, the biggest gap between what they need from Ron and what they got from Ron has been exposed by these matchups. (The root of all evil here, when it comes to the Lakers is…stop me if you’ve heard this before…Derek Fisher. I’ll explain.) I thought the Pierce-on-Artest matchup would be favorable for the Lakers—that is, they would cancel each other out. Pierce certainly got the better of Artest tonight—he bullied him when he had the ball and just let Ron be Ron when Ron had the ball, always a formula for poor decision-making. Pierce went a quietly critical 43 minutes tonight, and still looked fresh at the end—actually, he’s been getting better for the Celtics over the course of this series, a disturbing matter for the Lakers. Remember how the announcers pointed out that Bryant wanted to guard Pierce…but never did? A critical moment, that: the Lakers’ preferred defensive move, whenever they have a fire to put out, is to let a focused Kobe be the fireman. But they can’t do it: shifting Kobe off of Rondo leaves Fisher stranded. Fisher guarding Rondo or Pierce would be a horror show. He has to guard Allen. There’s no one he could even contemplate guarding. And Artest, who’s lost half a step, can’t be on Rondo. The Lakers have no flexibility in the matchups—they have to come up with a scheme to guard Pierce, if his odd herky-jerk style is going to continue being as effective as it is.
Oddly enough, the solution for the Lakers might just be to leave Pierce alone. He’s had two very good games, one terrible game, and two average-to-good ones. That’s not a bad ratio. But focus more specifically on what Pierce is doing when he has the ball: Pierce is a player with two tracks. Pierce came up as a young player in an unfortunate time for the league, namely the early aughts, when the isolation play for your superstar was the height of offensive sophistication. Sadly, this stunted Pierce’s offensive game: he can pass and play within a flowing team concept, but that track of his game has to coexist uncomfortably with his iso-game. He’s like a miniature Dirk Nowitzki in his reliance on a clunky, footwork-paced game to get himself open (though unlike Nowitzki, Pierce is the best spinner-off-the-dribble player in the league). That’s good in the sense that he’s very efficient scoring; bad in the sense that it sometimes limits him from being more than a scoring threat—you have to be an offensive threat, i.e. able to create for others. This is a minor criticism, really, when compared to the average: Pierce is a really good passer in the right situations, and it’s not even that his mentality is bad. He was just stunted by history: first he had to play during a disgusting era for professional basketball, then he had to carry a crummy team. It meant his total sense of the game is a little warped, though, again, compared to the average it’s very good. But this is the Finals, and he’s playing the Lakers: being only very good in a situation like this—particularly when compared to the alternatives—is something to exploit: let him try his luck against Artest. Since Pierce relies so heavily on the midrange jumper—otherwise known as the most volatile shot in the league, percentages-wise—this is a better bet than watching Rondo be Rondo!!! against you. (Rondo was only Rondo! tonight, which is a bit of a disappointment compared with the outlandish past performance.)
As has been mentioned before, it’s about Bynum. Bynum defends the rim and makes Pierce and Rondo ineffective; Bynum shifts Gasol into more effective positions. No Bynum, no ring.