On the brink of elimination for the first time in the post-season, the Lakers could have cowered under the pressure and watched their hated rivals celebrate a championship on their home floor. With Andrew Bynum strong mentally but limited physically, they could have allowed the Boston Celtics to push them around just as they’d done two years ago without their young center in the line-up. Failing to produce for their team on the road, the Laker reserves could have left this pivotal Game 6 in the capable hands of their starters. The Lakers could have done many things to take themselves out of contention for that 16th title, but tonight they did more than fight for their right to a Game 7 — they demolished the competition to get there.
When Ron Artest (15 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block and a whopping +26 to lead all +/-) and Sasha Vujacic (9 points) are hitting three-pointers (6-10 combined), it’s not difficult to guess what kind of game the Lakers will have.
In the first quarter, the home team was scoring in every which way — Kobe Bryant got his, Andrew Bynum tossed up a hook shot, Pau Gasol’s jumpers were hitting nothing but the bottom of the net and Artest’s trips to downtown were fruitful as could be. In the first 12 minutes, the Lakers shot 60% from the field, a complete 180 degrees from the dreadful shooting display in Game 5.
The Laker offense heated up even more in the second quarter, but there were other noticeable differences in the team’s game tonight. One was the re-discovery and execution of their defense. The Celtics shot just 34% in the first two quarters, 33% to end the game. Second was their work on the glass. They had a 30-13 edge at halftime, and a dominating 52-39 for the game. Their hustle for every loose ball showed the magnitude of their effort, with Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher slamming their bodies onto hardwood to take away Celtic possessions or maintain their own.
The home team’s fluidity and connection on both ends of the court was prominent, and it earned them a 51-31 advantage at the half, not to mention a 15-0 advantage in bench play.
Bench contribution, according to Phil Jackson, is more dependable on the home court, and tonight was such a case. The Lakers reserves held more than their own in this game. After the show that Glen Davis and Nate Robinson put on in Boston, the Bench Mob was due to prove they too could do more than just fill in gaps in the starters’ minutes.
With Derek Fisher in foul trouble, the bench did pick up their captain and their team, not just by scoring, but playing defense as well. Lamar Odom, missing in action for most of this series, chipped in eight points, 10 rebounds (9 defensive), two blocks and an assist. Jordan Farmar had three steals in addition to his four points (two in the form of a fast break dunk over, yes, Kevin Garnett). Shannon Brown, who hasn’t seen much playing time in this series, also had four points (two on a one-handed dunk from Pau Gasol’s lob and another off a Kobe assist). Sasha Vujacic got 14 minutes of burn, hit two from downtown, in addition to chasing Ray Allen around. With a little over three minutes left in the game, Phil Jackson emptied his bench. It was that kind of night.
Pau Gasol, who was one assist away from a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 blocks and a steal), played a phenomenal game, shooting over his defenders and driving into the paint to score. If there was any doubt he would recover from the mediocre performances he showed in Boston, tonight was clearly his way of gaining back the trust of his team (and this city).
Kobe Bryant (26 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists), was not a lone wolf fighting for his team’s season tonight. This evening he had help, and then some. Sitting on the bench for a good stretch of the third quarter, Bryant watched as his teammates swelled the lead to 26 points and he was the first to greet them, pat them on the back, and hug them when the quarter was over.
With Andrew Bynum sitting out the entire second half due to stiffness in his knee, the Celtics could have taken advantage. But with their own center, Kendrick Perkins, injuring his knee early in the game, each team had one less big man to play and worry about on the other side.
So with a romping of the Boston Celtics in Game 6, the Lakers have earned their right to play a Game 7 on their home court. If they put in the same effort, apply the same execution, with the same energy, out-hustling their rivals and just playing as if they want it more, that Larry O’Brien trophy will remain in Los Angeles.
The NBA Finals, Lakers versus Celtics, Game 7 — could we have come upon a more exciting ending to this season?
Pre-Game Thoughts: Play with pride. Play with heart… and REBOUND LIKE MAD!
Half-Time Thoughts: Home team leading by 20, 31-51, but we all know what happened the last time the Lakers had this big of a lead at home… in the Finals… against the Celtics. Hopefully, the outcome of this game will be a happier version of those 2008 circumstances.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Every Laker played hard, which is more than can be said of the Celtics… who missed yet another opportunity to close out a series on the first try in this post-season.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: This was definitely a team win, and the prominent difference for the Lakers tonight was the Bench Mob — 25 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and a lot of energy. The Celtics bench didn’t score until 2 minutes into the 4th quarter.