Late in the second half of Game Three last night, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy noted that the Celtics might have their best chance to win a game in Los Angeles, as the Lakers were getting almost no contributions from both Lamar Odom (foul difficulties) and Pau Gausol (tough shooting night).
For a while the Celtics seemed to have the lackadaisical attitude that a loss on the Lakers' home floor was no big deal. For much of the first quarter, they were satisfied with settling for long-range jumpers and no offensive rebounds. Kobe, meanwhile, clearly took the attitude that he was going to get all the way to the rim on the Cs, rather than settling for the awkwardly-angle jumpers that -- while often going in -- had not in the two games in Boston. (The hip-checks and moving screens that certain Laker bloggers complained about in Games 1 & 2 were also called against the Cs, with one big one essentially ending the game late in the fourth.) Bryant also was essentially turned into a "rover" on defense, matching-up (not really defending) with Rajon Rondo and literally daring him to shoot the 18-footer.
But with missed layups, foul shots, and some sharpshooting from Ray Allen (the only one of the 'Big 3' who game to play the entire game last night), the Cs hung around the first half, and when Rondo went down with a twisted ankle, forgotten man Eddie House stretched the Laker defense (as Van Gundy quickly noted) and gave Kendrick Perkins and KG room to operate on the low block.
For a brief moment in the fourth, the Cs were in the position to put the game away. But Doc Rivers went with a strange lineup early in the fourth (Powe, PJ Brown, House, Posey, and Allen) and the moment was lost. The Lakers retook the lead on Kobe's wide open three (top of the key) on a broken play, and the Cs never regained their footing. Two Gausol put-backs on Lamar Odom drives proved the point that Van Gundy and others have made time-and-again: when you get to the rim, at any level of basketball, good things happen.
Tactically, the end-game defense was confusing, at best. With two minutes remaining, the Cs ran a double at Kobe (with KG) early in the shot clock; Kobe found Odom at the top of the key, and delivered to a wide-open Sasha Vujacic for a three-ball (sidenote: before this series is over, Vujacic's name will be in the small club of hated Boston-team opponents along with Dennis Rodman and Claude Lemieux). On the succeeding two possessions, the Cs brain-trust left Ray Allen on an island with Kobe, and Bryant made successive 17-footers over Ray-Ray.
While Cs fan-bloggers seem to be rejoicing in the moral victory (after all, it was a true elimination game for the Lakers), Van Gundy's point is real: the Cs had a golden opportunity to end the series, and left it there.
The Cs still look to be the better team, and will likely still win this Series outright. But the Lakers were ready to be put away, and as it has done many times this year, the Cs let a good team off the hook. The Lakers -- like the Cavaliers in the 2nd Round -- know what they are doing at crunch time: getting the ball to Kobe and letting him create.
Finally, could there have been a worse day for the NBA to revisit the Tim Donaghy situation? After Game Two's refereeing disaster, the free throw disparity went to the Lakers (34-22) in Game Three (although admittedly with reason, as the Lakers were clearly driving at the rim throughout much of the first half). But there's no question that the consistency and/or lack thereof among the refs has become a major subplot in the NBA Playoffs.
Donaghy's claims about Game Six of the 2002 Lakers/Kings series and the treatment of Yao Ming in a 2005 Rockets/Mavs series seemed to be backed-up by contemporaneous facts. The Rockets coach Van Gundy was himself fined $100,000 in 2005 for his comments about the officiating, and gave a strange interview with Mike Breen last night at halftime -- on the one hand trying to avoid giving any credibility to Donaghy's statements, but on the other unwilling to admit that he had been wrong in the substance of his comments (he did admit that he "went about it the wrong way" by raising the issue in public.
What is more interesting is the procedural background. Donaghy is apparently up for sentencing (as part of his plea bargain) and the NBA demanded restitution of $1 million for damage incurred by the league by Donaghy's actions. (If Donaghy doesn't have the money to pay the league, his sentence could be extended.)
So after a year where the Donaghy scandal had faded to the background, to be replaced by a "NBA Dream" (and ABC/ESPN Dream) Finals of Lakers/Celtics, the Donaghy matter was revived because the NBA needed to try and collect an extra $1M?
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