The Phoenix Suns clearly struggled to contain The Black Mamba and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, but through four games of the NBA Finals the Boston Celtics have proven that the defending champs are far from unbeatable.
Against the Suns, the Lakers exhausted Phoenix’s 2-3 zone after a few sub-par games and Alvin Gentry tried almost everything in the book but ultimately Kobe Bryant was too much down the stretch.
He scored 30-plus in five of the six games and drilled clutch shot after clutch shot on his way to averaging 33.7 points, 7.2 boards and 8.3 assists in the series. A different Laker role player also rose to the occasion every game and the Suns struggled to keep LA off the offensive glass.
But after four games of the NBA Finals the defensive-minded Celtics have shown that they have the answer to slowing down Kobe just enough while limiting the Lakers role players along the way. Bryant has yet to go into Beast Mode against the Celtics, as he’s averaged 28.3 points per game on 40.9 percent shooting thus far, and Boston has held the Lakers under 95 points in three of the four games.
So how has Boston been able to do what the Suns couldn’t?
I re-watched bits and pieces of the first four games via Synergy Sports Technology to get a better understanding of how the Celtics have been able to slow down the Lakers’ offense and came away with a couple of conclusions.
1. Make Kobe work
During the Western Conference Finals, Gentry said that “stopping Kobe is not an option.” That certainly holds true in the Finals, but the Celtics have done a terrific job making him work for every bucket. They’ve forced him into strictly isolation plays, mostly due to their commitment to playing him straight up.
When the Suns decided to go zone they basically said they were going to concede Kobe’s 30-40 points and focus on stopping the Lakers’ bigs. Because of that Kobe was able to catch the ball on the wing and fire whenever he pleased. Phoenix gave him room to feel comfortable and allowed him to show off his best asset — the mid-range pull-up jumper.
But the Celtics have kept the pressure on Kobe by forcing him to use a ton of energy by creating off the dribble and driving where there is help. Ray Allen has done a solid job making Kobe work for everything, and when he isn’t in the game Paul Pierce and Tony Allen have kept Kobe in check as well.
They have made him attack the hoop rather than fire open jumpers and it’s paid dividends, especially in Game 4 when they forced him into seven turnovers. Below is a shot one of Kobe’s seven turnovers. Ray Allen chased Bryant off the three-point line and into an out of control drive that resulted in a Celtics layup on the other end.
So while Kobe was saving his energy spotting up on the wing against Phoenix’s zone, he is being run all over the court against the Celtics, which has worked in Boston’s favor.
This sounds like stating the obvious, but it’s true: The Boston Celtics simply have better defenders than the Phoenix Suns.
No, Ray Allen and Pierce aren’t that much better defensively than say Jason Richardson and Grant Hill, but they are sound defenders, and when you couple that with the activity from Rondo in the passing lanes and Tony Allen’s on the ball defense off the bench you have an above average perimeter defense.
But the majority of Boston’s defensive prowess comes from its front line. The quartet of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis make for a very nimble bunch that has shown the ability to hold its ground in the paint while staying in front of Bryant and company on the pick and roll.
Below is a perfect example of how KG and his front court mates can create havoc on the pick-and-roll. He switched the screen by Gasol and got up in the face of Kobe, forcing him to pick up his dribble and ultimately dish it off. There are very few, if any, big men in the NBA athletic enough to get up into Kobe so much that he has to kill his dribble, but KG certainly can.
But while they are athletic enough to get out and guard the pick and roll, they are also big and long enough to bang with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The Lakers tore the Suns apart in the paint at times, but the Celtics have been able to limit LA to 35.5 points in the paint per game. That still sounds like a lot, but against a team as big as the Lakers that’s quite the feat.
Unlike against the Suns, the Lakers can’t simply dump it down into the post and watch Gasol go to work because of the size and defensive ability of KG, Perkins and company. Although Pau has been very good for the most part this series, the Celtics have defended the post extremely well in all.
In Game 1 the Lakers scored 0.92 points per post up, which they ran 11.7 percent of the time. In Game 2 it was 0.89 in 18.1 percent of the plays. In Game 3 they scored a series-low 0.85 points per post up, which made up 13.8 percent of their plays. The Lakers were finally successful in Game 4, scoring 1.08 points per post up in 14.1 percent of the plays, but all in all the Celtics have done a great job keeping the Lakers from tearing up the paint, thanks to their personnel.
3. Team defense
Personnel clearly plays a role in how successful a team is at defending its opponent, but nothing is more important than team defense. You could stick the entire NBA All-Defensive team on the court, but if they don’t play as a unit they won’t be successful on the defensive end.
The Celtics are probably the NBA’s best when it comes to team defense. They shift and rotate as a unit, communicate on screens and have a great understanding of where to be on the court. At times it looks like they’re playing a zone because of how good their help defense actually is.
Below is a perfect example of Boston’s superb positioning. Garnett is backpedaling after hedging a pick and roll, but he knows he has help behind him so he stays in a position where he can help on Kobe. Tony Allen is exactly where he should be as he’s one pass away and Rondo is pinching down on Bynum with Fisher two passes away.
Ray Allen ultimately drew a charge on Bryant, who had nowhere to go on his isolation because of the team defense of the Celtics. So while Boston has a slew of solid defenders, it is their defense as a unit that has played a huge role in limiting Kobe and the Lakers.