If you believe in moral victories, the Lakers are riding out of Boston with a considerably high-minded loss after narrowly missing out on the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history.
If you don’t subscribe to such idealistic or sentimental ideas, they are merely riding out of Boston with a 0-2 hole and a very real threat of being out of this series.
By failing to get league MVP Kobe Bryant the ball on the game’s most critical possession, Los Angeles entrusted their fate to the Kobettes, who to that point had clearly raised their level of play and execution on offense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic were unable to find magic in a bottle for a second time in under three minutes, and the drama that had built steadily over the last 7:40 of the game came to a crashing halt. So too might have the Lakers season.
The credit for putting Los Angeles in this position goes first and foremost to Leon Powe who played the game of his life Sunday night. Powe had perhaps the most remarkable 15-minute performance in Finals history, submitting 21 points on 6-7 shooting from the floor. More telling, Powe took 13 foul shots in 15 minutes of play. The Lakers, as a team, shot 10 from the line for the entire game.
This provides some insight into the second most critical factor in Boston’s victory: embarrassingly one-sided officiating that saw a free throw discrepancy of 38 to 10 against the Lakers. This is not to say that the men in grey decided the game; Boston did that by suffocating Bryant, who just so happened to pick up three questionable fouls in the first half, and hitting timely shots that kept Los Angeles back during their late charge to the finish. The C’s earned this victory, the refs merely deserve an assist.
Paul Pierce (and his divinely-blessed knee) was brilliant all night. At no point was his poise and leadership more important than in knocking down the biggest two free-throws of the season with 22 seconds left, which stretched Boston’s lead to two possessions. The rest of Boston’s squad each impacted the game in tangible, significant ways, from Garnett’s all-around steadiness (17 and 14) to Rondo’s heady running of the offense (16 assists). Even the Ghost of Ray Allen got into the act with 17 points. On defense, they played together, as one perfect unit, harkening back to the Nike ads that spoke of being The Beautiful Monster. This was the Celtics team that won 66 games, not the one that was pushed to seven by the lowly Atlanta Hawks. If they can bring this kind of focus and cohesiveness just twice more, banner number 17 will be headed to the rafters in the new Garden.
For Los Angeles to avoid that from happening, they will need to avoid the massive defensive lapses they showed throughout the third quarter on Sunday. Simply put, championship teams possess the ability to get stops when they need them; Bryant’s crew was unable to get anything approaching solid on the defensive end until it was much too late and the majority of East Coast viewers had gone to bed. The Lakers’ mission is simple for Tuesday: more layups for Bryant and a stronger commitment to defense from the entire team. Either they do that or they can start making tee-times for Friday morning.
Yes, the Lakers’ comeback would have been incredible, and perhaps they can take some positives or momentum away from their late push. Fortunately for Boston and its fans, those positives are difficult to carry over to Game 3. The 2,500 miles between Boston and Los Angeles is a long way to try to drag fleeting momentum.
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