Rivers Giveth And Taketh Away
Players, coaches and even fans will agree that playoff basketball is an entirely different animal than the regular season. The game slows down, the fouls are harder and each and every possession carries a heightened importance. Whereas in the regular season teams have the luxury of playing a different team every other night, in the playoffs, two teams will battle each other over the span of 7-10 days. Counting the times these teams meet in the regular season, by the time they play these two or three additional games, it is safe to say that there are little to no surprises.
In these playoff situations, there is one element that can be the difference between a team coming up short and a team finding a way to pull the game, and that is coaching. It’s not so much the coach’s game plan that influences the outcome of a game, but rather the adjustments and readjustments that are made on the fly. Phil Jackson has been a master at this during his championship runs with the Bulls and the Lakers. In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Doc Rivers showed that he too could master this, when he stuck with Leon Powe in the Celtics victory; however, in the Celtics’ 87-81 Game 3 loss to the Lakers, Rivers made two glaring coaching errors that cost his team a golden opportunity to steal the game.
In the first half, as was to be expected, the Lakers played with lots of energy, and Kobe Bryant was in Michael Jordan mode, as evidenced by his 17 first half points and numerous trips to the line. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were not contributing much, but the outside shooting of Ray Allen and the crafty play of Rajon Rondo were keeping the Celtics in the game. For the Celtics to have withstood the emotional wave the Lakers were riding, and to only be down six points, was nothing short of a miracle.
Forty-five seconds into the second half, Rajon Rondo rolled his ankle while leading the fast break and Doc Rivers made the wise decision to bring in Eddie House, instead of the Sam Cassell, who had fallen deeply in love with his own shot in the first half. The score at that point was 43-37 in the Lakers’ favor. Bryant had been guarding Rondo in the first half, and was able to play the role of safety, since Rondo had not proven to be a consistent threat from the perimeter. He kept one eye on Rondo, but his main role was to be a disruptive force in the post, on the perimeter, and any other ground he could cover. As ABC’s Mark Jackson astutely pointed out, House’s range begins when he walks in the gym, so Bryant could not defend him the same way. Instantly, the fluidity in the Celtics offense picked up a notch.
Since Bryant was not around to clog up the lane by sagging off of Rondo, Kendrick Perkins was able to set up in the post, and get comfortable for the first time since the Detroit series. Ray Allen continued his hot shooting from the perimeter, but with the lane a little more free, he was able to get a few layups as well. Kevin Garnett, who had struggled mightily in the first half, found himself establishing a bit of rhythm with his shot. Rivers’ decision to insert House into the game had allowed Boston to go from six points down, to leading by one point, and you could see the momentum falling in Boston’s favor.
ESPN’s sideline reporter Michele Tafoya mentioned that Rondo was well enough to come back into the game about five minutes after he went to the locker room, but curiously he had yet to enter the game, despite the team doctors declaring him ready. Rivers, like everyone else, probably saw the marked difference in not only his team, but in the Lakers defense; however, 7:58 left in the fourth quarter, in the heat of battle, Rivers made the decision to insert the cold Rondo who had been out for nearly a quarter and a half.
Rondo’s reappearance meant the shots were less open, as Bryant resumed his role as all around disruptor. Garnett started to miss the very shots he hit earlier in the half. Even the once hot Ray Allen was no longer getting the same looks. Yes, the Lakers’ increased intensity accounted for some of their misses, but it was no coincidence that it happened upon House’s exit and Rondo entrance. In the three and a half minutes or so that House was on the bench, the Celtics went from being up one, to down five. By the time House was brought back in the game with 4:24 left, the Lakers had already found their stride and fire that had been lacking for the majority of the half, and the Celtics lost theirs. Rivers decision to enter Rondo had cost the Celtics a chance to maintain the momentum and steal the game.
Even with Rivers’ error, the Celtics still had an outside chance to steal the game with 21 seconds remaining. Garnett had just turned the ball over, but the Celtics were only down six, and House and Allen were viable three point threats, one would think that Rivers would be screaming for his players to foul. The Lakers had shot a paltry 61% from the free throw line up to that point, and the normally accurate Bryant had missed seven free throws after having come into the game hitting 17 straight. Still, Rivers did not insist that his team foul, and the only reason they got the ball back with six seconds left, was because Lamar Odom committed an offensive foul. At that point it was too little, too late and the game could not be salvaged.
If there was a game to be stolen for Boston this was definitely it. Pau Gasol and Odom had average nights, the game was low scoring, and they were able to keep it close despite the cold shooting of Garnett and Pierce. Yes, Bryant, and to a lesser extent, Vujacic were playing exceptionally well, but the Celtics had the lead, in a hostile environment, in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers and their crowd were visibly nervous. Doc Rivers let them off the hook with two questionable decisions, and instead of possibly talking sweep, the Celtics now have to figure out how to stop the Lakers’ momentum to keep the series from being tied… or worse.
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