Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers are teetering on the brink of disaster
Anything with this much drama needs to be played out in Hollywood, so Lakers-Celtics resumes exactly where it ought to . . . with greater Los Angeles freaking out, with Kobe Bryant saying his team's defense is so MIA it belongs "on a milk carton the last two games," with the Lakers' shot selection totally out-of-whack, with the Celtics defense laying the wood, with Coach Phil Jackson trying to motivate his Lakers by reminding them how many regular season leads the Celtics choked on, and perhaps most surprisingly with Coach Doc Rivers taking it to the Zen Master for the second straight time in the NBA Finals.
The Boston Celtics aren't just up 3-2 , they're in control of the Finals, one victory away from a second championship in three years and one victory away from beating the Lakers to do it, which is pretty much how the Celtics built their history. Once again, the Celtics are pushing the Lakers around, laughing off the notions of old age and that Kobe Bryant can single-handedly beat them with prolific scoring outbursts.
One Lakers victory at home, where they will be favored to win Tuesday night in Game 6, will put them back in the driver's seat. But that one victory suddenly seems like a lot to ask. Center Andrew Bynum, whom the Lakers desperately need to shut down the middle defensively, is hobbling and struggling to log anything more than sparse minutes the past two games. Rivers's strategy, to employ a rope-a-dope defense that encourages Kobe to punch himself out while his teammates have zero impact, is working like a dream. Ron Artest, if he can't stop Paul Pierce, is a liability; the Celtics pray he'll swish a three-pointer early in the game so he'll take the bait and keep firing, ill-advisedly.
The biggest of these problems may be what to do about the scoring imbalance. For consecutive games, Kobe and Pau Gasol have been the only Lakers to score more than 10 points. Lamar Odom took only six shots in Game 5. Derek Fisher is 0-for-the-series on three-pointers. We're back to a familiar place with the Lakers: Is Kobe being too selfish (27 shots in Game 5) or are his teammates shrinking from the moment? Privately, the Celtics thought a non-supportive performance in Game 5 would have Kobe fuming at his teammates and they were right.
Whether Kobe is shooting too much or the others not enough, the bottom line is: It doesn't work for Kobe to score 44 percent of the Lakers' points, as was the case Sunday night. Not against a defense this good. People with short memories don't remember how much more effortlessly Michael Jordan got easier shots against tough defenses than Kobe does. While there's no designated defensive ace playing for the Celtics (well, maybe Tony Allen), the Celtics do have several players (Ray and Tony Allen, Pierce) willing to take on Kobe on-one-one, so the defense isn't compromised by excessive double-teaming.
Rivers has been superb at finding one significant weakness in an opponent and then exploiting that weakness to death. The great soloists seem to have no chance against the Celtics' defense in the playoffs, from Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to Dwight Howard to Kobe Bryant. And the same way Rivers convinced his team that guarding those players with one man in order to more easily smother their teammates was the best approach, he's gotten them to understand that Kobe going for 38 or 40 points means nothing if the other Lakers are choked off. So while Jackson was trying to rally his team around an out-of-date point, that the Celtics choke on big leads, Rivers was rallying his around the fact that Kobe can't score enough by himself to beat the Celtics' defense, which suddenly looks like the 2008 defense.
And even if Phil Jackson can fix his offense in the precious little time the Lakers will have had to prepare between coming home from Boston and Game 6 tip-off, he really would have to be a whiz to do that and get the Lakers to refocus on defense after allowing the Celtics to shoot 66 percent the first half Sunday night and 56 percent for the game.
If the Celtics get decent or better performances from three of the Big Four (Rajon Rondo, Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen), Boston is going to win its second championship in three years and 18th overall. The Lakers simply don't seem to have that many players to count on at once; they've been content to ride two: Kobe and Gasol.
Rivers said at the start of the series that the back-and-forth of the competition would not lead him to a bunch of adjustments and adaptations, that "doing what we do smarter, doing it harder" would provide whatever answers the Celtics would need. It was Jackson who said he thought on-the-fly adjustments would be necessary, and here he is, one game from elimination. His opponent is absolutely certain it has found the path to a championship, leaving Jackson and the Lakers to strategize and counterpunch as they try to figure out what they have to do to stay alive at least one more night.