Celtics and Lakers Injuries Send Them in Opposite Directions

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A lot of people haven’t asked me why the Celtics have (so far) succeeded without Rondo, while the Lakers have suffered with their various stars injured (Nash, Howard, and Gasol have all missed significant time this year).  Thank you all for choosing not to burden me with your curiosity.  As a reward I shall provide you the answers free of charge.  I anticipate your needs like a thoughtful momma bear digging a warm cave for the long winter hibernation.  Now sit still and eat 40 pounds of salmon and blackberries and read this post.

Paul and I were taping a very whiny chat, like Danny Ainge level whininess, while the Celtics slogged out their win against the Heat in Rondo’s first missed game, when I told him, that I thought the Cs would be better off.  Sounds like a joke, but I actually meant it.  My rationale, which Steve Kerr and Kevin Garnett both brought up during last night’s game, is this: adversity causes teams to react in one of two ways.  Either everyone takes responsibility and steps up together or everyone looks to a leader to step up for them.

In the history of the Garnett Celtics, they have generally been a group to face adversity as a unit.  The dynamic of having three hall-of-famers willing to defer to each other in different ways gave them a reason to find team solutions.  However, as Pierce and KG have aged, and Allen left for Miami, the team has fallen into relying on Rondo to carry them through hard times.

I don’t believe this one-player reliance works in the long run.  Some players might have the wherewithal to step up and take an important playoff game or two basically on their own effort, talent, and desire.  LeBron did it in Game 6 against Boston last year.  Jordan’s last game as a Bull where he dropped 45 points and hit the game-winner in Salt Lake City is another example.  But overall no single player can consistently be the answer when the going gets tough.  Russ’s Celtics proved that by regularly defeating Wilt’s teams in the playoffs.  The Pistons proved it with the Jordan Rules.  These Celtics proved it with their success against LeBron’s Cavs.  Several teams proved it by keeping the title away from Kareem in his heyday in the 1970s.  Now consider that Rajon is certainly no Wilt, MJ, LBJ, or Kareem, and the idea of falling back on him to bail out the Cs just doesn’t seem possible.

With Rondo out of the line-up, Boston has gotten back to a total group effort.  The ball is moving freely on offense, and the players who have been passive or strictly off the ball workers like KG, Green, Lee, and Bradley have become aggressive and engaged at that end of the floor.  The team defense has ticked up a notch as well both because of a group-wide sense of urgency, and because the team’s best defensive guards, Avery and Courtney, are playing a ton of minutes together (Avery and Courtney sound like the name of a double-dutch jump rope team).  The Cs have won 6 games in a row including victories over Miami and the Lakers.  As long as Pierce and KG stay healthy (big question marks as their minutes may have to increase), the team should remain competitive and dangerous.

The Lakers have a little more star power than the Celtics, but that doesn’t seem to be helping them to stay team-focused.  The temptation to rely on the greatness of Bryant is too strong even with Howard and Nash on the floor.  Kobe has been phenomenal this season both as a scorer and as a distributor.  He’s done his job, playing aggressive basketball and scoring in one-on-one matchups or finding the open man when defenses double team him.  The only criticism I could level at Kobe on offense this season is that he does force the action against tough single coverage when he could move the ball and allow his teammates to find a better shot.  However, he’s hitting tough covered shots at an incredible rate, and his teammates aren’t exactly clamoring to make plays for themselves, so it’s tough to put that on Bryant.

LA has found most of its success by getting good ball-distribution.  Having Pau in the line-up is a big help because he’s such a good passer from the blocks and the elbow.  Minutes for Clark and Jamison are good because they are decisive with the ball.  Howard is crucial to their rebounding and defense, and the low post attention he draws is great for their spacing.  MWP has been much more aggressive and working more as a playmaker than he did under Phil Jackson in the triple post offense.  However, whether due to D’Antoni’s scheme or simply the personality of the players involved, everything starts with Bryant.  And just like Boston with Rondo, it’s tough to have great success when the decision-making is isolated that way.

Defensively the problems are similar in LA.  We like to point out individual failings.  Kobe takes too many possessions off conserving energy for offense.  Nash is just a weak defender.  Pau, Dwight, and Metta seem slower than in previous seasons.  Jamison is an aging tweener with no natural defensive matchup.  Clark is athletic but inexperienced.  But none of those problems is anywhere near as crucial as the lack of unity on defense.  NBA scorers cannot be stopped consistently in one-on-one matchups.  Nobody can stay in front of speedy point guards.  Nobody can cover crafty wings coming off pick and roll action alone.  It’s important for each player to take personal responsibility for his individual matchup by playing with effort and energy, but the results come from timely rotations, secondary reactions, and covering for each other in transition, and those aspects of the Lakers’ defense have been lacking.

Objectively, the Lakers without Gasol probably have a better roster than the Celtics without Rondo, but the Celtics have the better team.  Losing their leader forces Boston come together and play as a unit.  Losing one of their 4 stars convinces the Lakers to lean more heavily on Bryant.  Most of the time, and in last night’s game, a united front defeats a group of talented individuals.

I have a feeling that the key to the Lakers is going to be Steve Nash taking some of the leadership responsibility from Kobe.  That team needs everyone to believe in each other and trust each other at both ends, and that may require a uniting force in the locker room.  Odom and Fisher used to do that for the Lakers, allowing Bryant to be the hard-assed cop who stayed on everybody and motivated with pressure and intimidation – much the way Pippen operated on the Bulls so that Jordan could unleash his hyper-competitiveness to bring up the play of his teammates.  If Nash can use his usually positive influence to inspire the team to play for each other, they could still salvage this season.

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