It loomed as the biggest defensive question. How were the Celtics going to handle Kobe Bryant, the NBA's most prolific scorer?
The approach seemed simple enough. When one man isn't enough, throw two or three at him. The Celtics used a little bit of everyone to challenge Bryant last night as Paul Pierce, James Posey, and Ray Allen all took the assignment of guarding the Lakers star during a 98-88 victory in Game 1 at TD Banknorth Garden.
Bryant may have been crowded most of the night, but he still managed 24 points on 9-of-26 shooting from the field. He was 6 for 6 from the free throw line and 0 for 3 from 3-point range.
Bryant stopped short of crediting the Celtics' defense with altering his shot selection.
"I just missed some really, really good looks," Bryant said. "I'll be thinking about those a little bit tonight."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson thought Bryant believed he was shooting the ball well, but many of those shots were just rimming out.
Pierce said the Celtics were more interested in keeping Bryant guessing. Posey could be effective with his long, 6-foot-8-inch frame, Pierce could challenge Bryant by being physical, and Allen represented a combination of both traits.
"I just wanted to make him work, and that's what we tried to do," Pierce said. "We threw numerous defenders at him, and we just gave him a different look. We're all different types of defenders . . . We wanted to give him different looks and keep him uncomfortable . . . We just tried to stay in front of him as much as you can, and that's what we were able to do."
When Bryant thought he was alone, the white shirts swarmed in and he was forced to pass; he tied Derek Fisher for the team lead with six assists. If it wasn't one of the aforementioned three standing in his way, it was Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, or P.J. Brown who kept Bryant from cruising to the basket.
Bryant has averaged 31.9 points in the playoffs and the Celtics have taken pride in their defense, although at times during the playoffs the unit has been seriously challenged.
From the opening minutes, the Celtics seemed to know exactly how they wanted to handle Bryant. In the first quarter he stumbled, hitting just 2 of 8 for 4 points.
Allen said that given his history of defending Bryant, he knew he was in for an intense matchup. When it came to the two meetings during the regular season, Allen said before the game there was nothing he could derive from those victories. The Celtics may have recorded double-digit victories in November and December, but that was a long time ago.
"It's a great feeling to know that we as a team had a pretty good concept team defense-wise," Allen said.
Celtics guard Tony Allen, who played quite a bit against the Lakers during the regular season and had a chance to defend Bryant, said the team's concept worked.
"We're living with Kobe Bryant getting his numbers, ain't no stopping that," said Allen, who didn't play last night. "All we could do is try to lock in on those other guys on the team and make sure they're not big factors in the game. . . . It ain't about our defenders on Kobe, it's about the Celtics and the Lakers."
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org