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Bob Ryan

Out West, their game went south

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2008

LOS ANGELES - This one screamed for tape delay. This was not exactly a great demonstration of the product.

The Lakers won it, but how happy can they be, needing all that huffing and puffing to put away a Celtics team on a night when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are shooting 8 for 35?

As for the Celtics, what a stinkbomb.

What else do you need to know? Oh, that's right, the score. It was Los Angeles 87, Boston 81, and what it means is that there will be a Game 5.

"It was not a beautiful ballgame," acknowledged Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had no cause to say anything about the officiating after this one. "That's a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. Short rest period. There should have been a day off, probably, between the transition between coasts.

"But we'll have a day to catch up tomorrow, and, hopefully, both of us will play better basketball Thursday night."

It was one of those coulda/woulda games for the Celtics, who had gained at least moderate control of things during the third period, and were still leading by 2 at 68-66 with 7:59 to go. But it was not a shoulda game. No way anyone in the Celtics camp could possibly have the audacity to claim that they should have won this game.

One sequence encapsulated it all. After being down by 7 at 77-70, the Celtics had crawled back to a 2-point deficit, and were in possession of the ball with 2:17 to go when Eddie House - remember him? - missed a nice little 13-footer in the lane. OK, he's human. That wasn't the problem.

The problem was that at the other end, the Celtics committed a completely unforgivable sin. Sasha Vujacic had been the second-best LA player (no need to ask who was the best). He had already scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He had swished a pair of threes and a couple of very long twos, and he was the one man who simply could not be left alone on what was, quite simply, the single biggest defensive moment of the game for the Boston Celtics.

But he was left completely alone in the left corner, and he seized his moment, drilling a three that made it a 5-point game and enabled the Lakers to play from a comfort zone for the remainder of the contest.

Leaving him alone at that moment was absolutely criminal. You deserve no sympathy when you do something like that.

A strong case can be made that the Celtics blew a tremendous opportunity.

"Either that, or they should have blown us out," said Doc Rivers. "I thought our defense was pretty good, but our offense was not. Paul has a night like he had [2 for 14, and no jump shots], and Kevin had a game like he had [6 for 21], but we had a chance to steal the game."

Of course, to do that, you can't leave a great shooter having a hot night alone, but I think we've already covered that.

But Vujacic deserves his say. This may have been his seminal game as a Laker, and that big three was the killer basket in the game.

"Those are the shots I live for, honestly," he said. "They double-teamed Kobe, Lamar [Odom] got the ball, and he found me in the corner and I was wide open. I had the opportunity to make a shot, I made it, and we got the W."

Yes, they did. The Lakers came out and did what they had to do, forcing the action and getting themselves to the foul line. Kobe Bryant had a nice, controlled Kobe Bryant game, shooting a steady 12 for 20 en route to a 36-point evening during which he mixed drives with mid-range jumpers and one very big three, a wide-open straightaway shot that salvaged a wild broken play and put the Lakers ahead to stay at 69-68 with 6:57 to go.

But even Kobe had his shaky moments. As a rule, if Kobe gets 18 free throws in a game, he is going to score 40 points. But he missed seven free throws in this one. The Lakers were atrocious as a team, making only 21 of 34. On a normal evening, they would have had a double-digit triumph.

It was just a bad, bad game from the start. The Celtics shot horribly in the first quarter (8 for 25), but they came out of it tied at 20. They were down by 6 (43-37) at the break, with only Ray Allen of the Big Three having anything approaching a normal game. Both teams were making bad decisions on offense, and there was even a surprising amount of air balls and ugly shots.

But somebody's negativity was going to prevail. And that team was Boston.

Garnett eventually had a little burst of excellence, but Pierce never did. There was a lot of talk about Pierce coming back home to LA for his first Finals game, but after the way he played last night, he'll be fortunate if Mom doesn't lock him out of the house.

His jump shot never checked in, period, his only two baskets coming on excursions to the hoop. And when the team needed intelligent, poised possessions after getting the LA lead down to 2 at 78-76, he made two bad plays, first trying a difficult alley-oop pass to Garnett and then forcing a wrap-around pass in traffic on the next possession.

Jackson pointed out that he had Kobe, his best defensive player, on Pierce for key stretches.

"Putting Kobe on Pierce was the difference in tonight's game," noted the Zenmaster. "It was more difficult for him to work to get free. He still had, I thought, some instrumental plays down the stretch. But it made a difference for us tonight."

"I just tried to stay with him," Kobe said. "He's a tough cover. He's a bad boy."

Not last night, he wasn't. He was just bad, period, and so were the Celtics as a group. "Stealing" this one really would have been a crime.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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