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Sizing up the reasons

Rebounding big element of loss

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — The fourth quarter, the game, the series, and the season came down to three things.

Fatigue. Rebounding. Free throws.

With less than a minute left in their season and the Celtics in desperation mode, all three factors seemed to kill them on one play in their 83-79 Game 7 loss to the Lakers Thursday night.

Ray Allen, though he finished 3 of 14, had just knocked down a 3-pointer with 51.3 seconds left. But everything seemed to move in slow motion as the Celtics got back to play defense.

Allen (925), Paul Pierce (930), and Rajon Rondo (975) had played more minutes than anyone in the playoffs. When it came down to their last minute, though, not even desperate adrenaline could mask the exhaustion.

Lamar Odom pushed it up the floor, and Rondo left his man, Derek Fisher, to try to stop the ball. The Celtics’ defense never seemed set. Odom gave the ball to Kobe Bryant at the top of the key, and Rondo stayed with Odom and Pau Gasol in the paint.

Rebounding had decided every game, and when Bryant missed a 3-pointer, the Celtics had a chance to grab the rebound for a possible tying possession. But Rondo wasn’t going to win a battle for a rebound over the 7-foot Gasol, who ripped the ball away and kicked it out to Bryant.

Bryant, meanwhile, was shooting as poorly as he had all series from the floor, firing 24 shots and missing 18. But he made up for it at the free throw line (11 of 15). The Lakers ultimately buried the Celtics in free throws, getting to the line more than twice as often (37 attempts to 17).

If he had to pinpoint how it fell apart for his team after taking a 13-point lead in the third quarter, those were the things Celtics coach Doc Rivers focused on.

“I thought the lack of size at the end of the day was the difference in the game,’’ said Rivers, whose team was outrebounded, 53-40, in Game 7. “I thought our guys battled down there, but 23-8, you know, on offensive rebounds, and then the 37-17 discrepancy in free throws, that makes it almost impossible to overcome.’’

Kevin Garnett acknowledged the impact of the rebounding, but looking at the numbers — the Lakers missed 16 3-pointers and shot 32.5 percent overall — he found it hard to see how it added up to a loss.

“That was pretty bad, but not only that, they went to the line, I think, 20 more times than we did,’’ Garnett said. “When you looked at the numbers and what they shot. They shot 32 percent. They shot 20 [percent] from the 3-point line and their free throw percentage wasn’t all that well. But evidently it was enough to beat us.’’

The free throws were out of the Celtics’ control. Through three quarters, the game was called fairly loosely. The Celtics took 11 free throws to the Lakers’ 16. But things tightened up in the fourth, Los Angeles attempting 21 free throws to Boston’s six.

The Celtics controlled the pace, holding the Lakers to 31 percent shooting going into the fourth, and were able to play the way they wanted offensively.

“We liked the game,’’ Rivers said. “We liked the game plan going in. We got Rondo on the break. We knew with Rasheed [Wallace] and Kevin on the floor that we would get more at-the-basket attacks because of the spacing on the floor.’’

But they let the Lakers put up a big number in the fourth, as LA outscored Boston, 30-22, with more than half its points coming from the line (16 made free throws). Still, for a Celtics team anchored by its defense, it was tough to see that defense break down when it mattered most.

“They scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, and for us, a defensive group, that’s the toughest part to swallow, that we gave up 30 points,’’ Rivers said. “We scored 22, but we gave up 30.’’

As lethal as he had been, Bryant, the Finals MVP who had torched the Celtics for at least 30 points three times during the series, seemed like a relative nonfactor.

“If you would have said Kobe shot the way he shot, I would have taken that,’’ Glen Davis said. “Kobe didn’t beat us, it was the rebounding.’’

For the series, the Lakers grabbed 297 rebounds to the Celtics’ 265. They made 153 of 200 free throws, the Celtics made 115 of 149. But those weren’t the numbers the Celtics wanted to look at.

“It came down to the last two minutes, man,’’ Garnett said. “You know it came down to two minutes.’’

The Game 7 telecast on ABC was the network’s most-watched NBA Finals game ever, drawing an 18.2 rating and 28.2 million viewers. In Boston, the rating was a 34.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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