Lakers coach Phil Jackson basically described Game 1 of the NBA Finals as “the tale of two halves.” Luckily for the defensive-minded Celtics, the better half for them was the latter one.
In their first Finals game since 1987, the Celtics used a smothering defense in the second half to defeat the Lakers, 98-88, in Game 1 at TD Banknorth Garden.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday night.
The storied Celtics-Lakers rivalry marked matchup No. 11 in the Finals.
”Well, it was only in the second half,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, about his team’s defensive play. “We didn’t play any in the first half. We didn’t get back in the first half. We gambled in the first half. We gave them uncontested shots in the first half. In the second half, we did our jobs.”
The Lakers had averaged a playoff-best 105.9 points while league MVP Kobe Bryant averaged a playoff-best 31.9 points. The Celtics, however, had allowed only 87.3 points, the best in the postseason.
But last night the Lakers shot 41.6 percent from the field (32 of 77) and were held to close to 18 points below their scoring average. The Lakers missed 11 of 14 3-point attempts, had only 2 fast-break points and 4 second-chance points. The Celtics outrebounded the Lakers, 46-33, and limited the visitors to 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 1 of 9 on threes in the second half.
”I thought we didn’t get after the ball on the boards and opportunities that were there for us,” Jackson said. “They did a much better job on the boards. That’s the difference in the ballgame.”
Bryant missed 17 of 26 shots, made all six free throw attempts, and scored 24 points. In the fourth quarter, he was held to 4 points on 1-of-6 shooting and two free throws, and had zero rebounds.
”I had some great looks, they just didn’t stay down,” Bryant said.
Kevin Garnett had 24 points and 13 rebounds. Paul Pierce returned from a right knee sprain suffered in the third quarter to finish with 22 points and he hit three 3-pointers.
The Lakers held a 51-46 halftime lead after shooting 50 percent from the field and making 11 of 14 free throws. The Celtics shot 45 percent and missed 8 of 9 3-point attempts in the first half. Garnett had 16 points and six rebounds at halftime, and Rajon Rondo added 10 points.
The Lakers had only 2 second-chance points in the first half. Bryant had 8 points on 3-of-10 shooting and Derek Fisher (15 points) and Pau Gasol (12) were in double figures.
”We had some control in the first half, played the kind of game we wanted to play,” Jackson said.
With 11:15 left in the third quarter, Pierce was fouled by Vladimir Radmanovic before nailing a 3-pointer. He nailed the free throw to give Boston a 54-53 lead. After Bryant’s jumper with 6:52 left in the third gave the Lakers a 62-58 lead, Kendrick Perkins ran into Pierce while trying to block the shot. Pierce appeared to injure his right knee.
He was motionless on the floor and screamed in pain as trainer Ed Lacerte and team doctor Brian McKeon attended to him. Teammates Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen carried Pierce to a wheelchair that transported him to the locker room. “I thought that was it,” Pierce said. “A lot of things [were] going through my mind. I thought I tore something. Once I heard the pop, and I couldn’t move it at first, I thought that was it.”
With about 6:15 left in the third, Perkins injured his left ankle and went to the locker room shortly after.
But the crowd went wild as Pierce returned with a brace on his right knee. He reentered the game with the Celtics leading, 63-62, with 5:04 left. Perkins returned to the bench with 3:40 remaining and the Celtics ahead, 68-67.
”I thought [Pierce] moved well,” Rivers said. “I was watching him, and if he didn’t move well I was going to take him out, and we have until Sunday to get him right, and that was my thinking. But then he moved OK, so it was no big deal.”
Two straight Pierce 3-pointers gave the Celtics a 75-71 lead with 1:04 remaining in the third. Pierce went back to the locker room with 38.6 seconds left.
”Pierce was back on the floor in three minutes, so he wasn’t that long out of the game,” Jackson said. “He came back and hit two threes. I think that was a big momentum change in the game.”
Pierce returned to the bench with 10:07 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Celtics up, 81-77. With Pierce on the bench, James Posey nailed a wide-open 3-pointer with 8:44 remaining to give the Celtics an 86-78 advantage. Pierce and Bryant returned with Boston up, 86-82, with 5:48 left.
Pierce nailed two free throws with 3:34 left to give Boston a 90-82 lead, but Lamar Odom’s 3-point play sliced LA’s deficit to 5 with 2:57 remaining. After a missed jumper by Posey, Garnett dunked over Gasol with two hands to bump the lead to 94-86 with 1:32 left.
Bryant made two free throws with 1:21 left to make it 94-88, but Garnett did the same with 1:01 remaining. After the Lakers missed two straight 3-pointers, Ray Allen (5-of-13 shooting, 19 points) was fouled and nailed two free throws with 16.6 seconds left to give Boston a comfortable 10-point lead.
”They finished the game strong and they rebounded the ball better than we did tonight, and we’ll have to do a better job there,” Jackson said.