Rondo needs a jumper against Bryant

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Rondo needs a jumper against Bryant

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

BOSTON There are more than a few reasons to write off Thursday nights loss to the Lakers as insignificant. Not in terms of the standings or playoff seeding, but in terms of how it might affect a potential Finals rematch.

After all, the Celtics were a mess. They were short three seven-footers. They were missing their two most versatile reserves. Of the players who did dress, the C's back-up point guard went down after less than four minutes; both shooting guards and their starting center found foul trouble. Theres only so much one team can take, especially when the two-time defending champs are on the other side.

And while theres no guarantee that the Celtics will be 100 percent healthy should they meet the Lakers again in June, you have to assume theyll be feeling better than they did on Thursday. Theyll have to be. If the Celtics start the playoffs with one center, one point guard, one small forward and a one-man bench, there will be no June. We all know that. So, as a result, theres a temptation to look at Thursdays loss and shrug it off.

Eh, they caught them at a bad time. The win in LA meant more. Those were the real Celtics.

And maybe thats true.

But at the same time, to look at Thursdays loss and just see injuries, foul trouble and tired legs is to overlook the re-occurrence of the Celtics biggest issue when it comes to L.A. A problem thats existed since this rivalry renewed back in 2008, and has persisted for the better part of the last three and a half seasons.

Rajon Rondo. Kobe Bryant. And the defense that drives the Celtics bonkers.

You know the deal by now.

When the Lakers and Celtics meet, Kobe guards Rondo except he doesnt actually guard him. He lets Rondo guard himself. The Lakers have so little respect for Rondo's jump shot that Kobe sags off the Celtics point guard, dares him to shoot, and uses the extra space to wreak havoc on the offense. He doubles the Cs big men, hedges off screens and pretty much just disrupts the overall flow. Bostons half-court offense never looks more inept than it does during those stretches against L.A. and theres no secret to the Lakers success.

Its Rondo, Kobe and that damn defense.

To this you might say, What's the big deal? They still won in 2008 and came within 20 minutes of winning again last year. To which Ill say, youre right. it doesnt always come down to Kobe vs. Rondo. (Although ask yourself, how many memories do you have of Rondo from either of the two NBA Finals, vs. any other roundopponent?)

There are times when the Celtics are more successful in pushing the tempo and get Rondo in transition, and at that point there are few players in the league more dominant. There are times (think Ray Allen in Game Two of last years Finals) when one player will catch fire and neutralize Kobe's ubiquity. There are times (think Game Four of last years Finals) when the games decided by the bench. There are times when, for whatever reason, the Lakers just decide to switch it up and throw a more natural match-up at him.

There are times when the Lakers unique approach doesnt spell disaster.

But there are still so many times when it makes an enormous difference, and after last night, you can add another to the list.

Kobe didnt win the game with his offense, said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after the 92-86 defeat, Kobe won the game today with his defense. I thought defensively he was absolutely phenomenal. He was everywhere. He was trapping. He was helping, you know, off Rondo all night and trapped the post, blocked shots.

Youve heard it all before, and if these two teams meet in the Finals, you'll hear it again. Regardless of whos healthy, fresh or free of foul trouble, Kobe will continue to raise hell. His ability to sag off Rondo will continue to be L.A.'s most consistently successful method for stopping the C's.

Well, unless Rondo can finally develop a jumper.

And really, its about time that he does.

We're talking about one of the best point guards in the league here. A two-time All-Star. Hes a guy who thrives off being the best. He might be the most competitive guy in that locker room, and on this team thats saying a lot.

Yet somehow this is still a problem; somehow he's comfortable with the reality that the Celtics' biggest rival doesn't respect his game enough to play real defense. That doesn't seem right.

And it's not like he has to become Stephon Curry, either. He doesnt need to become a shooter. He just has to develop some semblance of a mid-range game. If only enough to keep them honest.

All it will take is for a guy who has more talent than 95 percent of the league's point guards to develop a skill that 75 percent of them already have. He just needs to somewhat consistently hit a 17-foot jump shot.

That, and the Lakers' most important and devastating strategy is suddenly null and void. The game changes. The rivalry changes.

The Lakers opened up Thursday's game with Kobe on Rondo. One minute into the game, Rondo hit a 19-foot jumper, and on the very next possession they switched Fisher on him. And they stayed that way for a while.

And wouldnt you know, the offense flowed.

After that initial jumper, Rondo only made one more the entire night, and that was with the Lakers up nine with less than three minutes left in the game. The Lakers never had to worry about switching up. And when Kobe wasn't in the game, they used Shannon Brown to the same thing. And the offense stalled.

I dont want to say its that easy, but it at least makes it easier.

Hit a few jumpers and they can't, and wont play as much of that defense.

Does it mean the Celtics win every game? No. Does it mean they definitely wouldve won on Thursday? No. After all, they played without Shaq, Jermaine O'Neal, Semih Erden, Marquis Daniels, Delonte West and Nate Robinson. Plus, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins and Von Wafer were all in foul trouble.

But while the team can and will get healthy, the Kobe problem isnt going anywhere. At least not until that jumper becomes a part of Rondos arsenal.

Listen, Rondo was a soldier on Thursday night. He killed himself for 44 minutes. He kills himself every night. There's no player who's more fun and exciting to watch. There's no player who means more to the Celtics' overall success. Against pretty much every other team in the league, Rondo's game is strong enough to dominate.

But when it comes to the Lakers, for now, there will be nights where it won't be.

And if these two teams meet again in June, those nights take on far more meaning.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Irving takes over in third quarter, Cavs beat Celtics in Game 4, 112-99

Irving takes over in third quarter, Cavs beat Celtics in Game 4, 112-99

CLEVELAND – They had them right where they wanted them.

LeBron James was in foul trouble.

Kyrie Irving had not yet heated up, and the lead hovered above double figures but seemed oh-so-close to creeping upwards of 20 points if the Celtics did a better job of making open shots in the first half.

Those missed shots, combined with a Kyrie Irving takeover in the third quarter, would prove to be part of the narrative for Game 4 – missed opportunities - as the Cavs rallied for a 112-99 Game 4 win.

Cleveland now leads the best-of-seven series 3-1, with a chance to eliminate the Celtics in Boston on Thursday and advance to the NBA Finals where a well-rested Golden State team will be awaiting them.

Irving led all scorers with a playoff career-high 42 points, 21 of which came in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Boston’s Avery Bradley had 19 points while Jae Crowder (18 points), Al Horford (16), and Kelly Olynyk (15) also finished with double figures scoring.

"He put the team on his back," said Tristan Thompson, regarding Irving's play. "He still has another gear."

Boston spent all of the fourth quarter playing from behind, failing to get that necessary made shot or defensive turnover or stop that they needed to slow down Cleveland’s growing momentum.

And with Irving making a slew of clutch baskets that put Cleveland in control, it was James’ turn to put the game away.

He did just that, finishing with 34 points which included 15 in the fourth quarter.

But for a good chunk of Tuesday’s Game 4 matchup, it looked as though the Celtics were coming back to Boston for Game 5 with the series tied up.

It was an odd game for sure, with nothing being any stranger than LeBron James being whistled for not one, not two, not three, but four personal fouls … in the first half.

The fourth came when he was whistled for an offensive foul against Terry Rozier with 6:46 to play and Boston ahead by 10 points.

With James on the bench, Cleveland managed to play Boston to a standstill as the half ended with the Celtics still leading by 10 points (57-47).

Cleveland slowly crept back in the game in the third, and eventually went ahead 73-72 following a pair of free throws by James with 3:15 to play in the quarter.

The Cavs were able to lead by as many as five points in the third quarter which ended with Cleveland ahead 87-80 as Irving scored the last 14 points for Cleveland which included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that would be the final points scored in the quarter.

Cleveland’s strong finish to the third was a striking contrast to how the game began.

Boston got off to its best start in this series after a 3-pointer by Jae Crowder put the Celtics ahead 18-11.

The Celtics went ahead 22-13 after a pair of free throws by Jonas Jerebko and would eventually lead by as many as 16 points.

Meanwhile, James – the man Crowder was defending most of the time early on – had six points in the first quarter on 3-for-7 shooting.

Halftime stars, studs and duds: LeBron in foul trouble

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Halftime stars, studs and duds: LeBron in foul trouble

CLEVELAND – Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from the first half of Game 4 between Boston and Cleveland in which the Celtics have a 57-47 halftime lead.

 

STARS

Avery Bradley

His aggressiveness at both ends of the floor has been key to Boston’s strong first half showing. He has 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting.

Kyrie Irving

With LeBron James in major foul trouble – he had four personal fouls in the first half – Irving was charged with picking up the slack, scoring 12 of his 18 points in the second quarter.

 

STUDS

Jae Crowder

He had the hot hand at the start of the game, and has been solid at both ends of the floor. He had 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting with four rebounds and three assists.

Kevin Love

He continues to get great looks from 3-point range, but the Celtics did a better job of limiting his long-range scoring opportunities. He had 10 points along with seven rebounds and three assists.

Kelly Olynyk

Making his first-ever playoff start, Olynyk had a solid half with eight points, four rebounds and three assists.

 

DUDS

LeBron James

He was 5-for-9 from the field with 10 points in the first half, but spent a large chunk on the bench after being whistled for his fourth personal foul with 6:46 to play in the half.