By Rich Levine
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.