Publish date:

Lakers shed 'soft' label for one night, outmuscle Celtics in Game 5



That was the word used most frequently to describe the Lakers' style of play during the 2008 NBA Finals.

Pau Gasol was soft. The lanky Lakers center spent the better part of the first four games of the series sandwiched between a Celtic and the rim. And it wasn't just Kevin Garnett doing it; James Posey, P.J. Brown and Ray Allen each took turns muscling Gasol.

Lamar Odom was soft. Perhaps trying to get a jump start on his reincarnation as a small forward next season (when center Andrew Bynum returns from a knee injury), Odom played the first four games of the series like he was allergic to contact.

Vladimir Radmanovic. Soft. Sasha Vujacic. Soft. Luke Walton. Soft.

So what happened in Game 5?

The Lakers toughened up.

SI Recommends

How? Two words.

Kendrick Perkins.

If you're just looking at box scores, Perkins is easy to miss: The Celtics' starting center is averaging just 6.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in the postseason. But the contributions of Perkins, who missed Sunday night's Game 5 with a shoulder injury, go beyond the numbers.

He is the yin to Garnett's yang in the Boston frontcourt, a burly presence willing to mix it up with the most physical opposing big man, leaving Garnett to roam free on defense -- if Garnett had given an Academy Award-style speech after winning Defensive Player of the Year, Perkins would have been the first person he would have thanked -- and conserve valuable energy for the offensive end. That's the dynamic in great frontcourts. Jermaine O'Neal had Brad Miller in Indiana. Garnett has Perkins.

With Perkins sidelined, the Lakers suddenly morphed into a physical team. Gasol (19 points, 13 rebounds) looked rugged. Odom (20, 11) had an edge to him. The Lakers won the rebounding battle (40-37) for just the second time this series, while keeping the likes of Garnett and Paul Pierce busy on the defensive glass. It didn't help that Perkins' replacements, Leon Powe (zero points, two rebounds) and P.J. Brown (four points, three rebounds), were non-factors.

"That's the reason guys start," said Garnett. "Perk is a physical guy. He plays the post better than anyone in this league."

"I guess they did miss him," acknowledged Gasol. "He's a bigger presence than their other guys. They were forced to go into a smaller lineup, which sometimes is good and it could be helpful to their team; but having a bigger body out there is a positive thing. And Perkins has been playing well for them all playoff long."

Perkins' playoff run, however, may be over. Perkins dislocated the same shoulder in 2006, an injury that eventually required surgery. Prior to Game 5, Celtics coach Doc Rivers called Perkins "doubtful" for Game 6, an indication that his season may be over. If it is, the Celtics will look to Powe, Brown and rookie Glen Davis. As backups, that's a tough troika. As starters? A little iffy. Either way, with Perkins on the shelf, Boston will now have to find some way --wait for it -- to match the Lakers' physical play.

"We have to have more physicality to us," said Rivers. "I thought [the Lakers] started out the game more physical. They posted when they wanted to post. They caught the ball in the spots they wanted to catch the ball on. I thought they forced us off our spots offensively. We told them before the game, this was going to be a game of who could invade the other person's space, and I thought they invaded our space."