Fans of Lakers-Celtics past will be reminded of the 1984 Finals, when Boston appeared grossly outmatched in the opener, yet stole Game 2 on its way to a championship in seven games. This Game 2 was robbed in a different way by Rajon Rondo (another postseason triple-double of 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) and Ray Allen (a Finals-record eight threes among his 32 points), who had not been in a happy place over the two days that preceded this 103-94 win.
"Anything else going on in my life is put on hold because it's hard to focus on anything else,'' said Allen, who had been limited by foul trouble in Game 1 (12 points in 27 minutes). "Like I tried to play golf a couple of days ago, and I really couldn't focus on it because my mind was thinking every second, 'How am I going to guard Kobe [Bryant] on this play'? Certain opportunities that we need to do, how we're going to guard Gasol in the post, so many different things. Whatever I'm doing, I might be spaced out. Somebody might be asking me a question and I'm not right there at that moment.''
But he was there anytime Rondo asked anything of him Sunday. Each question was delivered with a pass in transition, and each time Allen knew the answer. He hit his first seven threes to tie the Finals record from the arc with 26 minutes still to play, and so did he plant a flag on enemy territory in the name of resiliency and versatility. Want to blunt Rondo's drives by shifting Bryant onto him defensively? Then the Celtics will exploit Allen's four-inch height advantage over Derek Fisher.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was in a surprisingly relaxed mood after surrendering homecourt advantage, saw Allen winning his matchup against Fisher long before Rondo's passes arrived. Jackson referred to the fouls whistled against Fisher away from the ball, as he fought through screens like a cop chasing a robber through a nightmarish sequence of alleys. "When [the referees] take away any bumps, when Fish is trying to make [Allen] divert his path and they don't allow that -- they call fouls on Fish -- that really makes it difficult,'' said Jackson. "Are they going to allow us to take direct-line cuts away from [Allen] so he has to divert his route? Then Fish has got to play from behind all the time.''
The larger turn of events, hidden among Allen's curls and flash-out threes, is that Game 2 was divided unevenly according to height. The Lakers' 7-footers were unstoppable stoppers, and one should think their advantage inside would put L.A. over the top. Gasol and Bynum together blocked 13 shots -- every Celtic but Rasheed Wallace and Nate Robinson suffered at least one block in this game -- while assessing fouls to everyone from Garnett to Kendrick Perkins to 6-9 Glen Davis, who in the first half looked incapable of defending or scoring inside against either Bynum (21 points on 10 shots) or Gasol (25 on 10). Though Davis recovered to make a positive second-half impact, the Lakers nonetheless outscored their guests by 11 points at the foul line -- thanks to the 25 free throws attempted by their two big men.
For all of the talk of Boston's paint defense, Los Angeles has been the more physical team throughout these two games. (Now I'm going to shout hopelessly into the wind: Can the referees please lighten up? These two games have been blighted by 134 attempted free throws. One hundred thirty-four in 96 minutes! I registered this complaint immediately after Game 2 to a senior NBA officer, but my reading of his response is that the league is concerned more than anything about preventing a brawl between these two highlyambitious teams; to enable them to play freely could encourage one hard foul to lead to a harder foul and so on. But it remains ashame that these games are being played to a stop-and-go tempo as if orchestrated by traffic cops' whistles.)
The Lakers' advantages inside were overwhelmed by the perimeter play of Allen and Rondo, who is now threatening to do to Bryant's Lakers as he did to LeBron James' Cavaliers and then to Dwight Howard's Magic. He is the mouse Jerry to their cat Tom -- too clever and quick to be stopped.
Bryant appeared to be declaring his ownership of the final six minutes when he finished a traditional three-point play in the lane to give the Lakers an 88-85 advantage. He was well-rested after suffering continuous foul trouble; little did he realize the Celtics' perimeter superiority would be extended through crunch time by Rondo.
Upon returning to the game (following six crucially productive minutes from his backup Nate Robinson), here is how Rondo responded to that basket by Bryant: He cut without the ball to finish a layup from Perkins, he used a terrific Garnett screen (that took out both Bryant and Gasol) to finish another drive, he picked up a loose Perkins shot blocked by Gasol and laid it in himself on the way to giving Boston a 93-90 advantage. Next, Rondo made two defensive plays of the kind that used to drive his coaches mad, because both were made from the rear -- after leaping past a Fisher upfake, Rondo blocked his three cleanly from behind with 2:14 remaining; then with 40 seconds on the clock, he blindsided Bryant's dribble at the three-point line by tapping the ball away just as the Lakers were planning to trim Boston's 99-93 advantage.
In between those two burglaries came the open jumper that Rondo has made with enormous confidence throughout these playoffs -- the kind he didn't dare attempt two years ago. "He made the big shot,'' said Rivers of Rondo's open jumper from the elbow with 1:50 remaining -- much the same as a jumper that finished off a game at Orlando in the previous round. "He took a million of those shots this summer, and he didn't hesitate, and that was my favorite play for him.''
Rondo's goal had been to control the open spaces, and there is a lot of that when the Celtics are creating transition opportunities with their defense and spacing the floor with ball movement. "The best part of getting a triple-double is getting a win,'' he said. "To go out of here with a loss would be devastating for me personally.''
The backcourt of Allen and Rondo -- the old and the young -- took pressure off Pierce and Garnett, who can look forward to a much better three-game homestand knowing they didn't ruin the Finals; not only did Rondo score as many points in the fourth quarter (10) as Pierce created throughout his 40 minutes against Ron Artest, but Rondo produced as many offensive rebounds (4) as Garnett managed from both ends of the court.
Lamar Odom is not feeling so redeemed after a second poor showing that now leaves his Lakers needing to win at least one game in Boston for the week ahead. Perhaps that is why Jackson was so willing to crack jokes -- the last thing his players need is more pressure, given their failure to overcome the short end of the Celtics' rotation.