Wanted: A great game worthy of the NBA Finals.
Oh, sure Game 4 was historic. But by no stretch of anyone's imagination was it a great game. The numbers said it was the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. Yeah, well, what did it do for Lakers fans? It was an enjoyable game from a Celtics viewpoint, and that was all.
In terms of sheer competitiveness, this ballyhooed confrontation between the Celtics and Lakers has been a disappointment. There has not been a game in which both teams brought even a B-plus game on the same evening. There has yet to be a knock-down, drag-out, 48-minute demonstration of mutual athletic greatness, something that would have neutrals buzzing at the morning-after water cooler. There have only been alternating spurts of dominance.
The closest thing to any of this was Game 1, an affair that included seven ties and 12 lead changes through the third quarter. But there were no real sparks. The Celtics took a 77-73 lead into the fourth period and they were able to nurse it. There was no real tension. It was an OK NBA playoff game, nothing more.
In Game 2 the Celtics stretched the lead to 24 midway through the fourth quarter before LA launched a comeback. OK, fine. The Lakers got it down to 2 with plenty of time to win. But the ending was pretty flat. Paul Pierce put the Celtics back ahead by 4 on a call that probably didn't have to be made. Sasha Vujacic had that shot blocked, and that was it.
Great game? Nah. It was my turn/your turn; that's all.
Game 3 was a bad, bad, bad game. It was poorly played, and not even all that suspenseful. There were three ties and seven lead changes, the last with 6:53 to go. This was Kobe Bryant's best game, coming up with 36 on 12-for-20 shooting. But this was the game in which Pierce and Kevin Garnett shot that abominable combined 8 for 35, despite which the Celtics were in the game till very late. The whole mess was pretty much an insult to the idea of NBA Finals basketball.
We all know what happened in Game 4. The Lakers are now sitting around saying, "If only we could play the way we did in the first 18 minutes all the time." And the Celtics are sitting around saying, "If only we could play the way we did in the final 18 minutes all the time." Those respective 18-minute stretches were definitely something each side should be proud of. But the rest of the game? Yuck.
Game 5. The Celtics laid another stegosaurus egg in the first quarter. The Lakers laid two more brontosaurus eggs, the first in the second quarter, when they lost most of a 19-point lead, and the second when they watched a 14-point fourth-quarter lead disappear in fewer than five minutes.
Neither team distinguished itself in crunch time. After tying the game at 90 on a Garnett field goal with 4:36 left, the Celtics didn't put the ball in the basket until Eddie House stuck a too-little, too-late 3-pointer in the final 15 seconds. And the victors didn't exactly come roaring down the stretch, either, their only basket in the final 4:11 coming on a sneakaway Kobe dunk emanating from his own pickpocketing of Pierce.
So that's how we got where we are. Very inspiring, eh?
C'mon. None of this translates to great basketball. What we've had are spurts, here and there. The games have been long, blah exercises in mutual mediocrity, brightened only occasionally by those little bursts of activity Pat Riley long ago labeled "skirmishes." It was Riley's contention that many, if not most, NBA games are decided by who wins those key 10-2 or 7-0 runs. In this series, the skirmishes sometimes have been lengthened to "engagements," if you will. But what we have not had is a game that grips you from the start and never lets go.
Here are a few observations as we enter tonight's Game 6.
1. The benches have been a good barometer. Generally speaking, whichever team has a bench guy come up big has won the game. In Game 1, Sam Cassell had a good second-quarter run. In Game 2, Leon Powe introduced himself to the nation. Game 3's bench star was Vujacic. James Posey and Eddie House were major factors in Game 4. And Jordan Farmar had an impact on Game 5 that far transcended his 11-point contribution.
2. The third quarter matters. The Celtics won the third quarters in Games 1 through 4, and even with LA winning Game 5's third period by a 24-18 score, they lead LA by a staggering 134-97 count in the thirds. Every coach preaches the importance of coming out of the locker room with a purpose, and it must really have been frustrating Phil Jackson that the Celtics had such a clear edge entering Game 5.
3. Paul Pierce has, with the exception of Game 3 (2 for 14 in his LA homecoming), been a truly great player. He shook off that dreadful Game 3 to go 20-4-7 in Game 4 and 38-6-8 in Game 5. He has been putting on a demonstration of good old-fashioned driving to the hoop that summons the memories of everyone from Dolph Schayes to Rick Barry to Dr. J. And pay special attention to the 15 assists in the past two games. He's driving with his head up.
"Paul is one of my favorite players in the league," salutes Bryant. "He's tough. There's not a lot of players that have a well-rounded game. What I mean by that, he's got a good mid-range game, long ball, pull up to the hoop, pull up left, pull up right. He has the whole package. I enjoy watching him play. I enjoy playing against him. He's fantastic."
Pierce has had his moments. Kobe has had his moments. Ray Allen has had his moments. Pau Gasol has had his moments. Kevin Garnett has had his moments. Even spacey Lamar Odom (I say that with great affection for our Rhody guy) has had his moments. James Posey and Sasha Vujacic, too. But what we need before the 2008 NBA curtain falls is for the Celtics and Lakers to have a collective game in which all these guys are having continual moments together.
Never mind comparing these teams to the Larry-Magic teams. These are the two top-seeded 2008 squads, the ones that clearly ought to be here. How 'bout it, guys? Show us what you got.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.