Not all the stars came out
LOS ANGELES — Did last night truly display how much Kevin Garnett has aged in two years and the inconsistency of Paul Pierce or the versatility of a Celtics team that can beat the Lakers despite minimal contributions from either player?
That question will be debated countless times by countless pundits the next two days but the Celtics don’t need to know that answer right now. They are just fortunate and perhaps exceptional enough to get away with a 103-94 win in Game 2 of the NBA Finals with just one of the Big Three cylinders pumping with effectiveness.
Ray Allen dropped 32 points and Rajon Rondo was brilliant with a triple-double, but Pierce and Garnett combined for 16 points on 4-for-16 shooting with eight fouls — and one field goal in the fourth quarter.
Garnett was supposed to respond to the heavy criticism he received because of his lethargic performance in Game 1 and Pau Gasol’s domination. Instead, he was tentative, picked up two silly fouls 2 minutes 38 seconds into the game, and attempted just five shots in 24 minutes.
He did nothing to dispute the assertion he is in swift decline. The Garnett that dominated Michael Beasley and Antawn Jamison in the first two series has faded, replaced by an insecure figure unsure if he can get that swagger back.
Yet, he did produce three key assists in the fourth quarter and set screens, made crisp passes, and played defense to compensate for his lack of scoring. It was good enough as the Celtics ran off 11 straight points in the fourth quarter, all with Garnett on the floor.
“We didn’t score the ball and do the things we normally do, but it’s like that sometimes,’’ Garnett said of himself and Pierce. “Some series present different matchups and some games are different from others. The thing is to try to play it out and try to be diverse and do other things and I thought for the most part we did that.’’
Those diverse things he’s referring to are those assists. Each was critical. He fed Glen Davis for a dunk and a 76-72 lead with 11:08 left. The Lakers responded with a 6-0 run, helped by a poor Garnett decision to goaltend a Lamar Odom shot after he was fouled by Tony Allen. Sasha Vujacic then canned an open 3-pointer for a 78-76 lead.
The Celtics desperately needed a hoop and Garnett gathered the ball in the post, sensed a double team approaching and flipped to Davis, who made a hook shot. Finally, with the Lakers needing a stop, Garnett dribbled toward the basket and found an open Kendrick Perkins, who stunningly completed a reverse layup for a 97-90 Celtics’ lead with 1:21 left.
Making plays, although they didn’t involve any of those vintage jumpers or thundering dunks on Gasol, served as a salve for Garnett’s offensive troubles.
“I do different things man,’’ he said. “Obviously I would like to be in a better flow. Fouls, it goes like that. But I thought [Davis] had it going. I know they were doubling and doing different things off me, so I was finding open guys and it worked.’’
Of the 21 shots the Celtics attempted in the fourth quarter, Pierce attempted none. He was on the court, but essentially a nonentity. He appeared content with his role as decoy and acknowledged he was so shocked to be left wide open on a corner jumper that he barely struck the rim late in the third quarter. That was his final shot attempt.
Pierce realized spending the fourth quarter forcing elbow jumpers or trying to draw fouls would likely lead to a loss. So he played a complementary role as Rondo took control.
“He was the key for us,’’ Pierce said. “If we can get stops and get Rondo out in transition, that’s big for us. He did everything tonight. He rebounded, passed, controlled the tempo and that’s how we have to play, put the ball in his hands and make things happen.’’
Perhaps in past years, Pierce would have forced his will on the game, launching up poor shots because he wanted to be the hero or lacked confidence in his teammates. But since the arrival of Garnett and Allen and the emergence of Rondo, his days as the primary threat are gone.
Not that the Celtics don’t need vintage Pierce to win this series. They cannot expect to win with Pierce going scoreless and shot-less in the fourth quarter. That is an aberration.
Garnett isn’t the volume scorer he once was. During the 2004 playoffs, he averaged 24.3 points and 14.6 rebounds. Now, that is a two-game output. But what makes the Celtics a superior team is their versatility.
“I knew we would play better basketball,’’ Pierce said. “I knew we would come in here with a better effort defensively. We got carried a lot by Ray and Rajon, and that’s big, especially with me and Kevin not particularly shooting the ball well. As long as we have other guys stepping up, we give ourselves a chance. I am not going to force the issue with my offense. I don’t have a big burden on my team as Kobe does. When I am not making buckets, I try to do other things.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.