The second-string contingent of Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and Jordan Farmar – affectionately known as the “Bench Mob” – has been all of those things for the Lakers all season long, but in Game 1, that ol’ bench magic just wasn’t there.
Meanwhile, Boston’s sub squad, described as being too old and too inconsistent to match the talent, energy and cohesion of L.A.’s second unit ended up outscoring the Lakers 17-15 on Thursday.
The Lakers’ sixth man through 10th man fell seven points below its 22.2 post season scoring average and L.A. lost by 10. For all of the talk about Kobe Bryant’s 9-for-26 struggles, Walton, Vujacic, Turiaf and Farmar combined to go an equally anemic 5-for-15.
On Friday, Phil Jackson protected his bench players, citing that his changes to the Lakers’ rotation could have been the cause for the mob’s drop off.
“I really shortened the minutes of the bench last night, so that's not their fault about not scoring and no productivity,” Jackson said. “The adjustments that our younger plays will make, our bench players will be noticeable as we go through.”
Some of those adjustments will surely include finding a way to get better shots for the bench guys when they enter the game. Turiaf was baited into several jump shots out of his range, Vujacic was reverting to putting the ball on the floor rather than playing to his skills with catch-and-shoot attempts and Luke Walton ended up forcing both of his shot attempts.
In Dean Smith’s early days of coaching at the University of North Carolina, the legendary coach employed an en masse substitution pattern. In order to get the most out of every player on his roster, Smith guaranteed playing time to his non-starters and plugged them into the game as a group for at least four to five minutes each half.
Jackson usually uses the Bench Mob in a similar capacity, throwing the four of them out on the court on the same time and encouraging them to open up the offense by pushing the tempo and scoring out of transition and quick hitters.
In Game 1 however, the unit was split up, and just like they say a finger is weak but a fist is strong, the individuals lost their mob mentality without being on the court simultaneously.
“They didn’t play us all together,” Farmar said. “Our unit is a unit, we play together. We were never all on the floor together but for maybe a minute or so, so you can’t really judge.
“We all know how to run the triangle and get into our stuff, but when the Bench Mob is in together we play a different style – we get up and down, we scrap a little more defensively, we all know our strengths and weaknesses and we play to help each other out. [When we’re in together] it’s just a little different style. It takes the reigns off the triangle a little bit. We didn’t get a chance to go out and do it last night, I’m sure at some point in this series we’ll get an opportunity to do so.”
“I think they took us out a little bit of our offense,” Vujacic added, also noting that his and his teammates’ struggles were partially because of the good defensive rotations by the Celtics but also because L.A. didn’t move the ball as well as it should have.
“We didn’t have as much success as we had before,” Turiaf said. “If a couple of us, including myself, knocked down one more jumper maybe two more jumpers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
Turiaf did his part to correct his broken jumper on Friday, engaging in a spirited spot shooting competition with Bryant at the end of practice. Bryant and Turiaf kept score with one another as Lakers assistant coaches Kurt Rambis and Frank Hamblen took them through a series of curls, fades and drop steps.
The 6-10 forward held his own with the league MVP through the first couple series of drills until Bryant started yelling, “Ca va?!” (roughly translated: Is it going in?) in Turiaf’s native French language to distract the eccentric big man as he released his shots.
Even though Turiaf was 2-for-5 in Game 1, (and also eventually lost the shooting competition to Bryant), he still found positives in the Bench Mob’s appearance on Thursday.
“We did a great job defensively so I think you have to also keep that in mind,” he said. “Basketball is not just offense. Sometimes we’re going to have an off night, but if you stop the offense from scoring, I think you’re doing a great job.”
“As I kid, I hated the Celtics,” Pierce said Friday night, laughing.
Opponents in three N.B.A. finals in the 1980s, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers will tangle in the championship round once more. Pierce, now 30, has considerably more invested in the outcome than a child’s rooting interest.
And, yes, his loyalties have changed.
A six-time All-Star as a small forward in 10 seasons with the Celtics, Pierce has reached the playoffs five times. But he has never competed in a finals until now.
When the series tips off in Boston on Thursday, Pierce will extend his role as a flesh-and-bone symbol of the Celtics’ rapid return to N.B.A. prominence.
A year ago, Boston won 24 of 82 games, the fewest in the Eastern Conference. Since then, the team’s fortunes have improved drastically, starting with the off-season additions of forward Kevin Garnett and guard Ray Allen.
Like Pierce, Allen and Garnett have fashioned N.B.A. careers notable for their individual brilliance — Allen as an expert sharpshooter, Garnett as an exceptional all-around talent — and for their dearth of titles. This finals will also be the first for them.
During Friday’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over the Detroit Pistons, Allen said he reminded Garnett of the Celtics’ legacy of winning — which includes a record 16 championships, but none since 1986.
“I told Kevin, ‘This is what we’ve been wanting for 20, 25 years of our life, when we started realizing we wanted to play basketball, and we watched other players come here and win games here,’ ” Allen said.
After winning an N.B.A.-best 66 games in the regular season and advancing to the finals, the Celtics’ stars made it clear that their accomplishments were not about individual excellence, but devotion to teamwork.
A check of the numbers testifies to the ways all three players adapted their play. Between sharing the ball and sticking to the defensive-oriented philosophy pushed by Coach Doc Rivers, the scoring averages of Garnett, Allen and Pierce all dipped.
Allen had his lowest-scoring season since 1998-99. Garnett’s output fell to its lowest level since 1996-97. As for Pierce, he had to refer back to his second year in the league — 1999-2000 — for a scoring average lower than his 19.8 points a game this season.
After allowing nearly 100 points a game in 2006-7, the Celtics held their opponents to 90.3 points this season, second best in the N.B.A.
“It’s our backbone now,” Garnett said of the team’s defense. “We look at ourselves night in and night out, we know we can score points. But our backbone, we have to play defense and we have to be connected, all five guys.”
That philosophy will be tested in the championship round against the Lakers, who feature the league’s pre-eminent offensive player, Kobe Bryant. The league’s reigning most valuable player, Bryant averaged 28.3 points during the regular season and is scoring at a 31.9-point clip in the playoffs, in which the Lakers have dispatched their three opponents in 15 games.
By comparison, the Celtics were drawn into seven-game series by their first- and second-round opponents, Atlanta and Cleveland. Boston beat the Pistons in six games.
In two previous meetings this season with the Lakers, the Celtics dominated, winning by 13 points at home, then winning by 19 in Los Angeles in late December. Since that game, the Lakers have added Pau Gasol, and they have rolled into a title series in which they will clash with a Celtics team that is trying to add a championship banner for the first time in 22 years.
“It’s been a long process,” Pierce said. “I could write a whole book on my emotions right now.”
He added: “It makes me think about a year ago today what I was doing. To be in this position with the same team going to the finals, it’s nothing I can really put into words.”
GAME 3 TUESDAY 10TH JUNE 9PM ON ABC
CELTICS ALL THE WAY
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