The Lakers and Celtics will always be linked to each other, whether it’s fitting or not. This season, there have been just as many comparisons, as both teams drew attention for putting up horrid starts despite big-name casts.
The landscape has changed over recent days, though. While the Celtics at first seemed to be banding together and making a run in the Eastern Conference with six straight wins, a six-game losing streak brought them back to where they started. On Sunday, they rebounded with a win over the Heat, but they also lost point guard Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season to a knee injury.
The Lakers, meanwhile, may finally be poking their heads out of the dysfunction that comes with having too many star players. While Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol spent much of the early season finding every way not to play together and win, three victories in a row have brought new hope.
After bad beginnings, the Lakers (20-25) and Celtics (21-23) could do some damage in their respective conferences, although it’s a long climb back for both. It’s especially difficult for Boston, which is moving on without Rondo, the key playmaker. But in this way, the possible success of both the Lakers and the Celtics may be more closely related than most people think.
While the loss of Rondo makes it look like the Celtics are done for the season, coach Doc Rivers and others disagree. Losing Rondo is a big deal, especially considering how the team functioned before he was hurt, but the Celtics still have many talented players. A new system, and a new focus of attack, could make them just as much a contender as any other team in the Eastern Conference that has built an offense with quality players but no elite point guard. (That’s why trading away their veteran talent now could be such a bad idea.)
This is where comparisons to the Lakers come in. Los Angeles still has an elite point guard in Nash, but the All-Star’s time with his new team hasn’t gone as expected. While bringing him in to work with Howard, Gasol, Bryant and the Lakers’ supporting cast, as well as new coach Mike D’Antoni, was billed as an instant return to the Showtime Lakers — a team of great passing, running and movement — not many considered how that would jive with Howard, Gasol and Bryant being the key players on the team. Bryant is known to need the ball in his hands, and he has thrived for many years without a point guard getting in the way of his shot creation. Howard and Gasol can both work in isolation sets, and merely a passer is needed for that. Even the vaunted pick and roll doesn’t do as much if Nash isn’t working it with the ease he had with the Phoenix Suns.
After discovering the hard way, over and over, that the team would not win with all these disparate approaches, the Lakers have finally started to try something new. With three wins in a row (no small feat with this team), including one against the Thunder, the Lakers were soon praising the new approach’s success. Implementing a system like this before the season started may have drawn howls, but the Lakers have lost enough games this time around to embrace new ways.
What Los Angeles has done is this: Instead of using Nash as he has typically played throughout his career, the Lakers are moving toward everyone being involved in distributing and moving the ball, especially possession black hole Bryant.
D’Antoni’s offense relies on ball movement and player movement, which leads to the better shots that produce more scoring. When everything is clicking, the offense can feed the defense, and the team can score enough to win. But when the team plays just a portion of this type of offense, with the ball stalling when it arrives at certain players (such as Bryant), much is lost.
But, if instead Bryant can turn into a facilitator, as he has for the past few games, the scenario changes. When Bryant can keep the ball moving and find open men, players gets involved, and the team gets much closer to fulfilling the offense it was designed to run.
Bryant has 35 assists and 26 rebounds over the last three games (compared to averaging five a game in both categories this season), meaning he’s touching and moving the ball more. Nash, meanwhile, has had just 12 assists over the last three games, compared to his 8.1 assists per game for this season. While that’s a small sample size, the eye test also shows that, rather than trying to run the offense through Nash sometimes and then let Bryant do his thing other times, the Lakers are now running the offense completely much more of the time, although that now includes running it through Bryant quite a bit.
Bryant has to have the ball in his hands, whether it be hubris or a genuine part of his game. By finding a way to make him a facilitator, and having all those touches turn into the movement that this offense needs to succeed, the Lakers have found a way to take care of two battles at once.
That’s where the Celtics come in. While the Celtics have a much different team makeup, lacking a Bryant and the Lakers’ bigs, they are now confronted with having to play without a great facilitating point guard. If the recent success of Los Angeles has shown anything, though, it’s that maybe the C’s can easily find a way around that. By pressing the entire team to step into distribution roles and depending more on player movement, the Celtics can create just as many opportunities as Rondo once created by himself.
Furthermore, Paul Pierce could take notes from Bryant’s changes. While Pierce has forged his career on isolation dominance, Rivers said coming into this year that he would like to see Pierce work out of team sets more often. Pierce’s up-and-down play throughout the season only supports that idea, as Pierce just isn’t as deadly working one-on-one anymore. On Sunday, much of the Celtics’ victory was because Pierce stepped up as a distributor (10 assists), and there’s no reason why he can’t continue to work in that direction and pick up much of Rondo’s responsibilities. Pierce has done it before and should be able to adjust far more quickly than Bryant.
The Celtics have the talent to get scoring from many spots and play a balanced game, although they’ve struggled to do that this season. But with Rondo out, and the team needing the ball to go through many other players’ hands, Boston can have hope.
More players being involved may be just what the C’s need to get all those players going.
Nash will likely see his role in Los Angeles diminish if the Lakers can get the team success they need, and the Celtics can make Rondo look unessential if they can accomplish the same thing without their point guard. It’s not a knock against those two All-Stars. But it is a sign that, if the times call for it, a great point guard always finds a way to make his teammates succeed, even if he isn’t the one handing out the ball.