Lakers Look for Bounce Back in Finals

June 10, 2008 9:11:23 AM PDT
Phil Jackson called it "ridiculous" and "unbelievable." Los Angeles' boss was referring to the huge imbalance in free-throw attempts between his club and the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA finals.

He could have been talking about the Lakers.

An overwhelming favorite to win the series, the Western Conference champions haven't shown up yet. Except for an eight-minute spurt in the fourth quarter on Sunday night, they've been outplayed by the Celtics and now must win four of the next five games to capture their 15th title in this matchup of the league's two signature franchises.

On Monday, the Lakers came back home. They had better hope its still sweet.

After losing two games in Boston, the Lakers returned to California in a hole as deep as Topanga Canyon. Over 96 minutes, they have looked nothing like the team which pulverized Denver, pushed aside Utah and swatted away San Antonio this postseason.

Though down 0-2, and facing history along with the league's toughest defense, Kobe Bryant and his young teammates felt good about their Game 2 comeback -- they whacked a 24-point deficit to two over the final 7:55 -- and are confident they can swing the series at Staples Center in Game 3 on Tuesday night.

"I think they learned a lot, because we are a young team and I think that shows you're never really out of a game," said Bryant, who scored 13 of his 30 points in the fourth and lit into his teammates with a parental discretion-advised tirade. "I think being down 24, if you find yourself down eight or 10, that's not something that should discourage you."

The Lakers are also banking on getting a lift on their home floor, where they are 8-0 in the postseason and unbeaten in 14 home games since March 28.

Only three teams: Boston against Los Angeles in 1969, Portland against Philadelphia in 1977, and Miami against Dallas in 2006 have overcome an 0-2 deficit to win it all. The Lakers have some work to do if they intend to be the fourth.

Through two games, they have been outhustled, outmuscled, outeverythinged by a Celtics team now two wins from a 17th NBA championship. Following Sunday's loss, Jackson was asked if the team can carry the momentum from their failed, frantic fourth-quarter comeback into Game 3.

"No, no," said Jackson. "It's 2,500 miles away. It's too far to carry it."

The purple-and-gold have been a different club while playing before super fan Jack Nicholson and Hollywood's glitzy crowd. Like the Celtics, the Lakers will try to feed off the energy of being back in familiar surroundings.

Nicholson, a no-show in Boston, has been around long enough to remember the days when the NBA finals were in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, that is, the team with the best record hosts Games 1 and 2 and hits the road for Games 3 and 4 before the series goes back and forth for Games 5, 6 and 7.

The our house, your house, our house matchups over those final three games drove up the drama and built suspense to a crescendo, creating some of the most memorable finals games and series in history. But that all came to an end in 1985, following a chat between a then-rookie commissioner David Stern and pro basketball's cigar-waving patriarch, Red Auerbach.

"Although he's not here to deny it, Red said to me be back in '84, that this is too much play, travel, play, travel, play, travel," said the commish, whose tenure began 23 years ago with Magic vs. Bird Act I. "In subsequent years, he said it was terrible that we went to the 2-3-2, but a young commissioner was motivated by the father of us all."

Father doesn't always know best.

Somewhere, Red may be wishing he hadn't opened his cigar-savoring mouth.

Since its inception in 1985, the 2-3-2 format has been a sore spot among players and some coaches, who contend the setup hurts the top-seeded team, which earned the right to host Games 1 and 2 based on having the better regular-season record.

Instead of hosting the all important and pivotal Game 5, the No. 1 team, in this case the Celtics, must play three straight games -- unless they sweep -- on the road in front of a raucous crowd. Lose the last one, and a team can be on the brink of losing the series.

"From afar, what I've never liked about the 2-3-2 is you fight all year to have Game 7 at home and Game 5 at home," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Game 5 is taken away from you. We're had three huge Game 5s in the first three rounds. All of them have been at home."

Jackson isn't as down on the 2-3-2 concept as Rivers, but as always, the Zen Master has his own take on the difficulties of playing three in a row in one place.

"The duration of three games on one court, those have always been tough to maintain," said Jackson, tied with Auerbach with nine NBA titles. "I've had teams that have been on the road and won three games in a row, but I can't ever remember winning three the other way around as a home coach in the finals."

Jackson, 9-1 in the finals, has never done it, but others have. Since the 2-3-2 format began, both the Detroit Pistons (2004) -- against the Lakers -- and Miami Heat (2006) won the three middle games on their home court.

The Lakers are capable of it, too, but they'll need Bryant to start making more shots. He's 20-of-49 in two games. They need Pau Gasol to assert himself from start to finish, Lamar Odom to stop being "confused" as Jackson called him, and for their bench to do more.

It wouldn't hurt, either, if Los Angeles got some calls. In Sunday night's loss, the Celtics went to the free-throw line 38 times to just 10 for the Lakers.

Bryant believes he has the game plan.

"We have to get those loose balls," he said. "We have to get those timely rebounds, and we have to stop them in transition from knocking down those threes and we'll be fine. A free throw or two wouldn't hurt."


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