Thursday, June 12, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 4 analysis

Statistics will prove that if you flip a fair coin a few billion times the number of "heads" and "tails" outcomes will be fairly equal. And the closer that "n" approaches infinity, the closer the distribution will approach 50/50. Within those billion flips, however, it is not unusual to see long runs, of say 10 or even more, of one outcome.

Let's translate this theory to basketball. The Lakers and Celtics are fairly equal teams. If these teams traded "n" possessions a few billion times, the score would approach a tie game. Within those billion possessions, however, it wouldn't be unusual to see long scoring runs, for one team, then the other. This happens in basketball games all the time, right? Team A goes on an 8-0 run. Later, Team B goes on an 11-3 run. No big deal.

A 24-point lead (i.e., a run or series of runs equaling a +24 in outcomes) is different for two reasons. First, a game has a set stopping point, one that obviously is far short of a billion or so possessions. Typically, Team B just runs out of time before it can even the score with an equalizing run of its own. Second, and perhaps even more important, however, is that once Team A has a 24-point lead, the game is no longer "fair." Teams often try peculiar lineups, rest their best players, and neither team performs with the same focus and concentration as when the game was close.

How did the Celtics pull off a historic comeback last night and stun the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals? First, they had help. Human nature kicked in, and the Lakers relaxed. It's impossible to fake or mimic a tie game or a deficit when they don't exist. In their minds, I'm sure the Lakers knew a comeback was remotely possible, but really, it wasn't. Second, the big LA lead had an element of fool's gold. Kobe was never in the flow offensively. Yes, the Lakers needed scoring and involvement from other players, but not at the expense of a sharp Kobe. Why? Well, eventually when the other players cooled off (which they did), and when the Celtics' defense locked in (which it did), Kobe was not in the Game 3-type rhythm that he needed to be in in order to carry home a victory once the game was close.

To actually pull off the comeback, however, the Celtics needed heavy doses of belief and toughness. They stayed in the "fair" game and didn't give up. Belief and togetherness and toughness -- not physically tough (although they have that too), but mentally tough -- aren't born overnight. They are the product of individuals and a roster put together beautifully by Danny Ainge. Once the Big 3 was assembled, Ainge set out to complete a championship roster with tough-minded role players. And certainly Boston's situation was attractive to veteran free agents.

The Celtics signed Eddie House and James Posey. They signed P.J. Brown in February after Paul Pierce and Ray Allen visited Brown during the all-star break and convinced him to join the team. They added defensive coaching guru Tom Thibodeau. They signed Sam Cassell in March. Veteran players, professionals, guys caring more about the end result than personal glory.

Still, you can't just throw a bunch of mismatched pieces against a wall and expect them to stick. Oft-maligned coach Doc Rivers did a stellar job of fitting together the pieces, of developing a cohesive system and also team chemistry.

Year-long effort and commitment and toughness were at the crux of the monumental Game 4 rally.

House had 11 points and zero turnovers in 25 minutes in place of injured and ineffective starter Rajon Rondo. Posey, who has a championship ring from Miami in 2006, chipped in with 18 points, including four 3-pointers, in 25 minutes. Cassell, who has been a role player on two title teams in Houston and also a main cog with the Bucks and Clippers, didn't score in seven minutes last night, but he was repeatedly the first one off the bench to shout encouragement for two quarters straight.

Boston's comeback was improbable, but it was made possible because the Celtics never quit and never stopped believing that the game was fair. And because of that, they gave themselves a chance to catch their own run of success long before the billionth repetition.