With every flail of his legs, Kobe Bryant learned why the Boston Celtics have been the best defensive team of the playoffs.
Bryant attempted to assert himself throughout Thursday night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but at almost every turn, he encountered resistance from the in-your-face defending of the Celtics and frequently had to take low-percentage, off-balance shots.
As much of the Eastern Conference found out this season, that usually doesn’t work out very well.
In a strong effort in front of a raucous home crowd, the Celtics hung tough for three quarters before their tough defense made the difference in the final period. The Celtics defeated the Lakers 98-88 at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.
Bryant scored 24 points to lead the Lakers but made only nine of 26 shots from the field. Bryant also had six assists and the Lakers fared better when he served as a faciliator. Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol each added 15 points.
Garnett scored a game-high 24 points and added 13 rebounds and Paul Pierce scored 22 points despite a sprained right knee.
The Celtics led by four after three quarters and took control of the game for good three minutes into the fourth quarter. Sam Cassell hit a jumper and James Posey followed with a 3-pointer to give the Celtics their biggest lead of the game at 86-78.
The Lakers stayed close, and trailed by six in the final two minutes. But a potential defensive rebound went off the hands of Vladimir Radmanovic and out of bounds. Kevin Garnett slammed home a putback to give the Celtics a 94-86 lead and Boston held on.
After a 21-year hiatus, the Lakers and Celtics resumed their high-profile rivalry on the NBA’s biggest stage. A well-played game, on both ends, came down to the Celtics’ ability to play energetic defense and outrebound the Lakers.
Through three quarters, the Lakers fared surprisingly well against Boston’s stifling defense, but they scored only 15 points in the fourth quarter. Boston outscored the Lakers 52-36 in the second half and outrebounded them 46-33 for the game.
Things looked gloomy for the Celtics with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, when Pierce and Kendrick Perkins collided and Pierce went down clutching his right knee, seemingly in significant pain.
Pierce had to be helped off the court by teammates and put in a wheelchair in the hallway. The Lakers led 62-58 at that point, and less than a minute later, Perkins left the game after apparently injuring his left ankle.
But the Lakers couldn’t take advantage. They settled for a couple off-balance jumpers from Bryant and the crowd erupted when Pierce bounced back onto the court, only about five minutes after he had to be helped off.
Television reports indicated Pierce had a sprained right knee, but he returned to the game with a sleeve on the knee.
From the time of Pierce’s injury, the Celtics went on a 10-2 run and took a 68-64 lead.
The Lakers scored the next five points to take a 69-68 lead, but consecutive 3-pointers from Pierce helped the Celtics to a 75-71 lead. An exchange of free throws led to a 77-73 lead for the Celtics going into the final period.
The Lakers held a 51-46 lead at the end of a close first half in which neither team led by more than seven points.
Fisher led all Lakers scorers at halftime with 13 points and Gasol had 12 points.
Garnett, who finished third to Bryant in MVP voting, led all first-half scorers with 16 points. The Lakers shot 50 percent from the field against Boston, which had been the top defensive team in the playoffs.
The Celtics held a 40-35 lead halfway through the second quarter, but that’s when things started to unravel for them. Pierce picked up his third foul and was forced to the bench as the Lakers went on a 14-4 run.
Good ball movement fueled the Lakers’ run, as they had 14 assists on 19 first-half field goals. The Lakers took a 41-40 lead on two Fisher free throws with 4:17 remaining and led by as many as five points in the second quarter.
Fisher’s jumper with 47 seconds remaining gave the Lakers a 51-46 halftime lead.
In the first quarter, the game was tied 14-14 with four minutes remaining when the Celtics went on a seven-point run, highlighted by a Ray Allen 3-pointer.
The Lakers answered quickly. Jordan Farmar hit a runner and Sasha Vujacic hit a 3-pointer and then Bryant made his second basket (in eight attempts) to tie the game 21-21.
A hook shot by P.J. Brown in the final 30 seconds put the Celtics up 23-21 after one quarter.