Links: Game 4 Game-Changers

by June 10, 2010

by Lang Whitaker

On the flight back from L.A. after Game 2 of the Finals, I finally had a chance to get into the book “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.” I actually bought — well, downloaded — the book a couple of months ago when it came out, but as it turns out, you don’t have a lot of time to read books when you’re busy writing one.

As the title might seem to imply, Game Change is all about the 2008 Presidential election: who were the candidates, why they ran, how they won. And authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann mccainmanaged to get tons of previously unreported information. For instance, the entire John Edwards saga (you should totally read this excerpt if you haven’t already), or the behind-the-scenes fights between John McCain and his wife, or the way Obama disagrees with his advisors. If you’re interested at all in politics, it’s a juicy, completely worthwhile book.

While the book is filled with details, the larger arc of the book is the story of the election and how there were several “game changing” moments. At one point during the Iowa caucuses, Obama realizes he could actually win the election. Soon after, Hillary wins New Hampshire and all the momentum shifts back to her, just like that. McCain decides to run, halfheartedly, immediately becomes the favorite to win the Republican nomination, but thanks to mismanagement and a lack of interest, nearly gets wiped out of the primaries, before mounting a stunning comeback. It’s almost like a sports event, played for the highest stakes. It’s almost like…the NBA Finals?

In some ways, yes. The games are played, everyone does their jobs, but some one person will come along and single-handedly change the course of events. Maybe it’s Derek Fisher hitting jumpers and driving to the rim. Perhaps it’s Rajon Rondo knocking down the open shot from 18 feet. Or maybe it’s Kobe Bryant draining a three at the buzzer to drive a stake through the Celtics (and give L.A. fans free tacos). Whatever the specifics, in each game of the Finals, one guy has stepped up and taken charge, and sometimes charges, too.

Tonight in Game 4 of the Finals, someone will break out, someone will step up. Someone will be a Game Changer. Who will it be? Here’s my five best guesses, in order of probability:

1. Paul Pierce
Against Miami, Pierce averaged 19.6 ppg. Against Cleveland, Pierce averaged 13.5 ppg. Against Orlando, Pierce averaged 24.3 ppg. And in three games against L.A., Pierce has averaged 16.3 ppg. So he’s kind of been all over the place. Over the last two Finals games, Pierce has shot a combined 30 percent from the floor and only attempted a total of 9 free throws (he shot 13 in Game 1 alone). Yes he’s being guarded by Ron Artest, though Pierce did drop 24 on him in Game 1. The Celtics are at home, it’s a must-win, and Paul Pierce is due for a big game. My guess is it comes tonight.

2. Scott Foster, Eddie F. Rush or Greg Willard
Who? Those three gentlemen are tonight’s referees. I’ve been going to NBA Finals games for the last decade, and I don’t remember any three consecutive games being as affected by the refereeing as the three games of this Finals have been. From the blizzard of foul calls in Game 1 to the avalanche of calls in Game 2 to the constant stop-and-start replays down the stretch in Game 3, this has been a disjointed series. (As John Schuhmann pointed out on Twitter, the Lakers and Celtics shot a total of 79 free throws in their two regular season games, but combined for 134 in the first two Finals games. Tonight’s refs could actually have a huge impact just by not calling fouls and letting the guys play. Let’s hope for at least one game in this series we can not talk about the refs after the game.

3. Lamar Odom
During the regular season, Lamar Odom averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds per game. During the first three rounds of the Playoffs, Odom averaged 10.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg. In the three games of the NBA Finals, Odom has averaged 6.6 ppg and 4.6 rpg. In Game 2, Odom came into the game and picked up three fouls quickly, which Phil Jackson took the hit for following the game. “He got, bang-bang, two fouls immediately,” Jackson said, “and I turned to my crew and said, Do you think he can play through this? And as I was talking to them, he got his third foul. So obviously he couldn’t play through that sequence. He just basically got in the ballgame and got those three fouls and it really took him out of the ballgame. That’s a bit unfortunate for him. He’ll get a chance later on in this series to redeem himself.” What better time than tonight?

4. Rasheed Wallace
It was comforting to see Rasheed Wallace at media availability, if only to see that he’s still the same irascible, wily dude he’s always been. He entered wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, his practice jersey, weathered sweatpants that had been cut-off shin-high with the pockets turned inside out, his signature Air Force 1s, and carrying an iPad, of course. He made himself available to the media in body only, answering everything asked of him with an economy of language, as if he were rationing his words. He’s the most mercurial player on the Celtics, and has been consistently inconsistent throughout the Playoffs. Here are his point totals game by game in Boston’s twenty Playoff match-ups: 4, 6, 2, 5, 2, 2, 17, 2, 3, 0, 13, 13, 6, 10, 4, 21, 0, 9, 7, 2. Sheed has to have at least one big game in him in the Finals, right? Right?

5. Ron Artest
By far the strangest sequence of Game 2 came with 1:12 to go in the game. Kendrick Perkins had knocked in two free throws to give Boston a 98-90 lead. L.A. inbounded to Artest, who dribbled the ball all the way up the right side of the court (dribbling left-handed, for some reason). With 1:07 to go, Artest paused just outside the three point line and surveyed the floor. Paul Pierce was guarding him, but not too closely, not wanting to foul and stop the clock. Artest signaled up top for Kobe to come to him and get the ball, but Kobe froze, not wanting to run his defender (Ray Allen) into Artest’s space. Andrew Bynum then came toward Artest to set a pick on Pierce, but Artest didn’t wait long enough for the pick, and instead just started dribbling toward the middle of the floor. Pierce bothered him enough to push Artest down to the left block. His dribble still alive, and I suppose suddenly realizing that the Lakers could use a three, Artest turned and dribbled up toward the left elbow. By now the clock was at 1:02, and the Lakers had run 10 seconds off the clock with nobody touching the ball but Artest. The crowd begins screaming, reminding Artest that time is of essence. Artest dribbled out to the three point line on the left wing and picked up his dribble, so Pierce ran up on him, cutting off any open jumper. Artest half-heartedly pump-faked, pivoted back, then forward, and ended up taking a contested three with his foot on the line and 57 seconds left in the game. The shot didn’t come close. The other Lakers players on this play mostly just stood around and watched Artest, as amazed as everyone else at what was unfolding. Hilariously, the shot was such a brick that it bounced over all the Celtic rebounders and to Pau Gasol, who tipped it to Kobe up top, and Kobe immediately drained a 25-footer to cut it to 98-93 with 53 seconds left. But what was Artest doing?

After the game, someone asked Phil Jackson about it, for maybe my favorite sequence of the Finals:

Q: Does Ron get a little lost out there offensively? Is it the stage? Is it the pressure? There was one play towards the end where he ran around for about ten seconds and threw up a three.

PHIL JACKSON:  It’s one of the more unusual sequences I’ve ever witnessed. You know, he’s just trying to redeem himself.  He’s trying to get himself involved in the game and trying to redeem himself for I think he made a bad pass earlier in the sequence.

Q. But this is a pretty big stage to be doing that at that particular moment.

PHIL JACKSON:  Sure, very good observation.

Q. Have you had a conversation with him about whether he needs to go that route?

PHIL JACKSON:  Yeah, sure, I’ll have a conversation with him.

Between Games 1 and 2 at one of the media days, as I wrote about here, someone asked Ron Ron about his offense. He said, “Offense is kind of like the lottery for me. Whatever happens, happens.” He paused briefly, glanced around, then asked, “Does that make sense? Is that a good comparison?”

It was perfect, actually. Just when you think he’s out, he’ll pull you back in. Which is why I wouldn’t be shocked to see him come up big tonight. Then again, I also wouldn’t be shocked if he went 1-10.

It’s like the lottery.

Whatever happens, happens.