BOSTON -- The most misleading statistic often cited during these playoffs has been comparing the bench play of the Los Angeles Lakers with that of their opponents, whether it be the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals or the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
It's convenient to simply tally up the number of points the Lakers' reserves have and the number their opponent's reserves have and (often times) marvel at the disparity. The problem with that math is it fails to tell the whole story of the game.
The Celtics' reserves didn't simply outscore the Lakers' reserves 36-18 during their 96-89 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals to tie the series 2-2, they outscored the Lakers' starters in the fourth quarter 21-9 until the Celtics' starters were inserted into the starting lineup with 2:51 left in the fourth quarter. This wasn't a matter of Nate Robinson outplaying Jordan Farmar (which he did) or Glen Davis outplaying Lamar Odom (which he did). It was about the JV quartet of Robinson, Davis, Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace stepping onto the court with Ray Allen, the coldest Celtics starter, who has missed 13 consecutive 3-pointers since making eight in Game 2, and turning the Lakers' two-point lead in the fourth quarter into an 11-point deficit in a matter of seven minutes.
After spending hours discussing the importance of staying with Rajon Rondo, containing Paul Pierce, keeping a hand in front of Ray Allen, staying physical with Kevin Garnett and not backing down from Kendrick Perkins, the Lakers essentially let every other player on the roster beat them while the Celtics' starters cheered on their high-fiving, behind-the-back-climbing, trash-talking reserves.
The Lakers were 10 minutes away from taking a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 and let it slip away, not because of the tandem of Rondo and Allen, which killed them at the end of Game 2, but because of the dynamic duo of Robinson and Davis, who were practicing a comedy routine at their dual news conference after the game.
"We're like Shrek and Donkey," Robinson said. "You can't separate us."
"You shouldn't have let us two get up here," Davis said as they both laughed and left the podium.
The Lakers could almost live with one of the Big Three or Rondo getting a hot hand in the fourth quarter and beating them late. That would have been understandable, if not expected, by most in the media coming into the game. But for the Lakers to watch a possible 3-1 series lead evaporate within seven minutes at the hands of "Shrek and Donkey" was unacceptable.
The looks on the faces of the Lakers as they left their locker room were as blank as their dry erase board, which during the playoffs has usually had some witty phrase written on it like "3 Mo" or "2 More W's." They knew they let a golden opportunity slip away after leading for the majority of the game and possibly squeezing the last drops out of whatever Andrew Bynum's right knee had left. Bynum played only 12 minutes Thursday and failed to play more than two minutes in the second half, visibly limping whenever he moved.
As the 2010 Finals devolved into the 2008 Finals with Bynum out of the game, it became even more important for the Lakers to sense the urgency of the moment and close out the game in the fourth quarter. That they were unable to do it without their big man wasn't shocking. That they were unable to do it against the Celtics' reserves is outrageous and may ultimately cost the Lakers a championship if Bynum is unable to give the Lakers anything more than what he gave them Thursday.
This isn't the first time the Lakers' starters have been outclassed by a group of reserves during crunch time in the playoffs. During Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Suns, Phoenix's reserves, which outscored the Lakers' reserves 54-20 in the game, produced an 18-3 run in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. By the time Steve Nash and the Suns' starters re-entered with 3:05 to play, the Suns' subs had turned an 87-85 deficit into a 103-94 lead.
Again, it's one thing to be beaten by your opponent's best shot. It's another to be hammered by its second or third best and have them wildly celebrate every step of the way.
"They really stepped on it in the fourth quarter," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We seemed not to be able to stop the momentum of their game. Their bench outplayed us in that sequence and even with all that at the end of the game we had our shot at it and we couldn't contain what we had to do."
After a familiar ending to Game 4, the Lakers now find themselves in another 2-2 series, which they had against Oklahoma City and Phoenix. The difference in the 2-3-2 format, of course, is Game 5 is on the road, meaning the Lakers could possibly find themselves in the unfamiliar territory of being down and on the brink of elimination for the first time in the playoffs with a loss Sunday. Its a possibility that could become a reality as long as Bynum is on the mend and the tandem of "Shrek and Donkey" has its way with the Lakers' starters.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.