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Analysis: Lakers grow up, exorcise demons in Boston

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Feb 6 2009 4:16PM

BOSTON -- It was cold and crisp in Boston on Thursday as the temperature never rose above 20 degrees. Snow and ice made the streets slippery and people hurried to get inside to escape the chill. Outside of TD Banknorth Garden, there was no mistaking it was February in New England.

But later that night inside the Garden, it felt like June as the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics turned up the heat in an intense, Finals-level battle. But unlike last June, this time the Lakers were the ones celebrating at midcourt.

Showing a grittiness, a toughness and an edge they either weren't capable of or were reluctant to show during last year's Finals, the Lakers planted their feet, stood their ground and struck back at the Celtics with a hard-fought 110-109 overtime win (Recap | Box Score).

The Lakers are now 5-0 on their current six-game road trip, and in sweeping the season series from Boston, secured the tiebreaker against the Celtics in the race for home-court advantage in the postseason. The Lakers also snapped a double-digit Celtics' winning streak -- again. On Christmas in L.A., the Lakers brought the Celtics' franchise-record 19-game streak to a screeching halt. Thursday night, Boston's streak stopped at 12.

For the Lakers, this win was impressive and important on many levels. So far, they have weathered the loss of Andrew Bynum. The Lakers have also conquered their grueling schedule as this victory came on the second night of a back-to-back and third in four nights.

The Lakers on Thursday night snapped the Celtics' 12-game win streak, securing the league's best record:
Highlights | Box Score | Recap | Postgame Interview: Kobe Bryant
• Thomas: Rivalry remains solid

Physically, they matched the Celtics blow-for-blow. During a pause in the action early in the first half, Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol went cheek-to-cheek and looked as if they were doing an angry dance while whispering sweet expletives in each other's ears. In the second half, the refs assessed two sets of double technical fouls.

"It's a physical game," said Paul Pierce, last year's Finals MVP, "but you have to come to expect that. Two of the top teams in the NBA battling for the best record in the league. You have to come to expect that type of game."

Yes, you expect that type of game from the Celtics, but not from the Lakers, who seemed to wilt when confronted with the Celtics' intensity last year. Not this time, as Kobe Bryant noted that his squad showed maturity it didn't have in the past.

"I think the growth that we had from last year to this year," Bryant said, "when they went on those 8-0 runs, we kept our poise. Last year, 8-0 runs turned into a 15-2 run.

"That's something we couldn't weather and I think we've grown tremendously in our execution and our poise."

Bryant's assessment proved to be astute. On three occasions in the second half, the Celtics appeared as if they were going to run away with the game. But each time, the Lakers answered with a 3-pointer. Derek Fisher's trey cut Boston's lead to 59-53 early in the third quarter. Late in the third, Jordan Farmar nailed one to slice Boston's lead to 79-74. In the fourth, the Celtics took a five-point lead, their largest of the fourth quarter, only to have Lamar Odom shave it to two with another 3-pointer, one of nine the Lakers made.

And then there was Bryant, who had been brilliant in New York on Monday with 61 points and in Toronto on Wednesday with 36. He was far from great on Thursday, going 10-for-29 from the field, but he was great when the Lakers needed him most: in crunch time. He hit three 3-pointers in a span of four minutes, the last giving the Lakers a 101-100 advantage with 1:30 to go in regulation.

"I shot the ball like crap for three-and-a-half quarters," Bryant said, "which is funny because that's how the game goes. You miss 15-footers and all of a sudden you knock down 25-footers.

"I knew when I have games like this, from experience, that down the stretch, those long shots tend to fall, and the easy ones don't."

Psychologically, the Lakers exorcised the demons of last year's 39-point defeat in Game 6.

"It was very important, mentally," Gasol said. "For us to come into this building and play the way we played and battled the way we battled tonight.

"We should be proud and it should be an example of how we should play every night."

If the Lakers can follow Gasol's advice, then they are the team to beat in the NBA.

Meanwhile, this game showed that the defending champs have no room for error. Kevin Garnett returned after missing two games with the flu, but fouled out with 4:22 in regulation. The Celtics may have been able to survive without K.G. against Minnesota and Philly, but they couldn't do it against the Lakers.

Therein lies the difference between this year's Celtics and last year's. They lack depth and experience, and in turn their young bench may not be capable of coming through in crunch time. Teams will leave second-year forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis to attempt wide open 15-footers. And why not, when he misses seven of the eight he takes. It may have been a different story if the Celtics could have turned to a vet as they did James Posey or P.J. Brown last season.

However, the one Celtic who could hit those 15-footers late was sitting on the bench in warmups with a towel wrapped around his head.

"It was very tough to watch," Garnett said. "More than anything, it's frustrating. I never like to miss any games. I've always said if I can walk, I can play. It tells you what kind of days I had.

"We're not here to talk about me, we're here to talk about how we let a good opportunity slip."

As for wanting another opportunity to take on the Lakers again, Garnett left no doubt.

"Hell, yeah," he said, "we're the champs, right?"

For now, yes. But if the Celtics aren't careful, they could get a good look at the Lakers doing a victory dance at Staples Center in June. As for the Lakers, they will spend the next 36 hours in Boston before flying to Cleveland for a game Sunday against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. In that time, they can revel in the fact they are the best basketball team on the planet.

Well, until Sunday at least.

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