Posted Jun 11 2010 8:11PM
BOSTON -- No one on the Lakers drooled. No one on the Lakers slugged a ref, however accidentally. No one on the Lakers got technicals in the fourth quarter of a close Finals game when a loss could have meant certain doom.
The Lakers. The grounded team.
Yeah, everyone saw that coming.
They're in a 2-2 series and still have a Sunday evening game in raucous TD Garden, but this isn't the roster of old that was on the verge of coming off at the hinges at every turn. Of course, this isn't the Boston Garden of old either, bulldozed and replaced next door by one of the airplane hangars that pass for modern-day arenas, so it's just them against the Celtics in a fair fight without the ghosts of leprechauns or the small creatures the health department would frown upon.
These are the grown-up Lakers in a way that hasn't been seen in Los Angeles championship times since the Showtime era, more focused than the 2008-09 squad that won the title and certainly more mature than the Kobe-Shaq testosterone festival. That group a year ago lacked the necessary killer instinct through two rounds, but this team has been dialed in since about five games into the first round against the Thunder, with these Finals the greatest contrast of all of how they have changed.
The Celtics are the team holding a fuse and flicking matches, with Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins one technical away from an automatic one-game suspension.
The Celtics are the club with saliva drooling out of Glen Davis' mouth as he celebrated a bucket and with Paul Pierce swinging his fist at another time... and connecting with the face of referee Eddie F. Rush. Fun moments, but strange moments.
The Celtics are the zany ones, with Wallace and Nate Robinson getting techs in the fourth quarter of the Game 4 victory, juggling knives with the season on the line when defeat would have meant an insurmountable 3-1 deficit.
"They're pretty emotional," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of the Celtics. "They had their backs against the wall [Thursday night], and they played desperate and they got away with it."
The Lakers have split the four games, but not because they became undone as in previous playoff stumbles. If the Celtics win the series, they will have taken the title from L.A. There is no lack of focus, lack of stability, lack of effort from the defending champions, and that's noteworthy given the history.
"Obviously the experience that we have now gives us something that we can count on and gives us confidence at these type of moments," said forward Pau Gasol, a central figure in the three consecutive trips to the Finals. "So it doesn't really make us relax at all [or be] overconfident. But at the same time, we know what to do, we know how to play, we know how to get it done. And we know how important Game 5 will be, so we've just got to get ourselves mentally and physically ready to give our very best in that game and that's it, and try to accomplish our mission.
"We've just evolved. We understood what it took to be successful at this level at this time of the year, and that's why we have been successful, and that's been a progress since I've gotten here individually and collectively."
The interesting part being that the roster is basically a carryover from 2008-09. The one important change is the arrival of Ron Artest, and let's just say that doesn't account for the new sense of stability.
There is craziness around the Lakers just by force of nature -- several players with individual PR representatives, Kobe Bryant as a worldwide star, Lamar Odom marrying a reality-TV star last offseason and, most of all, the constant spotlight as the No. 1 team in the market. The slightest turbulence and panic is all around them, from fans and the media, as when they dropped two in a row to upstart Oklahoma City and Bryant was asked after a practice about relishing the challenge of having his back against the wall.
"Who said our backs are against the wall?" he responded in tones of displeasure. "It's a 2-2 series. What the hell is going on around here?"
Then the Lakers won two in a row to advance, swept the Jazz in the second round in an unexpectedly quick outcome and looked strong against the Suns in the Western Conference finals, losing twice and only then because they were facing a quality opponent. Nothing was given away.
Nothing has been given away in the Finals either. The Lakers have proven they can win here, are in what has become a best-of-three series with two of the games in L.A. if needed, and won't be driven by panic on Sunday. They are grounded.
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