Posted Feb 11 2011 9:09AM
BOSTON -- Things had reached the point for the Los Angeles Lakers this season where it seemed clear: They were going to need to leave some blood on the floor against the Boston Celtics Thursday night at TD Garden.
Little did they know, until deep in their 92-86 victory, that it would be their own.
But when Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol spun into each other and banged heads in the second half after a Lakers bucket, it at least provided a sense of the toughness lacking from the NBA's defending champions for so much of 2010-11, a willingness to bang -- bang anything! -- that's required to face and defeat a team such as Boston. Or Miami. Or Dallas, or any of the league's other elite against whom Los Angeles had come up empty.
The whiteboard in the Celtics' dressing room prior to tipoff was tactical and largely emotionless, but in the context of the Lakers' recent unrest, some of Boston's game-planning seemed almost to mock Thursday's guests. Our Physicality Vs. Their Finesse / Hit Them First ...Make Them Uncomfortable. And this: Make Everything Hard For Kobe / Must See & Feel A Crowd. And this: Win The Rebounding War.
Let's see how that worked out for the Celtics: The Lakers amassed a 47-36 edge on the boards. Bryant, after taking just three shots in the first half when he drew double teams, got off 14 in the second half, including three in a row that broke the Celtics' back after Bryant re-entered at 5:04 of the fourth quarter. Peyton Manning, Ron Artest called him. Reading what they needed, said Gasol.
As for that physicality business, the Lakers provided enough of their own; Gasol's mouth and Odom's forehead were the points of contact that left both players bloodied. Sure, it's always better to bang opponents that hard, better still if it's their blood that spills. But it was a start, the most satisfying victory of the season for the Lakers because, let's face it, it came against a foe that really mattered.
"Yeah, I don't know 'best win,' but it's good," coach Phil Jackson conceded afterward. "We started feeling comfortable out there. ... We said, this [1-6] record we're supposed to have against 'power teams,' this isn't what's important. What's important is coming out, playing our game and finding ourselves in a game which is highly competitive. And not losing ourselves."
There were, after all, plenty of fans in southern California and Laker Nation elsewhere to handle that. The hand-wringing had reached raw, skin-off-the-bones proportions, with the Lakers inundated with questions about their Finals-readiness (it's never just about the playoffs) and rumors of dramatic personnel moves. Here they sit, 37-16, one victory shy of the Celtics, with three down and four to go on this hellacious Grammys road trip, and yet their world was coming to an end.
Or would have, with a second defeat in 12 days against hated Boston.
"Nobody knows what we go through day in and day out," reserve guard Shannon Brown told me late Thursday. "They talk about what they see from the outside, which is not much. We're out there battling every day, we know what we go through, what player's doing this, how he has to rehab, whatever it is. We definitely hear it. We don't like nobody talking bad about us. But we know what we have to do. We have team meetings. We listen to coach. He gives us his point of view, and he's got 11 championships."
Super teams are supposed to be super, well, all of the time, aren't they?
"I think [fans] get spoiled," Brown said. "I think people think it's easier than it is. I think they think we don't work hard, we don't have families, we don't have kids, we don't have things to worry about off the court. I think they think we just come in here and we're supposed to make every shot, we're supposed to steal every ball, we're supposed to get every rebound. They forget there's another team out there trying to do the same thing."
It's important that the Lakers not forget there was another team out there with problems of its own. Boston was playing without big men Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal, as well as wing Marquis Daniels. The Celtics also lost backup point guard Nate Robinson to a knee bruise early in the contest.
And on a night when veteran Boston shooting guard Ray Allen made NBA history with his first and second 3-point field goals -- he tied and passed Reggie Miller in the first quarter as the all-time leader in that category -- it was foul trouble more than L.A. defense that stymied the Celtics sharpshooter after halftime and fueled the Lakers' 27-15 scoring edge in the third.
But if the Lakers don't get full credit for the payback they exacted on Boston, well, it was just one no-win situation within a greater one for them. The macro version was this: Win, and people would wonder why things only click with this team after someone has shouted "Fire!" Lose, and the clamor would morph into hysteria.
Not much of a choice, but the Lakers picked well. They spoiled Allen's 3-point hugathon. They stuck it to that Celtics' whiteboard. They had Boston coach Doc Rivers bemoaning his team's lack of mental toughness, at least for a night. They got aggressive games from their bigs against a team that's biggest in the East and they even had Gasol and Odom checking out their battle scars -- friendly fire or not -- in the mirror afterward.
Eff finesse. There was something almost Celtics-like to the way the Lakers met the nationally televised challenge. And even if, technically, it might have been Jackson's final visit to Boston's building, his last shift on the parquet, it did not feel like it.
It felt like the start of something, to be continued again in June.
"The Finals? Of course," said Bryant, when asked if he would welcome the same matchup -- a rubber match, considering the 2008 and 2010 Finals -- in the championship round.
Even with all the emotions and melodrama? "No, this is great," the Lakers star said. "This is one of the best atmospheres, if not the best atmosphere, playing in the league today. This arena and everything that they do. It's a challenging place to play. It's a lot of fun."
It was for the Lakers Thursday.
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