The playoffs may as well have started early in Boston Thursday night when the Los Angeles Lakers came to town. With the fire from last year's NBA Finals rekindled, basketball was impacted in both the competitiveness -- a 110-109 Celtics loss in overtime -- and chippiness of the game.
After a relatively subpar first half, emotions between the two rivals began a slow burn. Casual movements were met with stiff elbows, contact was met with retaliation and fingers were pointed. The contest evolved into one requiring careful monitoring and frequent whistles, and as occurs so often in those cases, one team walks out of the building feeling slighted.
It's rarely the victors.
"Assessing the game these days, I don't know what's a foul, what's an All-Star, what's a bad call or good call," Kevin Garnett said. "I guess you gotta go out there and just play. At times you tend to put refs in situations to make calls and when they're not called, I guess you gotta play through it."
The foul that shaped the game was Garnett's sixth, whistled with 4:22 remaining in the game and Boston up two. After having the ball poked away in the post, Garnett, the former MVP, made contact with Derek Fisher, sending the smaller guard to the ground.
"Stuff like that usually doesn't happen," Eddie House said of the call against Garnett. "But hey, it did, and this is a team, so we have to figure out a way to rally without him."
Despite playing their last two games without him due to the flu, losing Garnett down the stretch proved too much. From that moment on, Garnett's mark, Pau Gasol, scored seven points, the Celtics lost by one and a 12-game winning streak was over.
Prior to Garnett's fouling out, Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant had already been called for a double-technical at midcourt, Kendrick Perkins called for a loose ball foul for hindering the path of Gasol and Leon Powe was involved in another double-technical. By the late stages of them game, when things loosen up, the contest was already in "clean up" mode.
"I thought in the third and fourth quarter the game got out of control," Doc Rivers said. "I really did. And I thought the officials allowed it to get out of control. I just thought there was a lot of chippiness. You know, it's funny, with 30 seconds into the second half, I yelled out on the floor, and said, 'Guys, there's elbows. Clean it up.'
"We were the retaliators a lot tonight. And we got caught, obviously. But they missed the first ones, a lot. And so I thought once the game went there, I thought both teams were out. I thought it was just a chippy game in the second half, and it didn't need to be. It could've been a much cleaner game. And I really thought that the way that was called in that stretch changed the game."
With the ability to be physical out of their control, the Celtics had, for a few minutes, part of their identity stripped away.
"I think they were allowed to be more physical," House said of the Lakers. "We're definitely the more physical team, but we weren't allowed to play that way."
But in the end, the call that could help shape future meetings between these two teams was the one that was never made. Once the Celtics regained the ball with 3.0 seconds left in overtime and down one point, they controlled their own fate. One made shot, from anywhere, and they win the duel.
On that final play, the ball reached Ray Allen, who dribbled right and pulled up for a leaning jumper at the buzzer. The shot did not go in, and Allen, contested by Gasol and Fisher, fell to the floor.
"I thought I was pushed," Allen said. "I almost twisted...I think I did twist my ankle. I thought I was fouled, but you know, we can take a lot [from] the game because it came down to one last play, but we had opportunities."
The sentiment was shared.
"I just thought it was a hand check from the time Ray caught it. And unless the rules have changed, you can't do that," Rivers said.
Strange circumstances to end a game, yes, but not approaching an excuse. The word of the night was opportunity, because the Celtics had plenty of it. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said neither team played up to their capability, which also means both teams had ample room to improve. Some breaks were spotlighted, but they will always go in both directions. That's playoff basketball, and it's part of how the Celtics became champs.
"We ain't the type of team to complain about calls," Leon Powe said. "Sometimes the calls aren't going to go your way. They're a good team, we are a good team, they just came out on top this time."