Last year in the NBA Finals, the Lakers battled the Celtics for five games, losing three that included Boston’s comeback from 24 points down in the second half of game four. Then came game six, when the Celtics basically blew L.A. out of the water for the only time of the series.
Yet – and we’re speaking generally here – much of what the Lakers players have heard throughout the offseason and much of this season is how they’re “soft,” or that they lack the “toughness” to beat a team as physical as Boston.
Can one regular season meeting in Boston change that perception?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, the Lakers (40-9) swept the Celtics (41-10) in the 2008-09 regular season, including their first win in Boston since the Celtics acquired their current squad, just days after dominant center Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury.
“It was important for us,” said Kobe Bryant, who despite struggling to a 10-for-29 performance from the field nailed three clutch fourth quarter threes. “I think the growth that we had from last year to this year, when they went on those 8-0 runs we kept our poise, last year 8-0 runs turned into a 15-2 run. That is something that we couldn’t weather and I think we’ve grown tremendously in our execution and our poise.”
And so, in L.A.’s gutty, gritty 110-109 OT win in Beantown on Thursday night – the team’s fifth straight road win – the Lakers were anything but soft or weak. Bryant’s threes played a big part in forcing the overtime, while two Lamar Odom free throws with 16 seconds left proved the final difference in the scoreboard as neither Paul Pierce nor Ray Allen could hit contested shots in Boston’s last possession. Those free throws were somewhat ironic, as Odom had missed four of his first six from the line, and the Lakers as a team had missed 12 (17-of-29, 58.6 percent).
Bryant said that he was proud of all of his teammates before singling out his lanky lefty.
“I’m proud of Lamar, in particular, because he really hadn’t played, he was in foul trouble, and he stuck with it,” he said of Odom, who scored 18 of his 20 points after halftime. “(Odom) showed a lot of growth and his focus, he’s able to get right back to it, put himself back into the game, and play extremely well.”
Another key moment came with 4:22 left in the fourth quarter, when Kevin Garnett was called for his sixth foul after Derek Fisher drew an offensive foul as only he can. While the Celtics surely missed KG down the stretch, they simply turned to the capable hands of Pierce and Allen.
Also terrific throughout the evening was Pau Gasol, who shot over 70 percent for the third consecutive night (10-of-14), and grabbed 14 rebounds to complement his 24 points.
No matter how it happened, the Lakers will take it.
“I think today we were expecting (to win) this game,” said Trevor Ariza, who didn’t have anything resembling his best game but still brought the attitude. “We don’t back down from nobody, we don’t care who you are and every time we step on the floor we step on the floor to win and compete with whoever.”
The bottom line from L.A.’s performance not just in Boston but since Bynum went down is that the team is improved from last year’s Finals. Talk about experience, attitude and increased talent (Ariza, Bynum once he’s back), and now the mental fortitude that comes from winning on the champion’s home floor and you’re feeling pretty decent.
Tough and strong, indeed.
Triples Kobe Bryant nailed in the last 5:25 of the fourth quarter after struggling with his shot all night. He finished at 10-of-29 (34.5 percent), including missing all four of his OT attempts. But those triples were chill. “I shot the ball like crap for 3.5 quarters which is funny because that’s how the game goes,” said Kobe. “You miss 15-footers and all of a sudden you knock down 25-footers.” The 25-footers came with 5:25 in the fourth (95-93 Boston), 3:23 (96-96) and 1:30 (101-100 Lakers).
Steals for the Lakers, including three from Derek Fisher and two each from Luke Walton and Lamar Odom.
Also the winning streak for Boston prior to its loss. Remember that on Christmas day, the Lakers snapped Boston’s 19-game winning streak.
Points after halftime from Odom.
Pau Gasol’s shooting percentage on 10-of-14, the third straight game in which he’s shot over 70 percent from the floor. The All-Star finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, plus a block and three assists. He’s also had at least 14 rebounds in three straight games.
Minutes in two nights from Pau Gasol, who played 44 minutes against the Raptors on Wednesday and 46 minutes against the Celtics on Thursday.
L.A.’s winning percentage over the Celtics this season.