Lakers go green
So much of it arrived all at once, blurring the distinction between what actually happened first -- the return of the Lakers’ defense or the appearance of Pau Gasol’s offense.
There was no doubt, though, what happened in the end. A 19-game winning streak had come and gone.
The Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics, finally, 92-83, shutting them down completely in the final three minutes and ending a summer and more of self-doubt in front of an energized holiday crowd Thursday at Staples Center.
That the Lakers ended the longest winning streak in Celtics history was only part of the drama.
They stood chest to chest with the team that bumped them around in six games of the Finals. They out-defended the league’s most daunting defense. They took a knockout effort from Kobe Bryant -- 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists -- and found someone to add to it, though it was doubtful it would be Gasol.
They played the way teams are supposed to play in June, and it led to a victory.
“It was a good measuring stick for us to show how much we’ve progressed since the Finals,” Bryant said. “I think we have gotten better. We added Trevor [Ariza] and Andrew [Bynum], who are healthy, we have a better defensive system and I think we’re just a better ballclub.”
The measuring stick almost showed little to no progress.
The teams were tied, 81-81, and the normally steady Gasol was stumbling along, missing seven of 11 shots before driving the Lakers to an 11-2 run to end the game.
He made a 15-footer from the right side and a running seven-foot hook shot, and converted a three-point play on a long drive down the lane, giving the Lakers an 88-83 lead with 1:28 to play.
He also blocked two shots in the last three minutes, the first leading to a double-clutch reverse dunk at the other end by Ariza, giving the Lakers a 90-83 lead and all but ending the game.
“I wasn’t being effective, I wasn’t contributing the way I wanted to,” said Gasol, who finished with 20 points, three rebounds and five assists. “I’m glad that I was able to get over the slow start for me.”
His slow start led to a discussion with Bryant that was anything but “Happy Holidays.”
“I just had to remind him, ‘You’re one of the best in the world, period. . . . Just go out there and be Pau,’ ” Bryant said.
Beforehand, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said he didn’t mention anything to the team about last season’s Finals. On the other hand, he told reporters that the players probably remembered their embarrassing Game 4 effort at Staples Center last June, the one where a 24-point lead somehow turned into a loss.
“We’d like to kind of redeem ourselves on our home court after, from what I understand, [Ray] Allen made reference to it in an ESPN awards [show] this summer, about coming back and having another victory in L.A.,” Jackson said.
Indeed, Allen said on the Nokia Theatre stage that the Celtics had garnered “another win in L.A.” after taking the category for team of the year in professional sports. (A TV camera then cut to a stone-faced Derek Fisher sitting in the audience next to his wife.)
There were no handshakes between the players at the end of the game, although Bryant gave a respectful thumbs up in the direction of the Celtics as he left the court.
The game itself was bookmarked by history. It started out as the first meeting between teams with so few losses this far into a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau, and it ended with Jackson’s becoming the NBA coach to accrue 1,000 victories the fastest, needing only 1,423 games to beat Pat Riley to the mark in 11 fewer games.
Coming into Thursday, the Celtics led the league in opponents’ shooting percentage (42%) and were second in points given up (91.4), but the Lakers showed they were equally tough.
No other play symbolized their first-half effort more than one that took place early in the second quarter. Bryant slapped a loose ball downcourt, Ariza tracked it down in the corner and threw an off-balance pass to Sasha Vujacic, who beat Glen Davis to the ball and scored on a layup. Vujacic was fouled on the play as well, his free throw giving the Lakers a 32-26 lead with 9:19 to play.
“We’ve been listening to forever to people calling us soft, calling us not a defensive team. Whatever,” Vujacic said. “We wanted to prove them wrong and we’ve been waiting for the opportunity for a long time.”
The typically laid-back crowd sensed it too.
How keyed up was it? Even reserve Celtics guard Eddie House was booed when he entered the game for the first time.
Fans also booed when Rajon Rondo had the wind knocked out of him in the fourth quarter and remained down on the court for a few minutes.
Paul Pierce finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Celtics. Allen had 14 points but made only five of 14 shots. Kevin Garnett had 22 points.
When it was over, Gasol and Bryant hugged near midcourt. They had beaten the Celtics in a physical, defensive way they wouldn’t have dreamed of last June.
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By the numbers
0: Free throws by Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett
1: Celtics’ losing streak after a 19-game winning streak
7: Points for Pau Gasol in the last 2:47
191: Days since Celtics beat Lakers in Game 6 on June 17
42: Days until Lakers play Celtics next, Feb. 5 in Boston
114: Days until the playoffs begin
4-6: Lakers’ record on Christmas the last 10 years
1,000: Number of victories in Phil Jackson’s career