The bruisers vs. the cruisers

They came, they saw, for once they didn’t conquer.

By the time the Celtics arrived last week, the Lakers had worked themselves into such a state of indignation, complaints included not only Boston fans’ rocking their bus in the playoffs, but Ray Allen’s ringing insult as he accepted the team’s ESPY at the summer awards show here:

“Another win in L.A!”

If that was an insult, the Lakers are lucky to ever make it out of town anywhere they go, with Phil Jackson zinging everyone in sight, like last spring’s lighthearted jibe at Paul Pierce’s dramatic return in the NBA Finals after leaving the court in a wheelchair.


“We were just having a good time,” Allen said before the Christmas game. “It wasn’t trash talking. It wasn’t anything.

“The game is going to be the game for what it is today. They’re a good team, they’re one of the best teams in the NBA, we’re one of the best teams in the NBA.

“I don’t think they, nor we, need motivation to play this game.”

That’s how different the teams are.

Motivation, a given for the Celtics, had been the central issue for the Lakers, who proceeded to show how good they could be when not in cruise control.

Everyone then agreed this was only a game in December, including media people, who hyped it (hello), and Lakers players, who talked about it for weeks.

Indeed, December games don’t settle anything, but they reveal and highlight some things.

If anyone forgot, as almost everyone did, the Lakers’ size, depth and athleticism are far superior to the Celtics’. If the Lakers played as hard as the Celtics, and defended as well, they really would win 70.

The Lakers can be expected to dial up their effort (can’t they?) but still have only a dim idea of what they’re supposed to be doing in their new Boston-style, man-to-man-with-zone-principles-or-vice-versa scheme.

The Lakers’ scheme is actually harder to play, with players spread out, trying to funnel opponents where they want them to go.

The Celtics, meanwhile, sag to protect the lane so breakdowns aren’t as likely to open a freeway to the basket.

Boston’s defense is anchored by long, mobile Kevin Garnett, whose high-voltage intensity takes their whole team to a new level.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were waiting to get the ball back, blaming ritual targets for breakdowns -- point guards allowing penetration, Andrew Bynum getting in foul trouble -- as if they just have to straighten a few people out.

Actually, the point guards are often funneling their man to a big man who hasn’t rotated over. It’s possible that even if the Lakers try, this scheme may be too hard for them.

Of course, the Lakers won Thursday, suggesting the Celtics, who were in the midst of the deification process, might still have an issue or two themselves. Their stunning loss the following night at Golden State only underscored the point.

With one Celtics loss from Nov. 14 to Christmas, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan ranked them the No. 2 team in the franchise’s history, behind the 1985-86 Celtics with their Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish-Bill Walton front line.

Another Globe story on the Celtics noted, “The overwhelming feeling is that they can’t get much better.”

That had better not be true, for the Celtics’ sake.

Celtics players dismissed the impact of Bynum’s return, as if he were a 7-foot equipment manager who had wandered on the court.

The alternative would have been to say, “His mere size changes everything. Even if we can still beat them, we’re going to get cricks in our necks looking up at them.”

The Celtics are very short for such a physical, defense-oriented team, with Garnett their only rotation player over 6-9 in bare feet.

Tough as he is, Kendrick Perkins, who’s listed at 6-10, looks 6-8 1/2 , at most. (I saw him next to the Globe’s Marc Spears, who’s 6-6. Perkins looked an inch or so taller.)

Glen Davis, listed at 6-9, looks about 6-7 1/2 . Leon Powe, listed at 6-8, looks 6-6 1/2 .

Then there’s their bench, as in, what bench?

Powe and Tony Allen might or might not break into the Lakers’ nine-man rotation. Davis and Eddie House, no shot. If the Celtics’ endurance has yet to be tested, that loss Friday in Golden State wasn’t a good sign.

Point guard Rajon Rondo, now touted as an All-Star, is a dynamic defender, rebounder and penetrator . . . but still can’t shoot, allowing opponents to leave him, as Kobe Bryant did Thursday.

It’s a tribute to Coach Doc Rivers’ direction, Garnett’s fury, Pierce’s clutch play, Allen’s shooting ability, assistant coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense and everyone’s professionalism that the Celtics function at the level they do.

Adding a reserve or two would help, with the possibility they could get P.J. Brown, 39, out of retirement again and Dikembe Mutombo, 42, too.

No Celtics official will comment on the possibility they’re the team New York’s exiled Stephon Marbury talks about joining, as if it’s a done deal. With Marbury on his best behavior as his contract runs out, the Celtics might win 70.

It’s only December, after all. The ancient rivals have a long way to go.