Lakers Win, But Let's Call It a Tie

You could not have put together a more loaded regular-season game if you had scripted it. We often hear about a "playoff atmosphere," but yesterday’s Lakers/Celtics tangle was so fraught with implications that it's hard to tell what was really at stake — or what the Lakers’ victory really tells us. ↵

↵For one, the Celtics won the 2007-08 title, beating out the Lakers. If that was the extent of the back story, the pressure would still be on the Lakers to prove they could get right back in the fray; this game would've been the next round, or at least a preview of the next round, between two heavyweights. But the Celtics didn't merely win, they totally unmanned the Lakers’ vaunted offense and left MVP Kobe Bryant floundering. There was a pride factor, involved. The series may have gone six games, but Los Angeles had to show that they indeed deserved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Boston. ↵

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↵So yesterday was about answering the question "who are the Lakers, really?" dispelling the myths that this soft, smoke-and-mirrors, superstar-driven team was not a house of cards. ↵

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↵ ↵Except Boston didn't just win the series in six. They so thoroughly annihilated Los Angeles in the sixth game that it became personal. This wasn't just about the Lakers reminding us that they were still relevent, but about avenging themselves — regardless of the finer points of public opinion. Kobe, as mighty and indomitable an ego as you'll find in this game, had been crushed by the Celtics. If his disappearing act in the 2006 series with Phoenix remains the single greatest evidence of his flaws and contradictions, this eliminiation game was Bryant's ultimate humiliation. ↵

↵

↵The Lakers weren't only looking for a win, or affirmation, or even vindication. This matchup wasn't about them. It was about hitting the Celtics, hard. No matter how strong they've been this season, Game 6 still stings, and the only medicine for that is out-and-out, cold-blooded vengeance. Storming out of the depths to not only stake their claim, but negate the Celtics. Basketball doesn't get much more existential than this. ↵

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↵The good news, at least for Los Angeles, is that the Lake Show triumphed. Kobe played stupendously, and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom — notably M.I.A. during much of the Finals — chipped in as key contributors. It wasn't a beatdown, but it did remind us who the Lakers really are. And that they must be taken seriously, no matter what Jeff Van Gundy says. ↵

↵

↵But all of this assumes that the Celtics have sat static since last May. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. The Celtics of today are more fiery, energetic, accomplished, and generally terrifying than even the team that earned those rings at the end of last year's grueling playoffs. Ray Allen is finally looking like the Ray Ray of old, a deadly scorer who adds another dimension to the offense; Rajon Rondo has arrived as a playmaker and leader on the floor; Kendrick Perkins has accepted his role of chief goon, and even developed the facial expression to go with it; and Kevin Garnett is, quite simply, the crazy, expansive KG that got lost in last year's workmanlike push for a title. ↵

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↵Oh, and they're off to the best start in NBA history. Heading into yesterday's game, Boston was sitting on a 27-2 record, and riding a 19-game win streak. Los Angeles may have had a lot to prove, but they were going up against a team that had elevated itself. Had — hypothetically, of course — last year's Finals ended close, this game still would've been Boston, the juggernaut, looking to get through their toughest challenge of the season unscathed. Since, for all of the Celtics' advances, they haven't consistently pummeled teams like Cleveland, have spent an awful lot of time on their home floor, and really need Paul Pierce to get going (which he did on Thursday). ↵

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↵So the Lakers beat the Celtics in a tight regular-season game. Where does this leave us? Probably dead even. ↵

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↵The Celtics have fallen from their pedestal, all the more so because Los Angeles didn't successfully install themselves as the undeniably kings of this league. ↵

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↵Both teams are better than last year, but have gaps to fill. In Boston, it's how to work with a bench that's lost James Posey, its heart and soul, as well as hoping Pierce has finally found his rhythm. Los Angeles needs more consistent contributions from Andrew Bynum, and needs to decide exactly how to fit Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza into the rotation. ↵

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↵Quite often, these winter showdowns involve manufactured, or overblown, storylines. For once, that wasn't the case. But the outcome, ironically, neither brought the Lakers total redemption or elevated the Celtics into the stratosphere. ↵

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↵Instead, now the balance sheet is even, and really, both of these teams are at least on the stable ground of the regular season. At least for the moment. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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