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Lakers looking ahead to Celtics matchup during 100-95 loss to Sacramento Kings

January 29, 2011 | 12:21 am

59099061Once the Lakers gathered around after practice Thursday, co-captain Derek Fisher emphasized one thing before the players went their separate ways.

Do not talk about the Lakers-Celtics matchup.

The intrigue surrounding that game proves pretty obvious. The game Sunday would mark the first time the long-time rivals would meet since the Lakers won Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. As expected with a rivalry many deem to be the best among all sports because of the Lakers' and Celtics' combined 33 championships among the 64 NBA titles, they met 12 times in the NBA Finals and many of the matchups have proved contentious, physical and competitive. Adding to the intrigue, word leaked out that Celtics forward Kevin Garnett plans to wear shoes to the game with the message embroidered "152-120," signifying the Boston's all-time win-loss record against the Lakers.

But with the Lakers technically to play one game beforehand -- a nondescript home contest against the West's second-worst team in the Sacramento Kings -- Fisher wanted the focused set squarely on that.

"It's the right thing to do," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who also cited the Lakers' one-point win last season over the Kings as evidence for needing to think that way. "We're about playing the game that's right now."

Too bad the Lakers didn't. Their 100-95 loss Friday at Staples Center to the lowly Kings provided all the makings of a complacent team eager to take a shortcut before its marquee matchup against an arch rival and former NBA Finals opponent.

Just don't presume the Lakers will acknowledge it. Their denials came in the form of Jackson avoiding the topic ("Next question"), Lakers guard Kobe Bryant downplaying the issue ("Maybe a little bit, but I doubt it"), Lakers forward Lamar Odom jokingly attacking the messenger ("I'm blaming it on you guys. You guys were jumping to the Boston game") and Lakers forward Ron Artest claiming ignorance ("I'm not sure").

That lack of focus resulted in the Lakers (33-14) reverting back to losing to a sub-.500 opponent that entered the contest with a 4-16 road record. An opponent with a pattern of failing to close out games and a young team in constant disarray. It's a trend the Lakers had experienced earlier in the season with underperforming efforts against struggling teams in Indiana, Milwaukee and Memphis.

"I think of all those nights as being teams that wanted to prove something," Jackson said, "and wanted the game a bit more than we did."

The results weren't pretty. They showcased an All-Star candidate, this one in the form of DeMarcus Cousins, whose 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting eclipsed the point total of the Lakers' front line in Andrew Bynum (12 points on four-of-eight shooting), Pau Gasol (nine points on a four-of-11 clip) and Lamar Odom (four points on zero-of-seven shooting). Suddenly the Lakers' biggest strengths became their biggest weaknesses, as Sacramento cashed in on easy put-backs, dunks and alley-oop lobs through shoddy interior defense.

"We didn't even come out and defend the way we should have, myself in particular," Bynum said. "In the first half, I kind of disrespected Cousins and he got off to a blazing start. You can't do that in the NBA. Can't take a night off defensively."

You can't also take a night off for three quarters. The Lakers featured a valiant fourth-quarter comeback that nearly erased the poor defensive lapses, the eight third-quarter turnovers and the general lack of interest for most of the game, not to mention a 20-point deficit in the third quarter. A Bryant dunk, a Brown rebound, an Odom baseline drive and a behind-the-back pass to Gasol helped cut the Kings' lead to 93-89 with 3:18 left and electrified the 18,997 at Staples Center that other times booed the Lakers.

The relentlessness in Gasol and Steve Blake diving to the court in hopes to create a turnover and Gasol's peskiness on Cousins that resulted in him losing his cool only existed when the Lakers wanted to rally. And the Lakers' fallen efforts, including Gasol's blocked shots, shots that rimmed out from Bryant and Blake, a shot from Brown that hit off the rim and went over the backboard, showed the Lakers can't treat games with the same kind of attitude as writing a last-minute term paper.

"We didn't execute very well defensively," said Bryant, whose 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting helped him surpass Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. "We were a little out of sync and slow on our rotations. It cost us."

So what does this exactly mean? Not much. The Lakers won't remember this game by ... probably right now. Beyond sitting 5 1/2 games behind San Antonio (38-7) for the top spot in the Western Conference, late-game rallies prove more physically and mentally draining than in say a double-digit win against Sacramento in November that featured all the starters resting for the entire fourth quarter. And though Boston also ended their Friday night with a poor showing against Phoenix, the Lakers have shown in their Christmas Day clunker to Miami that an embarrassing loss to a poor team before a marquee matchup doesn't always pique their interest.

"Sometimes it serves a purpose, not damage," Jackson said. "Guys get back and get back to their game and aggressiveness and nature we were trying to play the game."

Everyone will find out if that rings true Sunday against Boston, the game that lingered on the Lakers' minds a few days too early.

--Mark Medina

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Photo: Kings guards Beno Udrih and Tyreke Evans battle Lakers power forward Pau Gasol for a loose ball in the fourth quarter Friday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times