The lasting image of the Lakers' 92-86 victory Thursday over the Boston Celtics that signifies the team's jump back to dominance might be this: Kobe Bryant puckered his lips after draining a fadeaway jumper over Ray Allen that gave the Lakers an eight-point lead with 48 seconds remaining. The lasting image of the Lakers' aggressiveness might feature this: Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom accidentally knocking heads, an episode that happened after Odom tipped in Gasol's missed shot, required a bandage on his forehead and necessitated stitches afterward. And the lasting image of the Lakers' sense of relief might be this: the team exchanging handshakes and pats on the back after a well-fought victory.
The obvious ramifications behind this win: The Lakers improved to 3-0 on their seven-game trip, winning four of their last five games, increased their mark against teams with better records than them to 2-6 and, of course, softened concern over the Lakers' play and whether they need to make a trade, mostly notably Andrew Bynum, who posted an impressive 16 points and nine rebounds. But what makes the Lakers' victory against the Celtics more more meaningful goes beyond the fact they evened the season-series against their archrivals. The reason may not go in the history books, as will Allen's 20-point performance that catapulted him to the league's all-time leading three-point shooter in field-goals made, but it's something that will serve them well particularly when the postseason begins. The Lakers showed they're a much different team than when they suffered a double-digit loss Jan. 30 to Boston by managing to overcome the initial adversities that initially plagued them.
The Lakers trailed as many as 15 points for reasons that sound too familiar. The Lakers had no answer for Allen. They appeared as motionless as they often do against a sub.-500 opponent. And the Lakers' decision to involve Pau Gasol and Bynum early at the expense of Kobe Bryant seemed to do little to ease the team's poor outside shooting.
Then came the second half, when Magic Johnson tweeted "It's a good game, but if the Lakers are going to win Kobe has to take over!" That's exactly what happened. Bryant's 23 points on nine of 17 shooting featured him scoring five of the Lakers eight points to open the third quarter, scoring 12 third quarter points and plenty of vintage fourth-quarter plays. His turnaround jumper off the left block moments after entering the game, his sharp drive to the basket and his fadeaway that threw Allen off balance all demonstrate how Bryant's aggressiveness helped jump-start the offense.
But what bodes more impressive is how he helped lay that foundation for everyone else. Remember, how he scored only two points off two shots in the first quarter while Gasol and Bynum combined for 14 points? Well the Lakers' 27-20 first-quarter deficit didn't prove that strategy is worse than in what happened in the last matchup, where Bryant's 41-point effort happened while everyone else stood around. It proved instead that no amount of offense will be enough if the Lakers don't make stops.
That all changed in the second half, when the Lakers held the Celtics to 33 points on 28.9% shooting, a severe dropoff from the 51.3% mark Boston previously shot from the field. It also changed when an aggressive Bryant didn't mean everyone else stood around. Bryant sat on the bench for the fourth quarter until the 5:03 mark. Even through mistakes such as Bynum's fumbled rebound, rushed pass to Odom on the perimeter and missed close-range shot, the fourth quarter revealed a resurgent Shannon Brown (four of his 12 points) an aggressive Odom (threw Garnett to the ground) and a disciplined defense that held Boston scoreless for the first three minutes and led to a 47-36 rebounding advantage, marking the 10th time in 11 games the winner on the glass between these two teams determined the outcome.
Once Bryant entered the lineup, he took over while everyone else stayed involved thanks to the team's strategy in playing Bryant off the ball much like the way they did last week in an overtime victory against Houston. That included Bryant driving baseline, drawing a triple team and finding Gasol open after cutting through the lane, Bryant taking a well-placed pass from Ron Artest and everyone crashing the board when Bryant went in isolation.
Boston may very well not feel as concerned, with reasons including a decimated lineup including Shaquille O'Neal, key reserve Marquis Daniels and backup center Semih Erden. The Celtics also featured a limited Nate Robinson, who left in the second quarter because of a bruised knee,
But that doesn't water down the significance of the Lakers one bit. That's because in a game that truly served as a measuring stick for the Lakers' progress, they collectively took ownership and overcame the initial challenges that awaited them. There's no telling how much that mind-set would help should they meet Boston, or any opponent for that matter, in the 2011 NBA Finals.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to cut off a drive by Celtics forward Paul Pierce in the first half Thursday night. Credit: David Butler II / US Presswire