by Graham Flashner

Let’s see, when last we saw the Lakers and Celtics in June, Phil Jackson’s bunch was absorbing a 39-point beatdown, Pau Gasol was getting bitch-slapped in the post, Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza were in street clothes, and a derisive Boston crowd was chanting “Where’s Kobe?” To say the Lakers wanted revenge would be like saying Bernie Madoff wanted to make money.

They say this is a bitter rivalry, but the bitterness is mostly on the Lakers’ side since they’re usually on the losing end. Last night was the 259th regular season meeting between the Lakers and Celtics, with the Celtics leading the series, 151-118. They’ve met 11 times in the Finals, with the Celtics winning nine, including all four Game 7s. The Lakers have lost to Boston when they had the better team (1984), lost with home court advantage (1969), lost when they were still in Minneapolis (1959).

It was imperative the Lakers win yesterday. The pressure was all on them. The Celtics’ 19-game win streak was going to end sooner or later, and a loss in L.A. hardly upsets their season. A Lakers loss, however, would’ve been devastating. Ego-wise, the purple-and-gold are a fragile bunch, no matter what Kobe says. Not sure if they measure up to the champs, not sure if they’re physically tough enough, not sure if, as Magic Johnson recently insinuated, they have the will to get to the next level, where the Celtics reside.

With their 92-83 victory, they can put all that talk to rest, at least until Feb. 5, when they return to Boston. It was not a vintage Celtics performance; they uncharacteristically lost their poise in the 4th quarter, scored only 16 points, and turned the ball over with fatal results. But give a lot of that credit to the Lakers, who finally got to play Boston with the lineup they’d envisioned last Spring and came away feeling at last like they could use the words ‘championship’ and ‘contender’ in the same sentence.

Pregame

It’s not a white Christmas in L.A., but it is a wet one, the rain adding an extra touch of noir-like atmosphere, as if this game needed it. I’ve never been to a Christmas Day game before, and I’m glad to be at one where the hype doesn’t feel manufactured, the way Shaq vs. Kobe did (from 2004-2006). This is an authentic grudge match between the two most storied NBA franchises. And there’s nothing particularly Christmas-y about it either: No elves in the press room, no shiny tree at center court, no vendors selling eggnog.

One hour and 45 minutes before tipoff, it’s too early to get into the locker rooms. A few Lakers and Celtics are out on the court getting in some shots and breaking a sweat; guys like Brian Scalabrine and D.J. Mbenga, who have little hope of seeing game action (Mbenga is a DNP; Scalabrine gets 14 seconds of playing time).

A white envelope has been placed on each courtside seat. The envelope says, “To The Greatest Fans In The World”. One of the Celtics ball boys snickers, not understanding that in L.A., shelling out $2600 a seat automatically qualifies you as a great fan.

Watching quietly on the Lakers side is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and I make my way over to him. My heart skips a major beat, the usual reaction when I’m about to encounter a living legend. I shot my first sky hook on a playground because of him (it was blocked). He is still a towering figure, striding the Staples Center halls with that famous imperious stare, but he turns out to be friendly and approachable.

SLAM: Is Andrew Bynum ready to get physical with Kendrick Perkins?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I don’t know. He hasn’t been tested like this yet—the Western Conference doesn’t play physical the way Boston does.

SLAM: Why do people think Bynum has regressed this year, after the major promise he showed last year before his injury?
KAJ: Teams are starting to focus on him. Now that they realize how he can beat them. They’ve made adjustments. He’s learning to deal with that.

SLAM: Magic Johnson recently said the Lakers aren’t at the Celtics level. Agree or disagree?
KAJ: We’ll find out today.

SLAM: Does today’s rivalry compare to the fierce Lakers-Celtics rivalry of your era, the 1980s?
KAJ: It doesn’t exist the way it did when I played. In the 80s, there were fewer teams, and the teams had more depth. And there were incidents, like Kevin McHale mugging Kurt Rambis (in Game 4 of the ’84 NBA Finals), that you didn’t forget.

SLAM: This Lakers team has been criticized for its lack of defensive intensity. Would you have stood for that on the Lakers teams you played on?
KAJ: No. People forgot how good a defensive team we were, because we were a running team, and you can’t run without playing defense, because steals and turnovers led to fast breaks. Guys like Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, and especially James Worthy were exceptional defensive players.

So I wander into the Celtics locker room. It’s pretty empty, save for Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, who are getting dressed. There’s something undignified about trying to approach a basketball player who’s naked from the waist down, so I bide my time. I need to find something to do with my eyes, so I glance down at a nearby table, and spy a folder that says ‘Celtics Game Plan,’ open for all to see. I get through one revealing line—“We can run on this team!”—before I sense a looming presence over my shoulder. It’s an assistant coach, and he’s not happy. “You work for someone?” he growls. I assure him I’m only working for SLAM, trying to give its loyal readers the type of precious info they can’t get on ABC. That seems to satisfy him—but when I look down again, the game plan is gone.

Fortunately, Kendrick is dressed, and more than accommodating. This, after all, is the man rumored to be more physical than Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” one of the key components of the Celtics’ championship win over the Lakers, when he helped bully, chew, and spit out Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and any Laker who dared cross his path in the paint.

SLAM: How does adding Bynum make a difference for the Lakers?
Kendrick Perkins: He’s a good player, a physical player. I got to go out there and play my game, and not worry about his. Obviously, it’s a different team with him in there; we got our hands full.

SLAM: Have you always been known as such a physical player?
KP: That’s been my game all my life. I lost some weight and put on more muscle. In the NBA, you hit the weights differently, and it gave me a certain amount of confidence in myself.

SLAM: Are you guys as obsessed with the Lakers as they are with the Celtics?
KP: No, that’s crazy. We don’t circle one team on the map. We take it one game at a time. I think they made it more of a rivalry than us.

SLAM: How do you maintain such focus a year after winning a title?
KP: The leadership we have, guys don’t even mention the championship we won last year; we just try to maintain focus this year on getting home-court advantage.

I hustle over to the Lakers’ side, but the locker room is strangely empty. A wrapped gift sits on Bynum’s chair. I peek in at Lamar Odom’s locker, and see at least 10 pairs of sneakers. Is this guy Jerry Seinfeld?

Back on the Celtics’ side, Ray Allen is holding court—and proving to be a master at circumventing questions.

Allen’s the guy who gave the Lakers bulletin board material when he famously said, after the Celtics won a team ESPY Award, that it was ‘another win in L.A’. “We were two weeks removed from winning Game 6,” Allen says. “It was a moment we cherish—something to hold for the rest of our lives. You have to enjoy a good thing when it happens.”

Did he believe two teams can have a rivalry, when one consistently beats up on the other? “A rivalry can be any two teams that always have hard-fought battles. If you see a good game on Christmas Day, you’re going to talk about it for many years.”

Are the Celtics in the Lakers’ heads? “Last year, we were still figuring out how to be a good team. What we do well now is not look too far into the future.”

This from the star of He Got Game.

On the Lakers side, the players are still in hiding—an understandable reaction when your entire season has been focused on having to win this one game. Or maybe they’re in a prayer meeting—I did see the team chaplain walking around. Finally, Trevor Ariza enters, and there’s no place to hide. Ariza points out that even if the Lakers win today, they can never erase the memory of last year, which is a good motivational tool.

I ask him about the big team meeting the Lakers had after the Orlando loss Saturday, the one that resulted in two straight wins and lock-down defense, the one that players have been unwilling to talk about, and Ariza looks at me with Oscar-winning surprise, and claims he wasn’t aware of the meeting and knew nothing about it.

SLAM: So you weren’t there?
Trevor Ariza: Must not have been.

(I take a pause that Harold Pinter would’ve been proud of.)

SLAM: Seriously?
TA: I just found out about it.

I believe that like I believe the Celtics who say playing the Lakers is no big deal.

Fifteen minutes before tip-off, it’s Playoff atmosphere inside Staples. The usual late-arriving crowd is on-time; every seat is filled, and the normally placid crowd is rambunctious. Toward the end of the National Anthem, a fan screams “Paul Pierce you suck!”

It’s Game On.

First quarter

– Ray Allen gets the Celtics off with a three-pointer. Allen hits his first three shots, then goes 2-11 the rest of the game, and spends a good part of his time waving futilely at Kobe Bryant pull-up Js. Not looking like “another win in L.A.” for Ray.

– Rondo picks up his second foul three minutes into the game, and Doc Rivers leaves him in. You have to admire the trust Doc has in his players. Rondo dishes 12 assists but shoots about as well as his backcourt mate Allen (3-11).

– Great board by Bynum, then he beats Garnett down court for an authoritative dunk. Lakers wishing they’d seen that last June.

– Kobe has come out gunning, hitting 5-8 and sending an early message that he intends to be in control.

– Celtics dare Luke Walton to make a three—and he does, tying the score at 19.

– Both teams have come out with high intensity and adrenaline. Six lead changes and three ties in the quarter. And almost zero free throws.

Momentum turnerSecond quarter

– The signature moment of the game that, for me, foreshadows a Lakers’ victory: Kobe backtaps a loose ball from the Celtics’ frontcourt, and Ariza outruns Eddie House, saving the ball at the Lakers’ end line and whipping it to a trailing Sasha Vujacic, whose layup hangs on the rim for a moment, before dropping in to the biggest roar of the night. One of the outstanding hustle plays of the year and a perfect example of how Laker athleticism can offset the Celtics’ physical prowess.

– A standing O for the Lakers after they beat Boston to a loose ball under its own basket. The Lakers are finally matching the Celtics, blow for blow.

– Spotted at courtside: Denzel Washington, Snoop Dogg, George Lopez, Samuel Jackson, and the artist currently known as Prince. White boy celebs represented by Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Mark Wahlberg.

– Celtics start double-teaming Kobe, who begins looking for others. (“I wanted to put them in a position where they had to free my other guys up,” Kobe would say later. “Force them to make decisions.”) Sasha’s 3 from the corner gives Lakers a 37-29 lead. First chant of “Boston Sucks!” from an energized crowd during a timeout.

– On the Kiss Cam, a girl appears with a red and white Santa hat that reads, Ho Ho Hoe. Is nothing sacred?

– Pau Gasol looks utterly lost. He’s 3-9 for the half and getting manhandled underneath. On one possession, he loses Garnett on an alley-oop, then has his shot blocked by Big Ticket on the other end. KG hits all six of his shots off Pau. But Luke and Ariza do a good job of containing Pierce.

– Bynum, who seems reluctant to shoot, floats in a soft 12-footer. If he did that more often, guarding this team would be a nightmare.

– Lakers up 6 at the break.

Third quarter

– After the Lakers go up 57-49, Pierce goes to work. He scores 10 points over the next five Momentum spoilerminutes, the Celtics take a 2-point lead, and June is busting out all over again at Staples, with Kobe trying to carry the offense all by himself and no one stepping up. Lakers shoot 7-20 for the quarter; the Celtics 8-16. If the Lakers are going to fold, it’s going to be here.

– The Lakers don’t fold, thanks to Lamar Odom drilling two consecutive threes.

– Rondo and Allen miscommunicate on an errant pass, leading to a turnover. As they come down the court, they appear to be shouting at each other, and Pierce has to pull them apart. It’s not the first time they’ve looked out of sync.

– I can swear I hear Samuel Jackson shout during a timeout, “I have had it with these motherf*cking Celtics in my motherf*cking lane!”

– A 9-3 run to end the quarter has the Lakers up 4.

Fourth quarter

– As they did in New Orleans and Memphis, the Lakers’ D toughens up big-time. Tony Allen tries to take Bynum down in the lane, and Bynum swats the ball into a row of photographers, what Bill Russell would’ve called a Wilson burger.

– Another Bynum block, this time on a Rondo scoop. The young center is filling the lane just as Phil Jackson hoped.

– Tied with 4:59 left, and both starting lineups back on the floor. It’s possibly the most important five minutes of the Lakers’ season. Who’s going to step up? The unlikely hero is… Gasol.

– Invisible for most of the game… often left alone by a wandering Garnett… with the Celtics Momentum keeperfocused on stopping Kobe, Gasol suddenly comes alive. A foul-line jumper… a running one-hander over Perkins on a great feed from Bryant… and then, with the crowd on its feet, a fake, an aggressive drive into the teeth of the Celtics’ middle, a three-point play leading to a five-point lead.

– But Pau’s not done. A tremendous block on Ray Allen leads to a fast break for Ariza, whose double-clutch reverse jam seals the victory, and sends the crowd into bedlam. Not to mention, winners of two coupons from Jack In The Box for tacos… yeah, that’s right. The Lakers have held the Celtics under 100 points.

Postgame

The Celtics were gracious in defeat, but downplayed the significance of Bynum clogging the paint. “I thought Gasol stepped up for them tonight,” Perkins said. “You get tired of taking the heat… sometimes you have to fight back, and he fought back. We paid too much attention to Kobe; guys weren’t helping out; they forced turnovers (18 total); you can’t do that on the road and expect to win.”

On the Lakers side, a relieved-looking Gasol towered over a throng of reporters. “I was down,” he said about his dismal first half. “I was frustrated, but I was able to shake it off… I wasn’t getting into any flow, wasn’t hitting my jumpers, KG was having a pretty good offensive night, but I was able to turn it up.”

Said Kobe: “I saw Pau was being a little tentative in the first half and I had to remind him, You’re one of the best players in the world. Pau’s my guy.”

Final analysis

The Celtics showed they’re beatable after all, and the Lakers showed they’re fully capable of sustaining a 48-minute defensive effort. As much as the Celtics downplayed Bynum’s presence—perhaps not wanting to give the Lakers any kind of mental edge—the fact is he changes the complexion of the game. Perkins has to guard him, leaving Garnett on Gasol, a matchup that Gasol will gladly take. With Bynum starting, the Lakers are a longer, more vertical team, and they have the luxury of bringing Odom off the bench.

As the Celtics found out, they can’t drive the middle with impunity when Bynum (4 blocks) is on watch. The Lakers have speed, athleticism, and a deeper bench. The Celtics, though, have a will and determination that starts with Garnett, the most passionate player in the game, a man who teammates will gladly dive into battle for. It’s the kind of intangible that allows champions to repeat, and the Celtics are now focused on wanting to be the first Celtic team to repeat since the 1968-69 squad.

Was it a statement game? The Lakers would like to think so, even if nobody will remember this game come June.

“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 and Andrew who are healthy, we have a better defensive system and I think we’re just a better ballclub.”

Added Lamar Odom: “We won’t be able to get [the Celtics] back until we beat them in a series.”