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Celtics' Staples split sets stage for epic Finals finish, refs permitting

LOS ANGELES -- In the dark tunnels of Staples Center Sunday night, after the Celtics somehow beat the Lakers 103-94, former Rockets sharpshooter Brent Barry stood against a wall, talking to a reporter. Suddenly, he stopped mid-sentence and turned his attention to a thin, bald man in a crisp, gray suit with a crooked smile on his face. The two men exchanged words, then Barry returned to the reporter. "Sorry man," he said. "I had to talk to Jesus."

He meant Shuttlesworth, of course, or at least I think he did. After all, were the son of God to take an interest in shooting jumpshots, he could do worse than coming back as Ray Allen in the first half last night. Allen hit threes from the right corner. He hit 'em from the left corner. He hit 'em after running around a half-mile or so of screens. And, the true sign of a guy in the zone, he even hit one after having to scramble to pick up an off-target pass from Rajon Rondo, usually a surefire rhythm-breaker. Allen began the game 7-for-7 from behind the line and finished it 8-of-11. What's more, only one or two were open looks -- in the first half he had Kobe Bryant chasing him, and by the second half, the Lakers were sending a big to double him on the perimeter (for which the Celtics made them pay by dumping down to their own bigs). Allen was so gassed after the game that he could be seen rummaging past the bottles of water in the cooler in the Celtics locker room to dig down to the good stuff. "I don't need low-fat tonight," he said, plucking a bottle of Gatorade to go with the box of takeout he'd been handed. "I need high calorie."

That Allen had a great shooting night was not a surprise -- at this point his career, it is more surprising if he doesn't have one. But plenty about Game 2 was. Like the Celtics winning even though Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce got stuck in traffic and never made it to the game (or at least it seemed that way). And the Lakers losing even though their two big men combined to score 46 points on 13-20 shooting, while pulling down 14 boards and blocking 13 (thirteen!) shots. And Rondo hitting a huge jumpshot late in the game (or any jumpshot, for that matter).

Usually you can get a feel for a series after two games. A style of play emerges. Themes arise. But not these Finals. Boston could go home and finish it off. Or the Lakers could win two of three. It's been that screwy. So instead, as the series shifts Eastward, let's look at the few things we have learned so far:

1. The Lakers are playing Ron Artest Roulette. At least, offensively. On defense, Artest did an admirable job on Pierce again, helping hold him to 10 points on 2-11 shooting (though to be fair, Pierce should get some of the credit, as he missed layups and generally looked out of sync). But on the other end of the court, Artest was as bad in Game 2 as he was good in Game 1. After swinging the ball, limiting his dribbling and hitting open threes on Thursday, Artest spent Sunday giving hundreds of CYO coaches nightmares. He jacked shots, bricked threes and, in one surreal sequence in the final minutes, dribbled around the court while all four of his on-court teammates, the entire Lakers bench and 19,000 Lakers fans told him to PASS THE DAMN BALL. When he finally stopped his dribble, instead of giving it to a teammate Artest instead double-clutched and missed a three. Naturally, afterward he proclaimed himself "happy" with his offensive game and said he felt he'd played "great." He was no doubt the only one. (For the record, he finished with six points on 1-10 shooting with three turnovers).

This leaves the Lakers in a bind. If they're going to play Artest 40 minutes for defensive purposes, as they've been doing, they need at least some offensive contribution from him. But since he's essentially unmanageable -- though Phil Jackson did say he was going to have "a conversation" with Ron -- they are basically at his mercy. To win in Boston, they need the Good Ron. We'll see if Phil can coax it out.

2. The Celtics can't win without KG ... unless they can. The theme after Game 1 was how young, crafty Pau Gasol kicked the butt of old, gimpy KG. Then the same thing happened in Game 2. Gasol finished with 25 points and eight rebounds, while Garnett finished with six points and four boards. And yet: Boston won. After all the talk about how Gasol's pseudo-criticism energized Garnett, he continued to look tentative and, well, gimpy -- which is probably the best sign possible for the Celtics. If they can win, in L.A., with Garnett playing 23 ineffective minutes, then they have to feel pretty good.

3. The refs are going to be a factor. After forcing fans to watch 67 free throw attempts in Game 1, the refs gave us 67 more on Sunday. Let me be the first to say: Thank you, Monty McCutchen, Mike Callahan and Ken Mauer. It is easy to harp on referees, who have one of the hardest jobs in sports, but in this case, it's warranted. Sometimes, when a game becomes too physical and players bump and shove and threaten fights and T's are called, refs suddenly call it really tight. Well, that's how the refs have called it in both games, even though it wasn't in reaction to any fighting/banging/bumping. And that's a shame. So instead of watching Garnett, we are getting Shelden Williams. And instead of Kobe, we get Sasha Vujacic. So far, the response of the players has been to shrug it off. During his postgame presser Sunday night, Gasol used a variation on the phrase "play through it" three times (he also suggested the Lakers needed to "hustle a little more").

4. Andrew Bynum will also be a factor ... unless he isn't. If that's what playing with a torn meniscus does to a guy, then all the cool kids might be trying to tear theirs on Monday. Bynum was a force on both ends, using his length to finish plays and dissuade attacking players. Afterward, asked about his performance, he called it "wasted now." Like most of the Lakers, he verged on morose, saying "we played bad basketball down the stretch." What has to worry Los Angeles is that Bynum -- considered an X factor in the series -- was this effective and the team still lost. As Bryant pointed out in his postgame presser, the problem "has nothing to do with scoring. Nothing. It's all defensively."

And, finally, the good news ...

5. We could be in for an epic series. In the playoffs, where so often it comes down to minor coaching adjustments and defensive grunt-fests, there is something to be said for a high-scoring, unpredictable series. Let's hope it continues that way.

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