Monday January 31st, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- The Boston Celtics staggered out of the Staples Center seven months ago, six-and-a-half minutes short of a championship, and nothing that happened Sunday afternoon could ease the sting of defeat. The Celtics' 109-96 win over the Lakers did not mean much, but it revealed plenty about the vastly different ways these two teams responded to that unforgettable night last June. The Celtics were steeled, the Lakers were softened, and the first half of this season has provided a mound of evidence. Sunday's game was simply the latest and most compelling exhibit.

The only trouble with winning championships is the complacency that can result. The only benefit to losing them is the urgency that can arise. The Celtics approached this season as if they were wronged, while the Lakers approached it as if they were entitled. With teams this talented, the difference is sometimes hard to detect, since both can rack up 50 victories at half-speed. But it becomes glaring when they are matched up with elite opponents, like each other.

The Celtics have now beaten the Lakers, Spurs, Bulls, Magic and Heat twice. The Lakers' best win was probably over the Bulls at home in November when Carlos Boozer was injured. They have dropped their first meetings with the Celtics, Spurs, Mavericks and Heat. "It's not the playoffs yet," said Lakers head coach Phil Jackson. "We're still playing regular season games. We'll get there in time."

It is almost February and the Lakers are still warming up. The Celtics were ready on Opening Night, when they pounded the Heat, a message from one Big Three to another. But the message also should have been heard out west. The Celtics might have been disturbed by the Heat's acquisitions, but more so by the Game 7 loss in L.A., when they blew a fourth-quarter lead and a second title in three years.

In Game 7, the Lakers shot an abysmal 32.5 percent, the byproduct of weary legs as much as frayed nerves. But they beat the Celtics the way the Celtics beat everybody else, with backboard domination and second-chance points. The Lakers won the rebounding margin by 13. On Sunday, in the first meeting since, the Celtics seemed to have rediscovered their monopoly on toughness. This time, they were the ones who won the rebounding margin by 13. It looked more like 2008, when the Celtics bullied the Lakers in the Finals, than 2010. These are not the Finals, of course, so there is a danger in drawing too many conclusions. But it's clear from the first three months of the season that the Celtics are better than they were last spring and the Lakers are worse. "It's another game but it's definitely an emotional game since we lost Game 7 here," said Paul Pierce. "When you win a game here now it's not for the championship. But it gets our juices going. It's big knowing we can come into this building and get a win."

Pierce shot 5-of-15 in Game 7 and watched the man who guarded him, Ron Artest, become an improbable hero. He watched Artest go 1-of-10 on Sunday and torched him, among others, for 32 points. But the major difference between the Celtics and the Lakers was Pierce's supporting cast compared to Kobe Bryant's. Two nights ago, Bryant scored 38 points in a dreadful home loss to the Kings. Against the Celtics, he scored 41, but ball movement stalled late in the second half and the Lakers abandoned their formidable front line. The Celtics, meanwhile, shot 60 percent and Jackson joked that the only player the Lakers defended was Shaquille O'Neal. In his first trip to L.A. with the Celtics, O'Neal drew boos and then laughs, with zero points and five fouls. But he still left with the prize.

"Guys are just upset probably," Bryant said. "They should be. We're not playing very well against these top teams. We need to elevate our level and we need to get better if we're to defend our throne." Bryant has issued variations of the same challenge for more than a month and they have not been heeded. Now the Lakers schedule intensifies, with San Antonio coming to Staples on Thursday, followed by a seven-game trip in which they will visit the Knicks, Magic and Celtics. "We want to see each other again," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, and he was not referring to the rematch in 11 days. Another Lakers-Celtics Finals reunion -- the third in four years -- would complete a captivating trilogy.

The Celtics are on track to hold up their end of the deal. The Lakers are not.

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