When the defending champions renew the league's signature rivalry Sunday in Boston, the Lakers will be seeking to beat the Celtics at their own game. Their newfound weapon is defense: The Lakers momentarily rank No. 5 in field-goal defense after being No. 1 or 2 most of the season. Boston, by comparison, ranks sixth in this crucial rating.
The offseason signing of Ron Artest has turned the Lakers into their league's big-spending version of the Yankees: They could always hit home runs, but now they have the means to pitch shutouts too.
"They're playing great defense, and their size is just unbelievable,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "At times when they have Shannon Brown at the point position with Kobe [Bryant] and Artest or [Lamar] Odom with [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum, there's nobody under 6-5 on the floor. That's a big team.''
Their rivals can't appreciate seeing them grow at that end of the floor. In the previous two seasons, the Lakers ranked No. 6 in field-goal defense while playing into June. They've improved since the 2008 Finals, which they concluded as victims of a 131-92 rout in Boston that has helped define their course ever since.
"Now you see the Lakers slide the big guy over to the opposing block and clog things up,'' Clippers center Marcus Camby said. "It's similar to how Boston plays, and the Lakers have been adapting that same system.''
While much of the credit for the Lakers' improved defensive prospects should go to Artest -- "He has a major intensity that has to rub off on guys when they're out there with him,'' Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said -- their upside over the second half of the season rests with Bynum, the 22-year-old center who is attempting to complete his first full season in three years.
"You rarely have teams with a center of that length and that size to plug the middle, and we have two of them,'' Bryant said, referring to Bynum and fellow 7-footer Gasol. "Defensively is always where I feel like he can make the most difference for us.''
Think back to how the Lakers shut down Orlando center Dwight Howard, who clinched last season's Eastern Conference finals with 40 points in Game 6 against Cleveland but was held to 77 points in five Finals games by Los Angeles. The main defensive weapon inside was Gasol, as Bynum struggled to stay on the floor while recovering from his second midseason knee injury in two years.
Rivers doesn't have to imagine how difficult it can be to score inside against Bynum and Gasol together: On Christmas Day last season, his Celtics missed at least a dozen layups by shooting either too off the high glass or otherwise hurrying before the big defenders could arrive. Bynum and Gasol aren't exceptional shot-blockers, but together they alter attempts while controlling the boards (the Lakers rank No. 2 in defensive rebounds with 33.2 per game).
"I think the role of shot-blocker gets thrown out of proportion -- it's always the guy who swats it out of bounds who gives the [opposing] team another chance,'' Odom said. "Pau and Andrew get their hands on enough shots where they may just keep them in play.''
Bynum spent the summer strengthening his legs. "A lot of the key for him is making sure he has that base and that guys aren't knocking him off his base,'' Bryant said. "When he's able to do that and get a low position, he has a pretty effective night.''
That position on the block explained Bynum's season-best 27 points (to go with 12 rebounds) in a 118-96 victory at Indiana on Wednesday, raising the Lakers to 3-2 on their eight-game trip. Though Bynum is L.A.'s No. 3 scorer with 15.8 points, he has often played passively while sharing the frontcourt with Gasol, who is back in the rotation after missing 17 games with hamstring injuries.
"He's still far from what he's going to be,'' Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said of Bynum, "which is really scary for other people and exciting for us. Even though it's like people want him to hurry up and be there, he's intelligent enough to realize he has to grow and go along at the pace that he's going. It's exciting because there could be an interesting shift in two to three years to where he really becomes more and more like a 'focus' guy, a guy who every game we've got to make sure other teams respect this guy because he's so dominant.''
This Celtics-Lakers game arrives while both teams are preparing for a second-half run. Coach Phil Jackson, unhappy with the Lakers' play, predicted they would go 3-5 on this trip before it opened with a 93-87 loss at Cleveland last week. They meet Boston just as Kevin Garnett is working his way back into the lineup, with crucial reserve Marquis Daniels not scheduled to return until mid-February.
The Celtics are certain to improve as Garnett reclaims his hyperactive leadership of the defense. While the Celtics will strive to be tougher and more physical, the Lakers are longer and younger with Fisher as their only contributor nearing the end of his career. As well as the Lakers have played defense at times this season, they haven't come close to peaking.
"I can't say I'm pleased where we are defensively,'' general manager Mitch Kupchak. "We can do better.''
They can, and it's safe to say they will.