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
"They're playing great defense, and their size is just unbelievable,'' Celtics coach
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
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
"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
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
This Celtics-Lakers game arrives while both teams are preparing for a second-half run. Coach
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
They can, and it's safe to say they will.