LOS ANGELES -- What the Celtics did two years ago was done against them Thursday. Got it? The winners who did the shoving in 2008 were now the losers being shoved. They didn't like it.
"The Lakers were clearly the more physical team,'' said coach Doc Rivers after his Celtics were beaten 102-89 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday. "They were more aggressive. They attacked us the entire night. I didn't think we handled it very well.''
Where do the Celtics begin their reply? They were beaten authoritatively -- 42-31 on the boards, 48-30 in the paint, 16-0 on second chance points, 12-5 in transition points. Two years ago, they launched the Lakers' defeat by winning so many of the important arguments, too many for Phil Jackson to respond to all at once. Now, he looks forward to Game 2 knowing he is 47-0 in series after winning Game 1.
"It wasn't the prettiest basketball game I've ever watched in my life,'' said Jackson, which should be just the way he likes it. Before this series, he was complaining about the Celtics' physical style in an apparent attempt to steer the officiating his way, but he was actually goading his players to beat them at their own game. Anyone who talks about the Lakers being soft needs to turn off the old TiVo recordings and start watching live television. They have morphed into a defensive team that uses its length and size to blunt drives in the paint, they create easy baskets in transition, and they run their offense to open seams for Kobe Bryant (30 points and six assists) that he never realized in 2008.
The roles of Pau Gasol (23 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three assists) and Kevin Garnett (16-4-1-1) were swapped as if they had exchanged personalities in some ridiculous 1950s Sci-Fi drama. Gasol, scolded for being soft two years ago, was now relentless. Garnett was passive and discombobulated, as when he received a fourth-quarter dunkable pass from Rajon Rondo, only to mis-time his leap as the ball rolled off his hand. Not only did he fail to get a shot up to the rim, but then he turned around to see Gasol lobbing to LamarOdom for a contested dunk at the other end.
"He was the best player on the floor,'' said Rivers of Gasol. "He made terrific plays, terrific passes, shot when he should. Yeah, he's better, he's far more aggressive. If you heard for two years what you couldn't do, you're probably going to come in and try to prove that -- and I thought Gasol proved a lot tonight.''
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry dwarfs everything around it, and so Gasol's play in the Finals last year and his strong ongoing postseason had been dismissed like preseason exhibitions. Could he do what he hadn't done against Boston? But he refused to speak of himself in those terms, even after beating down Garnett with the upper hand.
"For me it was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help as much as possible out there,'' said Gasol. "There was no statement to be made. My goal -- our goal -- is to win the championship, not just the first game, and not just to make a statement right now.''
Pierce (24 points) was outscored 12-11 by Ron Artest through three quarters as the Lakers built their lead up to 84-64 heading into the fourth. When last they met, the Lakers had no answer for Finals MVP Pierce. But now, as he tried to front Artest defensively in the opening minute, Pierce found his arms being locked up from behind as he was thrown down underneath Artest as if onto a WWF mat. What followed was a brief flailing skirmish and double-technical fouls, with the result that Pierce understood fully he wasn't being matched by Vladimir Radmanovic anymore.
Pierce didn't like talking about Artest as much as he disliked his defense. He mouthed all of the platitudes about Artest's defense, his leadership, etc. Then in midstream he gave up. "I don't know what you want me to say,'' said Pierce. Try this: If Pierce was the unstoppable force last time, then that role has now been seized by Bryant.
In the third quarter, Rondo was chasing a loose ball when he bounced off Artest like a car crashing into a brick wall slow-motion at 30 mph. A minute later, while free throws were being shot at the other end, Rondo was still trying to shake out the various pains as he and Pierce commiserated. Oh, for 2008 all over again.
The length applied by the Celtics back then has come back to haunt them now that 7-foot AndrewBynum has been able to play through his latest knee injury. When 5-9 NateRobinson tried to drive on Bynum, he found himself hanging in the air against the center's chest as if velcroed there. His accompanying bank shot was banked far too high to have any hope, and that was a constant theme: Between blocked shots and other air balls, the Celtics watched at least 10 of their attempts fail to reach the rim.
Rivers talked about his team's "horrible'' defense, the failure of his guards to prevent penetration, and their frantic pace of play. Bryant essentially took the ball out of Rondo's hands by guarding him in the opening minutes, and the Celtics must figure out how to deal with his length and strength. But even when they succeeded in driving the ball inside they were too often unable to finish against the wealth of Lakers' shot-blocking, and at the other end they found themselves in foul trouble after failing to defend the relentless drives of Bryant and his teammates.
"Their bench outplayed our bench,'' added Rivers. "As bad as I thought we played, there were chances to get back in the game. But there's no silver lining in that.''
The Celtics lost to their old selves. Victims of their own old strengths. When they talked about teaching the Lakers a lesson in '08, they should have been more careful about their wish. Because the lessons have taken hold, and the student -- for one important game at least -- is now the master.