LOS ANGELES -- At some point between Sunday and Tuesday, between one game that exposed them and another that vindicated them, the Lakers apparently figured out they weren't going to be handed this championship. They are going to have to scrap for it. They want to defend a title, spark a dynasty and earn retribution for the embarrassment endured two years ago in Boston. That comes with a price, and finally, they began to pay up.
With their season in question, not to mention their manhood, the Lakers came down from their throne and took to the floor. They won, not only with Kobe Bryant splashing fadeaways, but with Jordan Farmar, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom diving for loose balls, as if they were all little trophies. For most teams, laying out for a loose ball is no great accomplishment. But the Lakers can sometimes seem above effort. That they beat the Celtics in Game 6 was not an upset -- the real surprise came in how they outworked 'em.
The Lakers have spent a lot of time telling people they're a different team than the one overpowered by the Celtics in 2008; but in this series, they have not always proved it. When they left TD Garden after Game 5, they were back to being a one-man gang: Bryant and a bunch of guys who liked to hang around and watch him. Bryant had to feel like he was walking into a backyard brawl, his legacy on the line, all alone. It turned out he had more allies than he could have imagined. Ron Artest, discombobulated most of the series, scored 15 points. Odom, missing as well, chipped in 10 rebounds. Pau Gasol, pushed around Sunday, pushed back with 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
"Most people assumed Kobe would come out and take 1,000 shots," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He did the exact opposite."
Bryant was brilliant as usual -- 26 points and 11 rebounds -- but he was also able to relax somewhat, as the Lakers pulled away for an 89-67 win. Teams like the Suns can score 67 points in a half. The Celtics scored 67 for the game. Defense is one area in which the Lakers have improved this season, and they put it on full display, holding the Celtics to 33 percent shooting and punishing them for trips down the lane. Artest elbowed Rajon Rondo in the chin. Andrew Bynum felled Kendrick Perkins. Without Perkins, who was diagnosed with a sprained knee and will be re-evaluated Wednesday, the Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 52-39 and outscored them in the paint 42-30.
"Our energy was good enough that it was not a matter of who wasn't there," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "It was about what we were going to do. We were trying to determine our own fate tonight."
Now the Lakers must find a way to channel the same determination in Game 7. Usually, they are best when threatened, worst when secure. It's hard to predict which way they'll lean Thursday night at Staples Center. If this series has revealed anything, it is that momentum does not exist in the NBA Finals. In fact, the team that plays well one night has been more likely to play poorly the next. The Celtics left Staples sounding a lot like they did after they were blown out in Game 1, downtrodden but resolute. Of course, they came back and won Game 2, the only time the Lakers have lost at home in these playoffs.
The Lakers worked all season to get this game here, while the Celtics rested for chunks of the second half, and now they see the result. Few threads connect games in this series, but one subtle theme has emerged. Although home-court advantage may not exist for standbys like Bryant and Paul Pierce, who generally thrive wherever they are, it is crucial for backups and role players. In Boston, GlenDavis and Rasheed Wallace were key contributors. Back in L.A., they were shut out. The same phenomenon held true for Odom and Artest, shifting from non-factors to X-factors as they headed west. Staples Center, while not the loudest venue in the league, steadies those who are most volatile.
Of course, nothing about a Game 7 is comfortable. It is the most severe atmosphere in sports, tensions heightened by the Lakers-Celtics tradition, and the fact that a championship is at stake. If the Lakers win, they go back-to-back. If the Celtics win, they have two titles in three years. Through six games, no distinct pattern has emerged, no team has looked particularly better than the other. The final act will be the decisive one.
"It's Lakers-Celtics, biggest rivalry in NBA basketball, seven games," Rondo said. "It's what it is."