BOSTON -- When Kobe Bryant came into the Celtics gym, it was like Jack Nicholson walking into that Colorado resort bar in "The Shining." It was as if the old days had been brought back to life and the modern day concerns had receded, as if the young legs of Miami and Chicago and Oklahoma City were no longer in the picture.
For one evening, time didn't stop so much as it was repealed. On other nights against other teams, time is the enemy of the Lakers and the Celtics. But on a night like this, when they have only one another, time becomes their mutual friend.
"It's always a brawl," said Bryant after Los Angeles and Boston combined to miss 114 shots Thursday in the Lakers' 88-87 overtime victory. "It's ugly, it's physical." It sounded almost romantic, the way he talked about it. "I've enjoyed competing against them, I like all of them personally. On the court that personal stuff goes out the window, but it's been fun."
He would not have been so delighted had Pau Gasol not lunged across the lane to block a game-winning putback by Ray Allen at the OT buzzer. So the night ended well for the houseguest at the expense of his host. Few stars -- excuse me, let's make that no stars -- are more bottom-line ruthless than Bryant, and yet no one seemed to enjoy this evening more. In between plays he and Celtics' All-Star Paul Pierce exchanged congratulations on their recent scoring achievements, for Bryant surpassing Shaquille O'Neal and for Pierce surpassing Larry Bird. "It means we're both getting very old," said Bryant.
When Bryant swished a high-difficulty turnaround over Allen, he backpedaled away with a comical expression borrowed from "The Scream." In the fourth quarter, he chatted up Rajon Rondo under the basket, and then another time, while teammate Matt Barnes was preparing to shoot crucial free throws in the final seven minutes, Bryant approached Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski courtside to tell him he should be playing for Kobe's hometown Philadelphia Eagles. When he returned to play, Gronkowski giggled with his friends.
"I'm so old most of these guys watched me when they were, like, middle school," said Bryant.
Bryant used to grow angry when questioned about his mileage, but now he is proud. At 33, he is pushing through his 16th NBA season. He is straining to reach for a sixth championship in spite of the lockout that ruined training camp, tightened the schedule and ended hope of the Lakers improving with practice. There has been little time for new Lakers coach Mike Brown to install his new offense, and so, as Bryant put it, "we're still searching" for ways to establish their post-triangle style.
All the same, the end result of this victory bore significant resemblance to the formula that carried L.A. to four straight NBA Finals before last season. Seven-footers Gasol (25 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks) and Andrew Bynum (16 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks) controlled the paint for a 55-45 rebounding advantage overall. Bryant added 27 points on 24 shots after waiting more than nine minutes to attempt his opening field goal.
"I didn't have much of a choice -- anytime I touched it, they'd send a guy over," he said. "Look, they're going to send guys at me 25 feet from the hoop, somebody's got to be open. Our guys have to make plays. Against Philadelphia (a 95-90 road loss Monday) we did a poor job on that; tonight at the start of the game we did a fantastic job. Guys were aggressive, made plays, made the defense pay. We kept Boston on their heels in terms of not knowing if they should double."
This was a game of two teams seeking relevancy as their stars approach retirement. What they were doing Thursday is not nearly so important as how they'll be playing in April. Can they be fresh, healthy and cohesive enough to ultimately challenge the Heat, Bulls and Thunder in postseason? Most would answer no, they can't. But those opinions mean nothing to a pair of stubborn contenders who have met in two of the last four Finals while sharing three titles between them. An evening like this enabled both the Lakers and Celtics to live entirely in the moment of the game's greatest rivalry, and to forget for one night that there are younger and more explosive opponents waiting in the months ahead. They were able to forget about reality, and give themselves up once more to history.
The Celtics, who have looked so strong in recent weeks, were at times dysfunctional offensively. Known so long for their teamwork, they wound up botching a play at the end of regulation. "I thought our execution the whole game was terrible," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Give them credit: some of it was defense. I thought a lot of it was self-inflicted. We've been very good at just running the floor, ball movement, second and third options, second and third picks. Today the ball just was not -- it was no fun to watch."
The Lakers' ultimate goal is to generate easy baskets via second-chance points, but Rivers was especially galled that, by his count, a half-dozen of those points were scrounged off the floor by the Lakers. "It's one thing when it's above everybody, and they are bigger and longer," said Rivers. "It's another thing when the ball's on the floor. They can't get both, and they did both tonight."
When Gasol came across the lane to block the shot, it was as if Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals had been extended to the same result as before -- a horribly ugly loss for Boston, and a beautifully ugly win for the Lakers, as scrappy now as they were two years ago.
"We've played against each other so many times, you know what's coming beforehand," said Bryant of his rivals. "It's been a dream come true. I've grown up watching it, and here I am, part of it."
He was preparing to shower when someone asked him about the next night. The Lakers would be playing in New York against 23-year-old point guard Jeremy Lin.
"Who is this kid?" said Bryant. "I've heard about him. What is he doing?"
The Knicks' point guard has averaged 25.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over his last three games, said one writer. If Lin is exploding against the Lakers, asked another, would Bryant consider guarding him?
He cursed softly. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves here," said Bryant with the smallest sarcastic laugh. He had not even washed away the sweat from this timeless evening, and already the spell was broken. On to New York.