BOSTON -- The Lakers-Celtics rivalry means everything to the NBA. It was built on the foundation of Bill Russell's victories over Wilt Chamberlain -- of the team leader overwhelming the prodigious individual. Here Thursday their showdown was brought back to life by Kevin Garnett vs. Dwight Howard. It was a poor man's reinvention of the league's signature morality show.
Garnett isn't Russell, and Howard surely will never be Chamberlain. And yet throughout the Celtics' shocking 116-95 throttling of their guests, the two of them appeared to echo the lessons that continue to give meaning to the NBA. The biggest and strongest star looked weak when he was surrounded by a united team.
On the day the Lakers learned that Pau Gasol would be sidelined for 6 to 8 weeks by a torn plantar fascia of his right foot, they were demoralized by the efforts of his replacement. Howard provided them with 9 points and 9 rebounds before fouling out in 28 minutes. Garnett's statistics weren't overwhelming -- 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals -- but then Garnett, like Russell, has never been especially concerned with the meaning of such numbers.
The Celtics were supposed to be dead with the season-ending ACL injury of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, but this was their sixth straight win without him, and in his absence they've already beaten the Knicks, Heat and Lakers. "They're playing great,'' said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni with noticeable jealousy. "They're playing really good. They're moving the ball and they're hard to guard. Garnett is terrific by moving and the energy he puts into the game is terrific so you have to give them a lot of credit, and we didn't do anything to stop it."
D'Antoni's best teams have been marked by ball movement and energy. This is his most talented team, and it's also his worst. Indecisive leadership and injuries created the environment for the Lakers 23-27 record, but there could be no excuse for a performance as heartless and passive as was put forth in the third quarter by the Lakers, when they enabled the Celtics to shoot 76.2% from the floor (16 of 21) while taking a 95-69 advantage into the fourth. The Celtics were running and dunking and bombing threes as if it were Game 6 of the 2008 Finals all over again.
Everything Garnett is, Howard is not. Garnett is 36 and Howard is 27, but in the context of their meeting they played as if their ages had been reversed. Garnett should have nothing to play for following the defection of Ray Allen and the loss of Rondo, but he and his depleted Celtics look as if they believe in themselves as contenders in a way that the Lakers surprisingly do not. The Lakers traded for Howard in belief that he would marry a new era of greatness to the era of Kobe Bryant. But he didn't make a stand when his former team from Orlando came to Los Angeles and whalloped him and his Lakers in December, and on Thursday he wasn't inspired to be involved in basketball's greatest rivalry.
Part of the sad story revolves around injuries to Howard's back, which required surgery last season from which he is still recovering, and a more recently torn labrum in his right shoulder. "There were a couple times where I felt it,'' said Howard of his shoulder. "But I just tried not to think about it. Just be as strong as I can, not try to nurse it."
One impulse is to feel sympathy for Howard as he complains of his lingering back issues causing his legs to go numb even while he fears the longterm damage to his shoulder. In recent days Bryant has been all but begging him to fight through those concerns in order to live up to his promise. Yes, he wants Howard to help him win another championship. But Bryant also must wonder why Howard can't see that he needs to save himself and his career.
The Lakers need Howard desperately, but he doesn't recognize their desperation as an opportunity. It is hard to understand his ambitions anymore. This is a player who played his best game when he was 23. On that night he generated 40 points and 14 rebounds in Game 6 to win the East and lead Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals. He was inspiring and there was nothing LeBron James and his Cavaliers could do to stop Howard from controlling the tempo that night. That he went onto be dominated himself by Gasol in the Finals is something that no one in Los Angeles should ever forget.
For Howard has not made noticeable gains since that glorious night in Orlando. He looks like a 27 year old who peaked four years ago. The issues that are making him miserable now are deeper and more damaging than the injuries to his back and shoulder. He has worked himself into this corner, where he now finds he has too much to prove, because over the last few years he has appeared more interested in celebrity and free agency than building upon the experiences of 2009.
Maybe D'Antoni put him back into this game in the fourth quarter because, as he said, he wanted to help Howard find his rhythm after missing three recent games. Maybe he also wanted to incite Howard. Maybe the Lakers need to see Howard grow angry, to show resentment, to put up a fight of some kind. But that is not who Howard is anymore. He can say he was rusty and hopeless, losing his dribble against Chris Wilcox and seeming almost relieved when he fouled out, but he was trending toward this outcome long before he was injured. He played his best game when he was 23, and he has been adrift ever since, unable to make up his mind whether to leave or stay with Orlando, and denying that he wanted the Magic to fire their coach even as Stan Van Gundy insisted it was true.
"People can say what they want to say,'' Howard said. "But none of these people are playing. None of these people have had injuries. They can say what they want about playing through pain and playing through injuries. I spent a whole summer last summer trying to recover because I wanted to play through pain and show people that I'm tough ... and stuff like this with the shoulder and the back is not something that you can play with and say you hope it gets better."
Someday it may happen that Howard will realize the furor of his first season with the Lakers wasn't so much about his injuries and whether he should toughen up to play in spite of them. The questions were being raised before he was hurt. Was he serious about fulfilling his talent? Could he ever actually lead a team to the NBA championship? There is an impression that the Lakers should be afraid of not being able to re-sign Howard as a free agent this summer, but what if, at the end of this long and troubling year, they should decide he does not meet their high standard? Howard is not the only party with a decision to be made.