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Lakers 92, Celtics 86: Headbangers' Ball

I hope the Celtics fans at TD Garden this evening got their kicks watching Ray Allen become the NBA's new all-time leader in career threes. Judging from their expectant proto-cheers whenever Ray went into his shooting motion from behind the arc - and their beautiful, bored silence the rest of the night - seeing number 20 surpass Reggie Miller was apparently the only reason they bothered to show up. Which is just as well, as their team gave them nothing else to celebrate. The Celts rode the emotional wave of Ray's record-setting to a 15-point lead midway through the second period, but no one bothered to remind them that a regulation NBA contest lasts 48 minutes. Methodically, calmly, professionally, the visiting Lakers put on a second-half defensive clinic and won going away, 92 to 86, avenging a loss to their ancient rivals at Staples Center earlier this month.

At long last, about two thirds of the way through the regular season, the Lakers have a no-joke, signature win to call their own. They're now 3-0 on their Grammys trip, and although they have no time to luxuriate in the victory - with games in New York, Orlando and Charlotte on the docket over the next four days - tonight's win reflects a possible turning point in their regular season. So many concerns that have hovered around this team were, for one night at least, laid to rest.

For instance: the team defense that's been ripped apart in big games this year? It held the Celtics to 1.02 points per possession and just 0.83 points per trip in the second half. A Pau Gasol who at times has seemed timid and disengaged? He was wonderful, scoring 20 points on 16 shots (including free-throw possessions), pulling in 10 rebounds and convincingly outperforming his nemesis Kevin Garnett. He even cracked heads with Lamar Odom toward the end of the third, drawing copious blood from LO's cranium. A little sickening, that image, but both bros stayed in the game and played strong down the stretch.

And what of that young center around whom trade talk has swirled the past few days? Andrew Bynum went for 16 points and nine boards and demonstrated why the organization refuses to part with him, and why other organizations keep asking. Carmelo who what now?

On offense tonight, the Lake Show put up 1.11 points per possession, a fine mark in light of the setting and quality of opposition. Early on they struggled with turnover problems, but productive work on the offensive glass kept the Celtics' margin from getting completely out of hand. Toward the end of the second period, the halfcourt execution kicked in, and as everyone in the building and on the TNT payroll soliloquized at length about Ray Allen's dedication to getting to the gym early in the morning to hone his shooting craft after volunteering at the soup kitchen for homeless, cancer-stricken baby seal orphans whatever whatever Good Lord MAKE IT STOP, the Lakers quietly went about the business of getting back in the game. Nothing flashy: just passing angles, backdoor cuts and free throws, free throws and more free throws. When, at the beginning of the third, the champs snapped off 10 points in their first four possessions, everyone took a break from the Ray Allen Lifetime Achievement Awards Banquet to notice that - what's this now? - the Lakers have taken the lead. This wasn't in the script, people!

Kobe Bryant kept his powder dry in the first half. At intermission, he'd taken just four shots and scored three points. Advanced Kobe scholars knew what this meant: that after halftime he'd begin to impose his will on the game. And impose he did. In the third quarter alone he dropped in 12 points on 10 shots as the Laker offense scored 1.29 points per trip. The Mamba's controlled strikes put first Allen and then Von Wafer in foul trouble, depriving the Boston offense of its outside threats. Accordingly, the Laker D began to sag into the paint even more than it typically does against a Rajon Rondo-led team, and the Boston offense - so peppy in the early going - died a horrible, wonderful death. When Kobe made a 13-foot J with 48 seconds left, the Boston crowd began filing out early. Oh oh oh, I thought only Angelenos did that! Aren't East Coast fans supposed to be all, like, hahhd coah??

Credit Ron Artest for defending Paul Pierce far, far better than he did on February 1st. In that first matchup between these teams, Ron allowed Pierce to get too-easy separation en route to 32 efficiently scored points. Tonight Ron held his small-forward counterpart to 15 on 16 shots. The Laker bigs also did work on D. Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom pretty much took away the entire paint from the Celtics, forcing them to become a midrange jumpshooting squad. The stat lines tell you how well that worked out for them: Garnett, 4 for 13.... Rondo, 5 for 14.... Glen Davis, 3 for 10.... you get the picture. And the picture is good.

I very much approve of how the Lakers worked the ball inside this evening. Not merely that they worked the ball inside, but how. Instead of the basic entry pass into the post, they often looked for and found backdoor lobs and baseline bounce passes, tactics that we haven't seen a lot this season and that kept the Celtics' D off balance. It was a clever, unexpected gameplan from Phil Jackson.

The champs took a nice step forward tonight. The task now is to consolidate the gains with a W tomorrow in NYC. The up-tempo Knicks will test the champs' legs, and New York fans, unlike their Boston counterparts, might actually make a little noise. Here's to sending them home early too.











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