LOS ANGELES—On the Celtics’ flight from Denver to this city late Tuesday night, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce stood and spoke about what they’d face in the Lakers.
This wouldn’t be the Lakers team that the Celtics routed nearly two weeks prior in Boston. It would be an emotionally inspired group playing their first game since Lakers iconic owner Jerry Buss had died. Emotions would run high. Very high.
Of course, in today’s era of advanced statistics and metrics for everything imaginable, emotions are still a very real wild card. They’re hard to predict and prepare for, because it’s never crystal clear how someone will deal with them.
But following a video tribute, and a few words from Kobe Bryant, and a moment of silence, and a spotlight on the chair Buss occupied in the owners’ suite, the Lakers came out and channeled those emotions into one of their best performances of the season.
The Lakers pounded the Celtics, 113-99, at a sold-out Staples Center, exacting revenge for their recent loss and also honoring Buss in the best way they knew how: by beating the franchise he often measured his own against.
Garnett anticipated that it might be like this, and he reverted back to the warning he and Pierce shared with teammates on their way to this city.
“I was right on,” he said. “Paul and I was right on.”
If the Lakers players weren’t motivated before the game, the pre-game ceremony, which inspired the crowd to chant “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” more than helped get the juices flowing.
“Oh, yes, you couldn’t help but feel it,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said, “and I think the players felt it also.”
Now, emotions alone are not why the Lakers won.
Dwight Howard scored a team-high 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, looking like the dominant center he was in Orlando more than the troubled one he’s been lately.
Bryant added 16 points and 7 assists, and Steve Nash orchestrated the offense – one that had seven players score in double figures—with 14 points and 7 assists.
“The other guys played great, Dwight and all those, but I really thought Nash was the reason they won that game,” Doc Rivers said. “I just thought he spearheaded the charge.”
Paul Pierce bounced back from two terrible games to score a game-high 26 points, 23 in the first half before the Lakers made defensive adjustments.
“I think I only had two or three shots in the second half—they wanted other guys to beat them,” Pierce said. “I’m an unselfish player, I wasn’t going to force it, the extra passes where there.
“We can’t be a team where one man can beat somebody anyway. We have to have a number of guys stepping up.”
The Lakers scored 36 points in the first quarter, after which they led by 9. They kept the lead near double digits for most of the game, eventually building it up to 22 as the Celtics defense continued to wilt and wear down.
“We allowed 60 points in the first half, giving up over 100 – that’s really not us,” Pierce said.
If there was a play that typified the Lakers energy, it came in the first half when Lakers forward Earl Clark had his shot blocked by two Celtics defenders – Garnett and Avery Bradley – and grabbed the loose ball to slam it home.
The Celtics waved the white flag by inserting Fab Melo into the game in the fourth quarter. New addition Terrence Williams also played and scored a basket.
The Celtics played the night before, in Denver, and lost, but they played hard, at least.
“On this little run, that was our worst game as far as energy and effort,” Doc Rivers said. “We just didn’t have it tonight.”
On the other end, the Lakers had it – “it” being an emotional charge.
“We’ve been in that situation with Red Auerbach and just so many emotions in that type of game—teams are very dangerous, especially in their home building,” Pierce said. “Teams take a lot of pride in that, protecting that, going out and getting that first win, you could see it in their eyes. I saw it in Kobe’s eyes, he was real emotional coming out. He wanted this game badly. We understood that.”
Bryant didn’t play especially well, making just 5 of his 15 shots from the floor, but his intensity and competitiveness were both a notch above Wednesday.
“It’s very fitting,” Bryant said. “It’s funny how sports always seem to have those poetic stories you know. Something like this happens and it just so happens that we play the Celtics the next game.”
The Celtics have lost two straight in their five-game road trip and head to Phoenix for a Friday date with the Suns. But Thursday’s NBA trade deadline precedes that game, and it’s unknown what the Celtics might look like after that deadlines passes.
“All right, we’re going to trade them all now,” Rivers joked in his opening comment after the game.
Whatever moves the Celtics make, whatever direction the franchise shifts in, the current group is eating away at the cushion of wins it built before the All-Star Break.
“We’re not perfect by any means,” Garnett said. “We’re a working group, man. We’ve just got to get back on the horse, so to speak.
“The break kind of nipped the momentum a little bit, but that’s something that you’ve got to be conscious of, something that we are conscious of, and something that if we want to work our way out of, it’s got to be as a group. It’s not going to be one or two individuals.
“We’ve got to get back to our consistency and defense and let the offense flow through many versus one or two.
“We will. We will.”