Certain expectations accompany the Lakers when they come to town, even in their problem-plagued incarnation.
By the end of the game, Shaquille O'Neal will emerge the dominant difference-maker with the sheer force of his dunks, if not his massive presence on the glass. Kobe Bryant will challenge conventional notions of biomechanics with his array of acrobatic baskets, despite making a surprise start with a sprained right shoulder joint that was supposed to take approximately three more weeks to heal. Textbook offensive play will be coupled with unchoreographed creativity. Local celebrities will fill FleetCenter seats, enjoying the show as part of a sellout crowd.
In recognition of the storied rivalry, the Celtics will stay as competitive as they can for as long as they can. With a few notable exceptions, last night's 117-109 LA victory played out pretty much as expected.
The Celtics (29-37) knew they had a tough task, playing the Lakers (42-22) in the second of back-to-back contests with a season-best six-game winning streak on the line. They hung tough most of the game, despite being outrebounded, 50-38, and allowing the Lakers to shoot 46 percent. They attempted a late fourth-quarter rally. But as expected, the Lakers simply proved too much.
"The good thing about the loss was that our guys competed throughout the game," said interim coach John Carroll. "Even though we didn't win the game, they fought hard and played hard, not hard enough and not well enough to win. But we've had a good stretch. We need to regroup and gather some energy and get back on the same page."
Like their coach, the Celtics handled their first loss since Feb. 25 somewhat philosophically, even though the loss dropped them to eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. They know O'Neal, Bryant, and Gary Payton are a tough combination to handle. As the Lakers stretched their lead in the second half, O'Neal (28 points, 17 rebounds) dominated. When the Celtics knocked the Lakers' lead below double digits on several occasions in the fourth, O'Neal was ready to respond with either a slam dunk, a tip shot, or a pair of free throws. Yes, a pair of free throws.
The Celtics' final stand occurred with 4 minutes 52 seconds left. Chucky Atkins (19 points, 8 assists) went to the line and cut the deficit to 11 points. Layups by Mark Blount and Jiri Welsch brought Boston within 7, before O'Neal hit a pair of free throws. Then, a dunk by Ricky Davis left the Lakers holding a 109-100 lead, before O'Neal countered with a tip shot. Paul Pierce (30 points) responded with a 3-pointer and a steal that led to a fast-break layup by Atkins. With 1:57 remaining, the Celtics trailed, 111-105.
At the urging of Pierce flapping his arms, the crowd rose, hoping for a dramatic comeback. The cheers became louder after LA committed a turnover and Boston got a chance to close the gap even further. But Atkins missed a 3-pointer. O'Neal then quickly silenced the spectators with yet another dunk. Another 3-pointer from Pierce with 33.5 seconds left again brought Boston within 6. And again, O'Neal responded with a slam for the final basket of the game.
"We came down and took a lot of quick shots in the beginning of the fourth quarter, then we had to come [back] and keep playing defense," said Blount (9 points, 11 rebounds). "If you're not doing anything on the other end, you have to guard Shaq."
Certainly, shooting 41 percent in the fourth quarter was not doing enough offensively. It was a marked contrast from the first half when Boston shot 55 percent, including 63 percent in the second quarter when the Green briefly took the lead.
With 9:19 remaining in the second, Atkins nailed a 3-pointer to give Boston its first advantage since the opening minutes of the contest, 38-37. The Celtics saw their lead climb as high 3 points before the Lakers retook control. A 14-3 run pushed the visitors ahead, 53-45, with 4:31 remaining in the second. LA led by as many as 10 points in the closing minutes of the second, entering halftime ahead, 68-60.
The third started with a dunk contest for one by Davis, who scored 12 of his 24 points in the second. All alone on the break, Davis passed the ball between his legs and went in for a windmill dunk. The ball slipped from his hands. But he chased after it and converted a similarly styled dunk the second time. LA led by as many as 14 points (86-72) in the third before Boston tried to collect itself, finishing the quarter with a 6-1 run and entering the fourth with an 8-point deficit, equal to where it stood at the break.
"They're a streaky team," said Bryant (18 points, 10 assists). "Whenever we made a run, they knocked down a couple 3-point baskets. It kept them in the game. That's how they were able to stick around."