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Is this really just another game?

02.06.09 at 12:35 am ET
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No one on the Los Angeles Lakers is more outspoken about his feelings toward the Boston Celtics than Sasha Vujacic. Make no mistake, he is not over last season’s loss in the NBA Finals. Less than a year later, the emotional wound is still very open.

‘€œI wouldn’t say it’s hatred,’€ Vujacic said before the Lakers overtime win against the Celtics (RECAP HERE). ‘€œIt’s just hard when you lose in the Finals to forget about it and say life goes on. It doesn’t go on. I’m always going to be kind of scarred.’€

Kind of scarred? Vujacic won’t even wear green — ‘€œI’ve seen too much green in June’€ — but he doesn’t think these sentiments are over the top. Any player who claims it’s just another game, he attests, isn’t being honest.

‘€œI think that if you go in the Celtics locker room and you ask them about us, they’re going to have the same opinion. The only difference is they have a championship ring and they have a trophy at home,’€ he said. ‘€œI would say that for both teams, no matter what they say or no matter what people think, it will never, ever be ‘just another game’ against the Celtics or against the Lakers.’€

For many of the Celtics, this wasn’t just another game. As Ray Allen explained, the Celtics were the hunted against a Lakers team looking for revenge. The Cs knew the Lakers were going to attack with a Game Seven mentality and they wanted to match that energy.

‘€œWe approach it as an intense playoff atmosphere,’€ Allen said. ‘€œWe definitely don’t take it lightly. It’s a very intense moment for us. We look forward to it and the focus in the locker room is pretty intense … Now we’re on the other side of the fence where we’ve got to pick it up and we’ve got to get momentum going here into the playoffs.’€

Kendrick Perkins agreed.

‘€œI thought it was very physical. I thought it was a playoff-type atmosphere game,’€ he said. ‘€œIt wasn’t a make-or-break for the season, no doubt about it, but we wanted to win the game. You could tell, any time we go through a game like that, hard fought, you just want to get the win.’€

There may have been a playoff atmosphere but that doesn’t mean this game has the ramifications of a postseason match up. Nobody won a ring, no one was sent home for the summer.

‘€œWhat was it? Game 51? It was Game 51,’€ said Eddie House. ‘€œI think they feel like they won the Finals, the way they were celebrating out there, and it’s Game 51. I think it just meant more to them to come in here and be able to get that monkey off their back to feel like, oh they can get a win out here. So that’s behind us. I think it meant more to them but we just keep it moving.’€

At the end of overtime the Celtics were the world champions while the Lakers were still seeking to take the title away. But seasons are not decided in February. Ultimately, it is just another game in the grand scheme of the regular season. Even Vujacic, open wound and all, isn’t celebrating just yet.

‘€œWe don’t celebrate,’€ he said after the game. ‘€œWe celebrate in June.’€

Read More: Allen, Celtics, House, Lakers

The Edge Goes to L.A.

02.06.09 at 12:34 am ET
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At some point in the last decade or so, the everlasting image of the Lakers-Celtics thing became the Kevin McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis. It is the first image they show on the JumboTron in the pregame and whenever it does appear, the crowd responds with a familiar cry of bloodlust.

Forget Larry hitting the turnaround on Magic. Forget Henderson stealing the ball. Forget Don Nelson’s jumper bouncing high off the rim. Forget Russell winning one last time while Wilt stewed on the bench. This is what we think about when we think Lakers-Celtics: Rambis going up for a layup and McHale decking him.

Legend has it that Pat Riley decided after that series that no team of his would ever get knocked around like that again, and thus gave the world Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and the rest of the aesthetically unpleasing Knicks of the early 90’s.

The underlying message in all of this is has always been: Boston tough. L.A. soft.

Pau Gasol? Soft.

Lamar Odom? Flaky. Also, soft.

Kobe Bryant? Not soft, but when your two-guard is your hardest player you’ve got problems. Michael Jordan had Oakley and then Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, after all.

When the Lakers lost the final game of last season by 39 points, that only intensified the feeling that the Celtics were the grittier, tougher, shove-you-first (and last) team.

Thursday night’s game was anything but timid. (Click here for a recap.) The shoulders were set harder on high screens. The elbows were flying away from the play. There were double technicals and stare downs and even one bizarre sequence where Odom smacked Kevin Garnett in the back and then seemed to temporarily lose his mind over K.G.’s penchant for swatting away shots after the whistle.

“It was a physical game, but you have to come to expect that,” Paul Pierce said. “All those things said about the Lakers not being a physical team, you just have to expect that they’re gonna come around and hold their chests up high.”

The nature of play did not sit well with Doc Rivers.

“In the third and fourth quarters, I thought the game got out of control,” Rivers said. “I really did. And I thought the officials let it get out of control. I just thought there was a lot of chippiness. We were the retaliators a lot tonight, and we got caught. Obviously. Both teams. I thought it was a chippy game in the second half and it didn’t need to be.”

Between quarters Rivers was in the ear of the officials–Monty McCutchen, James Capers and Leon Wood–yelling about the loose elbows that were swinging around.

Here’s the thing though. The Lakers took those shots, and they didn’t flinch. Kobe, we know about. Say what you will about Kobe Bean Bryant but he does not back down from a street fight. Time and again he lined up deep 3-pointers with Pierce draped all over him and he knocked them down, which only adds to his image as the NBA’s most cold-blooded player.

But Gasol, forever derided as being Teddy Ruxpin soft, scored 24 points and had 14 rebounds and it wasn’t like he was shooting 20-foot jumpers either.

“Gasol was the star of the game,” Rivers said. “He got it deep, he got hook shots, fadeaways.”

If the Celtics had a mental edge over the Lakers, it’s gone now. The Lakers have talked (and talked) about the way last year ended for them, getting humiliated on the Garden floor. They’ve talked about it so much that you couldn’t help but wonder if this would become one of those self-fulfilling prophesies where the ending was written before the scenario even took place. That’s gone now.

“It was important for us,” Bryant said, acknowledging the obvious. “I think the growth that we had from last year to this year, when they went on those 8-0 runs we kept our poise. Last year, 8-0 runs turned into a 15-2 run. That is something that we couldn’t weather and I think we’ve grown tremendously in our execution and our poise.”

The Celtics all said that this was just another game in the 82-game schedule. They learned from the last time the Lakers snapped one of their winning streaks that they can handle the aftershocks. One tends to believe them when they say that because they backed it up by ripping off 12 straight wins.

But there was a weird moment at the end of the post-game press conference where Garnett, whose mind had been wandering (understandably since he has been laid up for the better part of the past week) snapped back to the here and now. The question was about whether the Celtics wanted to see the Lakers again in the Finals.

“Hell yeah,” he said fixing his glare on the questioner for a good five seconds. “We’re the champs, right?”

They are the champs and are entitled to all the benefits that distinction holds, and in a seven-game series they’d still be the choice. But they know. The dynamic has shifted.

Celtics-Lakers Game Blog: OT

02.05.09 at 11:00 pm ET
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At the start of overtime … Celtics 101, Lakers 101

– Missed free throws and a fumbled game winner? Very uncharacteristic of Paul Pierce. Nonetheless the Celtics will have to play another five minutes without Garnett.

Ray Allen is itching to take over. I say let him have the ball.

– Pierce’s sweatband was nearly knocked off his head and Allen fell to the ground trying to take a charge from Gasol. The Celtics are getting frustrated by the no-calls but emotions can’t get in the way in close situations like this.

– Big Baby will not give up on his jumper and it finally paid off. He is one-for-seven from the field but his single shot put the Celtics up 109-108 … Spoke to soon. Davis got shot happy and attempted another J, which fell short and eventually resulted in two free throws by Odom.

– Looks like Fisher took a foot to the head courtesy of Rondo after the two chased after the ball. Fisher got whistled for the non-shooting foul. Another game-winner for Ray? Not this time. Lakers 110, Celtics 109.

Celtics-Lakers Game Blog: Fourth Quarter

02.05.09 at 10:17 pm ET
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At the start of the fourth … Celtics 81, Lakers 77

For Paul’s third quarter recap, click here.

Fourth Quarter Observations:

– The Celtics and Lakers have each hit 30 field goals. The Cs have a slight edge at the line (13 to 12) and behind the arc (eight to five). Their big advantage comes on the glass (35 to 29) and consequently off of fast breaks (17 to 11).

Tony Allen vs. Sasha Vujacic: let the emotions start flowing.

– Trevor Ariza’s having trouble guarding Pierce. He got whistled late in the third to boost the Celtics momentum and got called for another foul a minute into the fourth.

– Remember how Doc said Powe would break out of his slump? So far he has eight points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes.

– Doc has put the starters back in with 6:40 to go. The Lakers are going with their starters minus Walton/plus Vujacic. Odom is the problematic one tonight, not Kobe. He’s gone to the line nine times, most recently drawing KG’s fifth foul.

– Garnett fouled out on a controversial call with 4:22 left in the game and the Celtics up 95-93. Lakers don’t have Andrew Bynum, Celtics don’t have KG. Let’s see who pulls it out without their bigs. Big Baby gets the nod for Garnett.

– During a timeout the entire Celtics bench was on their feet … except for KG. It must be killing him to be on the sidelines. Missing the game with the flu is one thing. Fouling out on a ticky-tack call is another.

– Celtics caught a break with a Lakers 24-second violation. Apparently Gasol thought the ball hit the rim while he looked for the open player. Doc’s going for stops with Eddie House on the bench.

– Kobe, Paul, or Ray. Who’s going for the big shots?

– Pierce’s free throw tied it up at 101 apiece and the Celtics are facing overtime if they can’t pull of a game-winner with seven seconds to go.

– And we’re headed to OT.

Celtics-Lakers Game Blog: Third Quarter

02.05.09 at 9:40 pm ET
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Very interesting half the Celtics just played. After settling for jump shots in the first, the bench came in and proceeded to not do a whole lot of anything. The lead for the Lakers was nine at one point, but then Eddie House caught fire and the starters played with renewed energy to take a 52-51 lead into the second half.

Kevin Garnett has not shown any effects of the flu so far, going for eight points and five rebounds, but Doc Rivers wasn’t concerned how KG would start. He was worried about how he would finish.

Two numbers stuck out. After going 12 minutes with just two turnovers, the Celtics turned it over seven times in the second quarter, which reflected a more ragged pace. But they played well in the helter-skelter and dominated on the boards, out-rebounding the Lakers 14-6 and getting six offensive boards. Leon Powe gets a lot of that credit and he had one of his best stretched in recent memory

So, the stage is set for a memorable second half and we’ve got you covered.

Third Quarter Wrap: If you don’t like this you just don’t like basketball. Or sports. Or life in general. You never know how these things are going to play out. These things being heavily hyped regular season games in February, but this one has it all. Great shot-making, stars playing like stars and just enough of an edge to make an NBA highlight video someday.

The fourth quarter awaits.

Third Quarter Observations

— The Celtics are playing great defense to start things off. Even that 3-pointer by Derek Fisher was contested. They’re going for the KO punch early.

— Love the way Pierce is standing up for Rondo right now.

— Got to give the Lakers credit here. The Celtics had them on the ropes and they’ve come right back. Kobe hasn’t been as domineering as I thought he would be, which is actually good for LA.

— That was weird. Odom just slapped KG in the back. And now KG is an angry, angry man.

— Trouble for the C’s as Rondo got his fourth. They need him tonight. I don’t think Doc has confidence in putting Gabe Pruitt out there in this kind of an environment.

— Odom is all kinds of weirded out it seems. Someone’s going to have to restore some order to this game. My vote is for Pierce. Strange, right? That’s where he is right now as a player. He is the Celtics ballast.

Bill Belichick is in the house tonight.

— A three-second call on Kobe. Well now I have seen everything. By the way, Kobe and Pierce are battling.

— It’s a good move by Doc to keep Rondo out until he needs him but they have been out of sorts for the last few trips. They’ve gotten bailed out by a couple of good individual plays but the structure isn’t there right now.

— If the Lakers lose this game they are going to be very very angry at themselves that they missed so many free throws. Also, that they didn’t cover Eddie House.

Ray Allen: All-Star

02.05.09 at 9:04 pm ET
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Ray Allen was driving to work when he got the news that he would be an All-Star for the ninth time in his NBA career. By the time he got to the Garden for Thursday night’s game with the Lakers, he had already received a text message from Kevin Garnett and then congratulations from Paul Pierce. Whatever happens to any of the Celtics great players happens to all of them, which is exactly how the coach wants it.

“I like having those three guys together,” Doc Rivers said. “To me, that’s important.”

For the second year in a row Allen was named as an injury replacement. This time he will be replacing Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson who is out with a torn labrum. The who, what and why mattered little to Allen who has been around the block enough times to know that no one remembers these things in the long run.

After all, Allen poured in 28 points in last year’s game as an injury replacement. “There’s one thing that has changed,” Allen joked. “Doc is not the coach (of the All-Star team). I might be sitting on the bench.”

Cleveland’s Mike Brown has the honor this year (coaches can’t work the game in consecutive years). “That’s true,” Rivers said. “I’m going to tell (Brown) to bench all three of our guys. That would be great.”

In all seriousness, it was easy to see that Allen was very happy with the news.

“Elated. Ecstatic,” was his reaction to the news. “Nine times for me. I think about where I’ve come from and all the things I’ve wanted to do in my career. It’s a team game, but to be recognized as one of the best it’s always an honor. I’ve always considered my time in this league to be a privilege. And to represent this franchise is also an honor.”

Someone asked about LeBron James‘ comments that it wasn’t fair that the Celtics and Magic had two representatives (now three) while the Cavs had only him. The obvious omission for LeBron was guard Mo Williams.

“I don’t think this is about fairness,” Allen said. “It’s such an unbalanced equation when you’re talking about the All-Star game. If it was Mo Williams I’d be happy for him. He’s having an All-Star year.”

If you want to talk fairness, it’s hard to argue against Allen’s inclusion, whose shooting percentages (497 FG, 410 3-point, 94 FT) are among the best in the league. Statistically he has been the Celtics best offensive player this season (both new age and old school).

“He’s the most efficient two-guard in the league right now,” Rivers said. “He takes less shots, but he makes them.”

To which Allen echoed, “The game is played in so many different ways. Whatever I do well, I just do it and try to be consistent. No matter how many shots I get up; just be efficient.”

In the weeks leading up to the selections, Allen stayed cool. He talked about taking his family on vacation and promised that he was not at all worried about it. But you could tell it meant a lot to him. “We’ll talk about this for the rest of our lives,” he said meaning himself, Pierce and Garnett. “This is all we have. The experiences, the memories and the time spent together.”

Celtics-Lakers Game Blog: Second Quarter

02.05.09 at 8:54 pm ET
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At the half … Celtics 52, Lakers 51

FIRST HALF WRAP: The Celtics found their momentum late in the first half to go up one in the closing seconds. Bryant leads all scorers with 13, but only three of those came in the second quarter. Pierce, Garnett, and Allen have combined for 38 of the Celtics 52 points. Rondo is solid, though, posting six points, five rebounds, and four assists. The Celtics bench has to get going in the second half because Kobe won’t stay quiet for much longer.

For Paul’s first quarter recap, click here.

Second Quarter Observations

– Celtics fans have not forgotten about Sasha Vujacic’s emotional outbursts during the Finals. They booed loudly when he fouled Paul Pierce, but this time Vujacic kept his feelings in check.

Leon Powe had a breakout game against the Lakers in June. This season, though, teams are paying closer attention and scouting him with a more watchful eye. As a result, Doc Rivers said Powe is going through pretty common struggles at this point in the season. However he guarantees Powe will break out of the slump.

– Down 31-22, Celtics fans are beginning to get restless. One guy behind me yelled out “Beat LA” with a sad desperation in his voice. Don’t worry, it’s only three minutes into the second quarter. There’s still plenty of basketball to be played.

– Doc’s trying to manage KG’s minutes, waiting until 8:20 left to bring him back in. Garnett’s on the floor with Ray Allen in hopes of giving the second unit a boost. So far the bench has contributed just one basket, coming from Powe.

– Take that back. Eddie House hit consecutive shots — a driving layup and a pull-up three — to bring the Celtics within four and prompt a Lakers timeout.

– A Lakers fan was shown on the Jumbotron taking a picture of another Lakers fan’s (temporary?) tattoo. There is a pretty sizable sea of gold and purple here tonight.

– Gasol didn’t get called for his first foul until 3:45 left in the half. The Celtics should be attacking the paint and drawing whistles. Josh Powell and Chris Mihm are hardly threatening against KG and Perk.

– In the crowd: Bill Belichik and Kevin Faulk (New England Patriots), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle Seahawks), Gosder Cherilus (Detroit Lions), Taylor Twellman and Brad Knight (New England Revolution), and Sudbury native Chris Evans (actor, “Fantastic Four”).

– Boos already? Luke Walton’s trey put the Lakers up by five with under two minutes to go in the half. The Lakers are shooting 52.5% from the field. The Celtics are shooting just 43%.

– A block by Paul Pierce on Derek Fisher followed by a putback from Perk has brought life back into the Garden. Everyone on the court touched the ball on that posession.

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