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The Edge Goes to L.A.

At some point in the last decade or so, the everlasting image of the Lakers-Celtics thing became the Kevin McHale [1] 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 [2] 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 [3]? Soft.

Lamar Odom? Flaky. Also, soft.

Kobe Bryant [4]? Not soft, but when your two-guard is your hardest player you’ve got problems. Michael Jordan [5] had Oakley and then Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman [6], after all.

When the Lakers lost the final game of last season by 39 points, that only intensified the feeling that the Celtics [7] were the grittier, tougher, shove-you-first (and last) team.

Thursday night’s game was anything but timid. (Click here for a recap [8].) 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11].

“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.