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WHEN A LAKERS SCOUT CAME TO TD GARDEN TO WATCH THE CELTICS IN THE Eastern Conference finals, he was not given a seat at the scorer's table with the representatives of other teams, but was relegated to a remote corner of the arena, from which he could barely see the court. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which may have dulled over the years, was on again. ¶ While L.A. vowed to show it had grown up since being pounded by Boston in the 2008 NBA Finals, the Celtics were intent on proving that nothing had changed. Granted, the Lakers won the championship in '09, but what did it mean, given that they did not have to go through Boston? This Celtics' starting lineup had never lost a playoff series. Los Angeles had not lost a series since it traveled to Boston two years ago. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant arguably and Pau Gasol definitely playing the best basketball of their careers. The Celtics had Rajon Rondo establishing himself as a star and the Big Three turning back time.
The teams spent the first six games setting up an epic finale at Staples Center. It would be the first Finals Game 7 for Phil Jackson, for Bryant and for the Big Three. And the Lakers would wait until the last quarter of the last game to show that they had indeed become the premier team of this era.
June 3, Staples Center, Los Angeles
Lakers 102, Celtics 89
FOR TWO YEARS THE LAKERS HAD TO DEFEND THEMSELVES against charges that they were soft, stemming mainly from a milquetoast performance in the 2008 Finals against Boston. Heading into the rematch, the two teams even seemed to buy into the tired stereotype: Jackson called the Celtics a "roughhouse team," while Boston power forward Kevin Garnett used the term finesse to describe the Lakers. But in Game 1 L.A. showed the Celtics a side they had never seen before, rugged and relentless. Twenty-seven seconds into the game Lakers forward Ron Artest and Boston forward Paul Pierce wrestled each other to the ground in a UFC-style takedown that earned both players technical fouls. It also sent the message that this time L.A. would not be shoved around.
Not only did the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 1, L.A. overwhelmed them in every category in which it had been dominated two years ago. The Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 42-31. They outscored them in the paint 48-30. They outscored them on second-chance points 16-0. The power forward matchup between Garnett and Gasol, which tilted heavily in the Celtics' favor in 2008, now turned toward Gasol. "We understand what a rival is, how they play, and you've got to compete, and you've got to make sure you match that physicality," said Gasol, who outscored Garnett 23-16 and had 14 rebounds to Garnett's four. "The whole team brought an intensity and activity that sent it to them."
The atmosphere at Staples Center, charged before the game, was deadened by 54 foul calls, causing a procession to the free throw line for both teams. But the Lakers pulled away late in the third quarter, going up by 20 on a three-pointer by Artest. Playing in his first NBA Finals, Artest scored 15 points, smothered Pierce, came up with two steals and made a momentum-changing block in the fourth quarter on Glen (Big Baby) Davis that thwarted a Boston comeback and led to a dunk by Gasol on the other end. The Celtics promptly called timeout, and Bryant wrapped Artest in a joyous bear hug.
Bryant understood the importance of the opener. Heading into the Finals, Jackson-coached teams were 47-0 in playoff series in which they took Game 1. The Celtics left Staples sounding a little like the Lakers had when they left TD Garden in '08. "They played harder," said center Kendrick Perkins. "And they wanted it more."