The momentum of Allen's achievement carried Boston to a 45--30 lead in the second quarter, but they were vulnerable. From the opening minutes Los Angeles had been exploiting its frontcourt size advantage to control the boards. The Lakers' failure to win any of their previous five games against elite opponents—including a humiliating Jan. 30 loss at home to Boston—could be traced back to their failure to develop a post game through 7'1" Andrew Bynum, who had missed the opening seven weeks while recovering from off-season right-knee surgery. Bynum, whose name has appeared in trade rumors for disgruntled Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, showed his value by punishing the Celtics for 16 points and nine rebounds. Power forward Pau Gasol had 20 and 10. "I was in foul trouble on the bench and seeing shots passed up by Kobe and [Derek] Fisher that I know they usually take," said Pierce. "They really made an emphasis on pounding the ball inside to their big guys, which is something that they didn't do when we were in L.A."
Boston was missing 21 feet of backup centers—the injured Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden—acquired since L.A. outmuscled the Celtics in seven games last June. Ultimately Bryant seized control, taking special joy in tormenting 6'5" Von Wafer, who had come in off the end of the bench. Kobe scored 20 in the second half, and after torching Allen with a final-minute fallaway jumper, Bryant ran by the TNT table staring down Miller as if in rebuke for his kinship with Allen.
The victory demonstrated how dangerous the Lakers are as their front line bonds and their focus narrows for the two-month backstretch of the regular season. Rivers spent the following day studying video not only of the loss to L.A. but also of recent victories by surging Miami. He found himself contemplating whether to resort to gimmicky zones and trapping defenses to make up for his temporary lack of depth. "Clearly this game meant more to [the Lakers] than to us, and you could see it in the way both teams approached the game and how they played," said Rivers as he sat in his office last Saturday. "That's tough to beat, and we've got to beat that tomorrow. For Miami it's Armageddon. For us, well, we beat them twice, we're injured, there's so many reasons for us not to play tomorrow. That's my concern as a coach."
FEB. 13: CELTICS 85, HEAT 82
"He's the smartest player I've ever coached," Rivers was saying of Rondo 25 hours later. "Maybe that I've ever been around."
Rondo, the league leader in assists with 12.3 per game through Sunday, had been relatively quiet for the previous nine days. "That's because we've been struggling," said Rivers after stealing a win over Miami. "He tries so hard to get everybody else going. . . . He spent the whole first half trying to get them going, but he didn't get himself going."
The Heat arrived with an eight-game winning streak, a half-game lead over Boston atop the Eastern Conference standings and persistent questions about whether it had shown enough improvement to beat the Celtics after losing to them twice in the opening month. Miami should have led by double digits at halftime, but 10 combined turnovers from James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh offset their 29 points.
Boston trailed just 43--39 thanks to Perkins, who would finish with 15 points and six rebounds to conclude the third impressive week of his return from knee surgery, and Glen Davis, whose performances were crucial to a team showing its age. Pierce, who said his left foot was bothering him (a Monday MRI was negative), would go 0 for 10 with one point in 40 minutes for his worst game since his 1999 rookie season.
With his team looking worn down, Rivers told Rondo at halftime to up the energy. Instantly he was attacking with the dribble, pushing the pace and hijacking control of the game. Two minutes into the half Rondo informed his teammates of his plan to personally defend James. "That wasn't a set game plan for him to guard LeBron," said Rivers. "Rondo took that upon himself."
One of Boston's concerns was James's ability to defend Rondo, using his length, quickness and strength to cut off penetration. Now Rondo was turning that dynamic upside down. He harassed James in the backcourt, leaned into him in the post, pressing his head against James's midsection even as James hip-checked him away. The strategy wasn't perfect—eventually James beat a double team with a behind-the-back assist, followed by a punishing low-post drive on Rondo for a three-point play—but it inspired the Celtics, and the old team looked suddenly young.