LOS ANGELES -- When it mattered most, when the game was on the line, the Boston Celtics showed no mercy, punting the Los Angeles Lakers from one end of Staples Center to the other and back again Sunday afternoon.
Down the stretch, the rematch of the NBA Finals was a mismatch.
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In the end, the Celtics' 109-96 victory raised additional questions about the Lakers' ability to win a third consecutive championship and send retiring coach Phil Jackson off to his home in Montana with a 12th title -- six with L.A. and six in Chicago.
More and more, it looks as if the numbers won't add up. As if someone other than Jackson and Kobe Bryant will be hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
It is, of course, still only January and there's a great deal of basketball to be played. But the Celtics sure looked closer to championship form than the Lakers did on Sunday, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Bryant went a little nuts, matching his season high with 41 points and passing the 27,000-point milestone in the process. But his scoring binge put the Lakers in jeopardy because it made their offense one-dimensional late in the game.
The Celtics had only to focus their energy on staying in front of Bryant, who launched the first shot on 11 consecutive possessions during one especially dysfunctional stretch in the fourth quarter. It wasn't an easy task, of course, but it was made easier by the fact that the other four Lakers stood and watched Bryant shoot and shoot and shoot.
Bryant scored 11 of his team's 24 points in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't think anybody else wanted the ball," Jackson said, grimacing at game's end. "We did run a couple other plays to get guys into position, but I thought those times [Bryant] had the best opportunities. ... But a lot of times, it didn't look like we were running anything out there."
Defensively, the Lakers were a mess, too. Ron Artest couldn't guard Paul Pierce right from the start, took an accidental knee to his right thigh in the first quarter and went on to miss nine of 10 shots. He took a seat for the fourth quarter. Luke Walton also tried and failed to check Pierce. So did Bryant, although he might have done the best of all.
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Pierce finished with 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Ray Allen made 8 of 12 shots for 21 points. Kevin Garnett went 9 for 12 from the field for 18 points. Rajon Rondo had 16 assists, all but one in the second half.
With firepower like that, the Celtics might have crushed the Lakers even on L.A.'s best defensive day. This was not the Lakers' best defensive day in what's turning out to be something of a disappointing season, and the Celtics had plenty to do with it.
Boston's offense clicked when Rondo clicked, which isn't anything new.
The Celtics shot a scalding 60.3 percent for the game, including 70 percent (14 for 20) in the fourth quarter. Those numbers amazed Boston coach Doc Rivers, who said, "We don't do that every night, unfortunately. As a coach, I would like that."
Don't be greedy, Doc. You play the Lakers only twice this season. (The rematch is Feb. 10 in Boston).
Again, that's assuming the Lakers don't cure what ails them by the time the playoffs roll around in April and also that the Celtics find a way past the Miami Heat and their three-headed monster of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or the Orlando Magic, or whomever else might confront them in the playoffs.
Too much still can happen between now and the spring to write off the Lakers. But for one rainy afternoon in Los Angeles at the end of January, it seemed the Celtics were miles ahead of their ancient rivals in all the categories that make up a championship team, especially when it comes to playing defense.
Jerry West recently cracked on L.A.'s poor defense. The Lakers legend stood in front of a bunch of car dealers in Orange County, Calif., and asked them how many times they watched a Laker hit the floor in pursuit of a loose ball.
When he said it, though, the Lakers' defensive numbers were a smidge better than last season. They were giving up 96.4 points as opposed to 97, so maybe it wasn't simply numbers on a page that told the story.
"We understand that the regular season is not crucial, but it is important," power forward Pau Gasol acknowledged. "We have to understand that every game is important. We're not going to win them all and we're not going to play great every night, but we have to have a little more sense of urgency."
The Celtics had no such troubles Sunday.