|There's a healthy amount of respect between the old school Lakers, Celtics. (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- It was vintage Lakers-Celtics, a brutal clash of skill and craftiness and old-school pride that came down to the last possession in overtime at the Garden. This is what Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have thrived on. This is what continues to fuel them after so many years.
There is respect and appreciation on both sides for what this has been, and Bryant spoke to it in the 11 o'clock hour in the visiting locker room -- the 11 o'clock hour for the modern-day version of the sport's best rivalry.
"It's a throwback in the sense that we're old school," Bryant said after the Lakers held off the Celtics 88-87 Thursday night. "Ray's old school. Paul's old school. Kevin's old school. And so is Rajon [Rondo]. How we prepare for the game, how much the game means to us. You can see the emotion they put into it and how much they put into the game. You don't really see that too much from the young guys."
But the young guys, the young teams are coming for both of them. The Celtics (14-11) have gathered themselves by winning nine of 11 after starting 5-9. The Lakers (15-11)?
"Still figuring it out," Bryant said.
They weren't figuring very well at the end of regulation, when Pau Gasol (25 points, 14 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (16 points, 17 rebounds) bailed the Lakers out of dreadful possessions by playing volleyball on the offensive glass. Bynum converted a three-point play after Metta World Peace had driven nearly all the way to the rim and kicked the ball to the corner to Steve Blake for a missed jumper. Moments later, Gasol tapped in another desperate, contested jumper late in the shot clock by Bryant and tied the game at 82-82.
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As much as Doc Rivers wanted to complain about the Celtics' execution -- perhaps he was spoiled by the ease with which his son, Austin, had beaten North Carolina at the buzzer the night before in Chapel Hill -- it was the Lakers who looked lost down the stretch, in the moments that matter most when these teams play.
"We don't have guys like there are on a lot of the teams out there," Lakers coach Mike Brown was saying earlier in the day. "Like Miami ... they've got multiple guys that can just go get it. You look at Oklahoma City, they've got guys that can go get it off the dribble. Some of the elite teams have that. Some of the teams that are in playoff contention have that.
"We don't necessarily have a lot of those guys," Brown said. "So that means that offensively, our execution needs to be that much more important so that if we do get in a situation where we break down at the end of the shot clock, we're not searching for Kobe and he's taking tough shots. So we've got to do what I call attack the clock, push the pace to get into our offensive sets early enough so that we can get to our second, third and fourth option in our play sets without being in a panic or being in a hurry."
This is the figuring out that the Lakers are trying to do. The execution part they can get. The ball-handling, penetrating guard capable of taking all the pressure off Bryant? He may or may not be walking through the door. The Lakers' starting point guard, Derek Fisher, was 0-for-7 with no points in 24 minutes. His backup, Steve Blake, returned from a month absence and was 2-for-7 with five points.
"I let management take care of that," said Bryant, who had 27 points and was 11 for 24 from the field -- including 2 for 8 in the fourth quarter and overtime. "My dedication hopefully becomes infectious with the guys in the locker room, and whatever they decide to do they decide to do. But the motivation stays the same. Regardless of who's in this locker room, I'm going to continue to push forward."
During an East Coast trip during which he passed Shaquille O'Neal for fifth on the NBA scoring list, with nothing but immortals in front of him, Bryant said this week that he's a Laker for the duration -- for better, or worse. Bryant won't try to go elsewhere to chase championships. He won't hang around averaging 18 or 19 points a game, either. He's going down swinging with this team, the only one he's ever known.
His quest for a sixth title to equal Michael Jordan is one driven by maniacal purpose. His greatest postseason triumphs and disappointments in this final chapter have come through the prism of the Lakers and Celtics -- the old-school guys who just get it, who just care in ways that "the young guys" don't yet grasp.
But the young guys are no longer in pursuit. They're here. And as great as this trip down memory lane was with the Lakers and Celtics Thursday night, the young teams with guys who can "go get it" smell blood. Times change. People get old. The calendar is relentless. Tim Duncan didn't make the All-Star team Thursday. Life goes on.
Maybe the Celtics can squeeze one more run out of their old-school bones. Maybe the Lakers find that guy who can handle the ball and get into the paint, make the defense fear him. Maybe this loud, tense, wonderful night at TD Garden, or the one that'll happen March 11 at Staples Center, won't be the last we'll see of these two old foes.
All I'm saying is, enjoy this while it lasts. This is what the obsessively competitive Bryant did Thursday night, as he continues to chase the ghost of Jordan while trying to match the guile of the Celtics and find an antidote to the likes of Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. There's always a new wave, and for Bryant, this is the last.
"It's always a brawl whenever we play," Bryant said. "It's ugly. It's physical. I've enjoyed competing against them, and I like all of them personally. But on the court, that personal stuff goes out the window. It's fun." In a sick kind of way, yes it has been a blast. And the Lakers and Celtics, despite being long in the tooth and short in other areas they need to meet again in June, delivered all the way to the final horn.
It was the Celtics' ball out of a timeout with 6.1 seconds left in overtime, the kind of moment when Rivers usually draws up a beauty. Pierce found his sweet spot on the right elbow extended, and Bryant knew what was coming next.
"We've played against each other so many times," Bryant said, his knees wrapped and feet soaking in an ice bucket, "we know what's coming before it happens."
Pierce, who'd rattled in a 3-pointer moments earlier, fell short on a step-back jumper. Allen was there to one-touch the rebound off the glass. But Gasol -- the only bearded, 7-foot member of the Gasol family I'm aware of who didn't make the All-Star team Thursday -- was there, too, to swat it away.
"You've just got to play until the clock runs out," Gasol said. "And that's what I try to do."
That's what these Lakers and Celtics do, too. Play until the clock runs out. Enjoy it while you can.