The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers faced off against the Boston Celtics to finish their regular season business for 2011, and the contest from TD Banknorth Garden in Boston did not disappoint.
In a back-and-forth battle that saw both teams play great and poorly for stretches of time, the Lakers left the parquet victorious and revitalized, beating the Celtics 92-86 to split their pair of games.
In recent days, both Laker personnel managers and the media had put a lot of significance on this marquee matchup.
Late last week, after General Manager Mitch Kupchak announced that he would pursue trade possibilities for the Lakers, coach Phil Jackson said that he would like to see how the Lakers played in Boston before moving forward in the trade market.
The media, ever eager to pump this matchup, pinned the Lakers' elite status on this game, citing their 1-6 record against the league's five best teams. If they couldn't win, or compete hard with the Celtics, they would be written off by many as title contenders in a top-heavy NBA season.
Well, something slightly unexpected happened on Thursday night: The Lakers beat Boston convincingly on their home court. Now everyone is forced to reconsider what the Lakers are capable of and be reminded that they are still the back-to-back defending champs.
While they'll tell you it was just another regular season game in February, this win looms large for the Lakers' trajectory for the rest of the season.
Here are 10 reasons why.
Andrew Bynum adds a lot of muscle to a team that otherwise gets bullied by the Celtic bigs.
One of the talking points in the renewed Lakers-Celtics rivalry since 2008 has been toughness. In a lot of evenly matched games/series, the "tougher" team has usually been the one to come out on top.
In fact, in 13 Finals games played between the teams since 2008, the team who grabbed more rebounds won 11 times. In Game 7 of last year's Finals bloodbath, the Lakers were just tougher, going plus-13 on the boards and getting to the free throw line 20 more times than the Celtics in a four-point victory.
Attribute as much of that to Kendrick Perkins' absence as you want, but Pau Gasol's 18 rebounds and Kobe Bryant's 15 were displays of the sheer grit required to win a game like that. The Lakers did it and the Celtics didn't that night.
In Thursday's game, the Celtics got outrebounded by 11 and out free-throwed by six. They fell behind in the third quarter and never recovered, despite the fact that they had five fewer turnovers than the Lakers.
The tougher team won the game, as usual in this series, and the Lakers showed that they are capable of muscling up when they need to.
Keeping Rajon Rondo from getting hot was a focal point of the Laker defense.
As I was watching the telecast during the stretch when the Lakers took both the lead and control of the game with lock-down defense, I thought something that I never had before:
The Lakers are out-Celticking the Celtics.
What I mean is that they seized control of the game in signature Celtic fashion: strong defense, no second-chances and good execution offensively. Instead of winning with their contrasting style, the Lakers essentially adopted Boston's way and beat them with it.
As the Celtics cooled down from their hot shooting in the first half, it was a joy to watch them being forced into tough shots by an inspired and interested Lakers defensive unit. The end result was Boston finishing with just 86 points and 33 in the second half while the Lakers offense pulled away.
The Lakers are actually a top-10 defensive team this season, a deviation from years past, but it doesn't show up every night. This defensive game plan and performance is a real confidence booster for a team that got lit up like a Christmas tree for 110 by Boston at home just 11 days earlier.
The Lakers have an advantage on the perimeter against most teams with Kobe, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown.
Where they usually get in trouble is either in the post or with big guards/forwards who can score and distribute. With Boston, that means Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. You can't hope to stop those guys, only keep them from getting hot and killing you. Often times, the Lakers let those get their stats and hope for the best against the other positions.
What the Lakers must do to be successful against Boston is keep the bigs from having a significant impact.
When Kendrick Perkins plays well against the Lakers, it is extremely difficult for them to beat Boston.
Glen Davis killed them for a few games during the Finals last year. In 2008, Leon Powe and P.J. Brown did the same thing. The lesson is that you don't have to be a superstar and draw a ton of attention down there to have an impact against the Lakers, you just have to work hard and take what they give you.
What bodes well for the Lakers against Boston and other teams with good big guys is Andrew Bynum's performance against Perk. Bynum's 16 points and nine rebounds was visibly more effective than Perkins' 12 and 9, and Bynum was able to stay on the floor for 34 minutes with only two fouls.
Keeping Perkins from cleaning up messes on the offensive glass and protecting the rim on the other end are huge plusses for the Lakers.
This outcome is good for Bynum, who will have to go through bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Serge Ibaka, Al Jefferson, Tyson Chandler and more in the West.
Odom's inside-outside skills are problematic for most teams to defend.
The refrain is like a broken record now: Lamar Odom is so valuable because of his versatility and potential. After so many years of hearing how good Lamar could be, we're starting to see him mature into a consistent and dependable threat to contribute in several ways.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of having Lamar off the bench is that he can fill any void that exists that night. If Pau's low-post game is off, Lamar subs in and starts beating a bigger defender off the dribble to the rim. If Ron Artest or Matt Barnes isn't hitting that outside jumper or are mismatched against a bigger player, Lamar's jumper (greatly improved this year: career highs in FG and 3PT percentage) and size come into play. If D-Fish and the other point guards are getting torched by a bigger guard, Lamar's ball handling allows the Lakers to go without a point guard and slide Kobe or Shannon Brown onto the hot scorer.
His versatility is unparalleled in the league, and makes the Lakers much tougher to beat when utilized efficiently.
Lately, Lamar has been making his presence felt in the stat sheet with 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in the last 11 games. Thursday's 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in just 24 minutes were huge in the Laker comeback against Boston, and an encouraging sign moving forward.
The Lakers need to be united to be successful on the road.
The Lakers are on season-long seven-game roadie that includes tilts in New Orleans, Memphis, Boston, New York, Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland.
The Lakers are an impressive 3-0 so far, which looks and sounds a lot better than 2-1, had they lost to Boston.
The two toughest games are behind them on the trip, but that doesn't mean they can take a deep breath. As a result of some brutal scheduling, the Lakers play four games in five days starting last night in Boston, tonight in New York, Sunday afternoon in Orlando, and Monday in Charlotte.
The win in Boston was huge for their record on the road trip, and for their momentum going into the challenging weekend.
With a loss to Boston, the thought process goes something like, "They're really good. We are competitive with them, but we can't beat them."
Instead, they arrive at Madison Square Garden with bounce in their step, some chemistry brewing on the court and in travel, a convincing win in Boston under their belt and a primetime ESPN game ahead of them. It shouldn't be hard to get up for the Knicks game, especially for Kobe.
After a strong performance against the Knicks, the momentum just keeps snowballing as they touch down in Orlando, then Charlotte, then Cleveland.
Pretty soon, its not hard to envision a 7-0 road trip against 5-7 possible playoff teams and a sky-high confidence level.
A national TV win over the Celtics puts the rest of the league on notice that the Lakers are still around.
Not to say it so definitively, but many in the media and NBA circles had written off the Lakers for this year. In the back of their minds it was always possible that they would return to championship form, but of the serious contenders (Boston, Orlando, Dallas, San Antonio, and Miami), the Lakers were the only ones that hadn't flashed their championship flair this year.
With the win in Boston, and the two tough games preceding it, the Lakers all of a sudden have a growing body of signature wins and might be regaining their swagger.
One thing is true: the rest of the league is taking and will take notice of the statement LA made to the league with that win.
The more touches Pau gets, the better the Lakers are on offense.
I have beaten this dead horse way too many times: the Lakers are best on offense when Pau Gasol is the key, not Kobe Bryant. I've talked at length about it in this space (you can read more about it here and here).
In games that the Spanish big man dishes at least four assists, the Lakers are 20-6. They are 17-10 in games that he doesn't reach four dimes.
The good news is that he's reached that standard in half the Lakers' games. The bad news is that most of them came at the beginning of the schedule when he was playing at an MVP level. That assist total has decreased for three straight months to February's month-low total of 2.2 a game.
So if the Lakers are so tough to stop when Pau facilitates, why don't the Lakers do it all the time? One reason is that a guy named Kobe is still around. He's not the player he used to be, but Kobe still effortlessly puts up 25 points and five assists. He needs the ball in his hands to continue being the best player in the league.
Another reason is the fixation with making Andrew Bynum an offensive powerhouse. Bynum could be claimed as the pet project of three or four Laker coaches/executives who, for some reason, are determined to transform him into something he is clearly not.
As a result of this, the Lakers mindlessly toss the ball to him in ineffective positions in the post where it is hard to score, his lack of athleticism can't compensate for where he catches the ball, and Gasol stands and watches helplessly from outside the paint where he's neutralized as a rebounder.
A lot of games go by where the Lakers ostensibly ignore Gasol and under utilize-him. His skills are incomparable in the NBA. Why wouldn't the Lakers take advantage of that?
Against the Celtics, Gasol took 13 shots, attempted six free throws and had four assists. Those stats point to the fact that he was right around the number of touches he needs to have whole offense optimized.
Given that, it's no surprise that the Lakers won going away.
While the Lakers let Ray go in the first half, he cooled down and struggled in the second half like Rondo did.
By starting Kobe Bryant on Rajon Rondo, Phil Jackson told Doc Rivers that he doesn't care how much Ray Allen hurts them against the mismatched Fisher; Rondo is the key to Boston's rig, and he must be slowed.
That's exactly what happened. Jesus Shuttlesworth got off for six of 11 in the first half, but just two of seven in the second half. He finished with a team best 20 points.
Rondo struggled all game, never really making his presence felt all game long. His 12 points, 10 assists and five rebounds are good, if not great. If you're going to take 14 shots, though, you need to make more than five, and with only one steal, Rondo's impact was subdued by Kobe's defense.
Kevin Garnett also had a frustrating 4-13 night from the field and was outplayed by Gasol. His usual defensive impact was absent as Gasol (20-10-4) basically did whatever he wanted. This matchup goes either way depending on the specific Laker-Celtic matchup, but the fact that Gasol did not run and hide during crunch time of an important game is good news for his psyche and the Lakers.
Whatever Phil has done all these years still works, apparently.
What stuck out to me in Lakers-Celtics II was the effectiveness of the Lakers game plan.
From slowing Rondo, to establishing Gasol and making sure he was aggressive, to maintaining focus when encountering a deficit, everything Phil Jackson, Brian Shaw and Jim Cleamons did worked out well.
For how many times the Lakers break down and don't execute, the few times that it works well highlight just how much of a juggernaut the Lakers can still be.
Unity, teamwork, unselfishness, momentum. The Lakers might be putting the puzzle pieces together.
The Lakers of December and early January were not capable of beating five winning teams on the road in sequence. But the February Lakers, who have played noticeably better since the calendar flipped, are.
They are sensing the All-Star break, which kicks off the stretch run in preparation for the playoffs as teams solidify their rotations, get healthy and trim all the fat.
The Lakers sense the urgency of the calendar, and it has been reflected in their play lately, even in a last-second loss to the Spurs last week. They're beginning to take the shape of the team we're all familiar with, the one that has been to the NBA mountaintop three straight times with the same roster.
If they've learned anything from their recent ascents to the top, its that there's a time during the season that doesn't matter nearly as much as another part. They've identified the part that doesn't require the most focus and energy, and the part that does.
Not that anyone in the NBA can simply go full throttle into championship form, but the Lakers have mastered the delicate art of opening the throttle at the appropriate time.
Right now, they're just beginning to press down that pedal.