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Dan Shaughnessy

This matchup can't be matched

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2009
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They didn't stick around to watch the commissioner present the gold-ball trophy to Wyc and Pags. They skipped the scene with Bill Russell hugging Kevin Garnett. They were back on the beach long before the duck boats rolled through the Back Bay.

But how can these Los Angeles Lakers ever forget the sight of Tony Allen flushing a reverse dunk with 1:22 left to make the score 129-86 in the sixth game of the NBA Finals? It was embarrassing and humiliating. And it was just eight months ago.

Tonight the Lakers are back in the Garden. It's got to feel like revisiting the place where you totaled your sports car five minutes after peeling out of the dealership. Frightening flashbacks. Like Buckner walking into Shea.

This is the place where something bad happened.

It's an NBA event, as big as any regular-season game. The Celtics and Lakers meet only twice (pre-playoffs), and Boston's annual Staples Center game was the highlight of ABC's Christmas package. We all remember that one. The Celtics walked into Los Angeles with a 27-2 record and a franchise-best 19-game winning streak and got whupped down the stretch by Pau Gasol, of all people. The loss sent the Green into a 2-7 dip that emboldened Eastern Conference challengers from Cleveland, Orlando, and Detroit.

Hall of Famer Bill Walton, enjoying a solid second act as a television analyst (and proud dad of Lakers forward Luke Walton), watched the Christmas special from home, just as he will tonight in Southern California.

"[Rajon] Rondo did not play well in that game in Los Angeles and he is such a critical component," said the man who won a ring with the Celtics in 1985-86. "The Celtics were playing great ball at the time, just as they are now. They went into a two-week funk after that game when nobody was contributing. The second string, particualry Big Baby [Glen Davis], has to have an impact on every game for them. The Celtics just started that game way too slow. You're going to have to play great to beat the Lakers on any court."

Order has been restored to the universe since the Scroogey Christmas. The Celtics come into tonight's game with a 12-game winning streak and the best record in the NBA as the basketball world braces for (hopefully) yet another Boston-LA championship series in June.

The Lakers are certainly doing their part, tied with Cleveland for the second-best record in the league, holding a six-game lead over the Spurs in the race for the best record in the West. We won't see the Lakers at their best because they are playing their third road game in four nights and will be without 21-year-old mastodon Andrew Bynum, who is out for at least a couple of months with a tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Bynum was the missing ingredient last spring when the Celtics had their way with the softshell Californians.

Kobe Bryant will certainly be here tonight. Kobe dropped 61 on the Knicks Monday night - a Madison Square Garden record. He was outplayed by Paul Pierce in last year's Finals and no doubt that nags him.

Meanwhile, the champs have won their last two games without Kevin Garnett. KG is expected to be back on the floor tonight. Who could miss this one?

Forget about Garnett, this game is The Big Ticket. Rich, famous, and fortunate sons are sure to be at courtside, just as they were in Los Angeles on Christmas Day,

But it's more than an event. It's a regular-season game with true meaning. The winner gains an edge in the crucial quest for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

"This game will mean everything and it very likely could determine the championship," said Walton, no stranger to hyperbole. "That's the way these teams have to look at it. Home-court advantage is just critical.

"One thing this young Laker team learned last year is how incredibly powerful a force home-court advantage is for the Celtics. These players grew up when the Celtics were down, so they never saw it. Now they know that Celtic fans are incredible in what they do to inspire the home team and intimidate the road team. It can be devastating, as it was to the Lakers last year."

Anybody got extra tickets?

Tonight's game reminds me of an odd phone message from 21 winters ago. The Lakers were coming to town to play the Celtics in their annual regular-season game and Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell called me for tickets. How crazy is that? Trammell had finished second in the American League MVP voting that year. Like the Celtics and Lakers, he was at the top of his game. We barely knew one another, but he figured I might be able to help. The Celtics were happy to oblige, so Trammell flew from San Diego to Boston just to see one regular-season game. The Lakers won it, 115-114, on a 20-foot shot by Magic over the Chief at the buzzer.

Here we are again. New faces, same teams, same intensity.

Anybody got extra tickets?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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