A poor judgment call
Baby, it was cold outside.
But, brother, it was sizzling inside, where the Celtics and Lakers staged another somewhat sloppy but always heated installment of American sport's greatest East-West rivalry (and there is no second, third, fifth, or even 10th place).
The bragging rights, for the time being, now belong to the Lakers, who marched into TD Banknorth Garden in their Bynum-less state and emerged with an asterisked 110-109 overtime triumph that gives them a 2-0 season series sweep of the defending champions, and which may or may not mean something four months hence.
The game ended, fittingly, in mild controversy, with the Celtics thinking Ray Allen had been fouled by Derek Fisher on the final shot. This is, of course, something like the 39,453d NBA game to end with one team in an apoplectic state over a last-second officiating judgment. That's the NBA, and it's never going to change. Officials are human, and, at this exalted level, it is a very difficult game to adjudicate.
Even the best officials get it wrong. The question emanating from this game, however, was this: What were these three men doing working a game of this magnitude? On a February Thursday night when there are only three games on the schedule, someone in power thinks that Monty McCutchen, Jim Capers Jr., and Leon Wood should be working what was, in the minds of many, the biggest game of the 2008-09 regular season? Really? Were all the real officials on vacation? Not acceptable. No game of this scope should be placed in the hands of third-tier officials. There were going to be legitimately unhappy people, no matter who won this horribly mismanaged game that left both sides confused as to what was, and what wasn't, a foul right from the opening tap.
You just can't have a great game without quality officiating, and this was far from a great game, as Phil Jackson readily conceded.
"Neither of our teams played up to the capabilities that we are able to play, but we outlasted them," he said. "But that's about it."
He didn't say it, but I will: The proper team won. Any road win is a good one in the NBA, and a win in the gym where the defending champion resides is even more notable.
The Lakers proved to be a resilient bunch, refusing to allow the Celtics or the crowd to deter them on a night when Kobe Bryant was very fallible. He had 61 against the Knicks Monday and 36 against the Raptors Wednesday, but last night, playing against a real defense, he labored for 26 ugly points, slogging his way through a 10-for-29 shooting evening.
He needed help from his, ahem, supporting cast, and he got it. Pau Gasol came up big with 24 points (10 for 14) and 14 rebounds. Lamar Odom awoke from one of his legendary first-half slumbers to finish nicely with 20 points and six rebounds, and he provided LA with the two winning free throws with 16 seconds left. With his team trailing, 109-108, Odom earned a foul at the defensive end, then made both shots, swishing the first and getting a friendly roll on the second. That should keep the coach, the fans, and the LA media off his back for one night, anyway.
Bryant did have one key outburst on this otherwise dreary evening. He made three straight fourth-quarter threes, the third of which, with 1:30 remaining in regulation, put his team ahead for the first time since 51-50.
The Celtics played all right in spurts, but they lacked the knockout punch. They led from the final basket of the first half to the 1:30 mark of the fourth, but they could not close the deal. Of course, it might have been possible had Kevin Garnett been around, but he fouled out on a ridiculous call by Capers with 4:22 remaining and the Celtics leading by 2, which brings us to the asterisk and the night's central question, doesn't it?
Jackson was unusually magnanimous on that subject. "That's a critical factor," he said, referring to Garnett's disqualification. "I don't think he was quite ready to play. He didn't look up to par, but even with him at 90 percent, he is still a guy who can make shots and do a lot of things defensively."
LA has to feel good about this one, and about its overall state of affairs with the ancient rival on the East Coast. That's twice this season the Lakers have snapped a significant Celtics winning streak. They beat the Celtics convincingly on Christmas Day to stop a 19-game streak and now they have halted a 12-gamer by beating the Celtics in their own building. Doing it without injured Andrew Bynum makes it even sweeter. And walking out of here as the only NBA team with single-digit losses is a cherry on the sundae.
Had the Celtics won, there would have been lots of rhapsodizing about the contributions from subs Eddie House and Leon Powe. The former continued his hot shooting, nailing four more threes en route to a 16-point evening. The latter played one of his best games in weeks, bulldozing his way to 10 points and eight rebounds. He played the way he did last season. If this is what he's planning on doing the rest of this season, the Celtics won't be dwelling on a loss to the Lakers. They'll be celebrating the return of a vital cog. Let's say they don't come up with some P.J. Brown facsimile this year. They will need Leon to be this Leon if there is any hope of repeating.
So the Lakers have come and they have prevailed. The Lakers will go their way and the Celtics will go theirs, and a lot has to happen for them to see each other again. The fact is it will be easier for the Lakers to get back to the Finals (Bynum or no Bynum) than it will be for the Celtics, who face formidable competition from the Cavaliers and Magic.
In the end, it was just one night in the Big 82, and we'd have to guess it didn't mean any more to the league office than if it were Thunder at Wizards. Someone picked the names of the three officials out of a hat. There's no other explanation.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.