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Approach calls for new direction

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers did nothing abnormal last night, playing up to their usual championship standards. It was the Celtics who were abnormal, reverting back to their regular-season form at the worst possible time — Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Lakers had to be expecting more resistance from the Celtics, more Kevin Garnett aggression, more Kendrick Perkins attitude, more Rajon Rondo spin moves and dishes. Instead, they dominated a lethargic team that appeared as if it had five hours of rest following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, not five days.

The 102-89 score at Staples Center could be viewed as simply a good team defending its home court or an easier-than-expected victory over a team that looks tired after knocking out two bitter rivals.

Either way, the Celtics had nothing for the Lakers in the opener. Yeah, they fought until the final buzzer, refusing to get completely embarrassed after falling behind by 20 points in the third quarter, but this definitely wasn’t the team that stepped on Cleveland and bullied Orlando.

Garnett and Perkins grabbed seven rebounds combined, the same amount as Kobe Bryant. Rondo appeared frustrated by Bryant’s menacing defense and stopped trying to streak for layups once he was stuffed by Lamar Odom in the first quarter.

Ray Allen had the best excuse. He struggled with foul trouble guarding Bryant all night and lost his aggression. The Lakers made sure that Allen would take no uncontested 3-pointers, and his two attempts were his fewest since that infamous 124-95 Game 3 loss to the Cavaliers May 7, when he was 0 for 1.

If this is the Celtics team that plans to show up for the next three games, the Lakers don’t have much to worry about. Perhaps the primary concern would be which city bigwig would finance the victory parade. The Lakers have few other worries after a complete effort in Game 1.

As for the Celtics, this was a startling disappointment not because the Lakers were that dominant, but because they were that feeble, which is something we hadn’t seen in two months.

The Celtics expected Bryant to drop his customary 30 points, which he did in a rather ho-hum performance. But the matchup between Pau Gasol and Garnett was expected to be Advantage, Celtics, and Garnett was a shell of himself, especially with his interior defense and rebounding. It hardly matters that you score 16 points when you allow 23.

“We take a lot of pride, you saw it in guys’ faces, you heard it, from reactions after the game, it wasn’t a typical loss locker room,’’ Paul Pierce said. “There was some angry people in there and they showed us. The guys in there got pride and don’t want to lose the way we did. But you can’t deal with it when you lose the way we did.’’

The bottom line obviously was the loss, but the Celtics have little to review from Game 1 that would be pleasing. The Lakers scored 16 second-chance points to the Celtics’ zero. Boston tallied just 5 fast-break points. The Celtics hit one 3-pointer.

With five days of preparation, the Lakers found ways to shut down every aspect of the Celtics’ arsenal. The Celtics have to realize that the effort and performance that was good enough to beat Cleveland and Orlando won’t be acceptable against the Lakers.

The five-day lull between series allowed for accolades and adulation to roll in and the Celtics actually felt as if they were the favorites. And they were foolishly encouraged by trailing by just 2 midway through the second quarter, despite their lethargic performance.

A 13-6 Lakers run to end the half widened the lead to 50-41, and then Bryant took over in the third quarter and Ron Artest ended the barrage with a 3-pointer, leaving the Celtics in a 20-point hole.

The Celtics have to spend the next two days being more serious about their preparation and approach and less inclined to talk about past accomplishments because something was emphatically wrong last night.

“They just outworked us,’’ Perkins said. “They wanted it more. They showed it. We’ve got to be better in many ways. Today we weren’t on the right track. Guys missed defensive assignments, including myself. We were helping each other. That ain’t how we play. That’s very disappointing, especially in the Finals.’’

The Lakers have made no secret of their passion to exact revenge for the 2008 Finals, while the Celtics still want to believe they are somehow superior because of that championship. As they displayed last night, the Celtics are not that team. They lack consistency and focus, and those mental lapses will cost them a chance to make history unless something dramatic happens in the next 48 hours. And those adjustments are primarily mental ones.

“It’s not effort, at least I hope not,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re in the Finals. I didn’t see any silver lining. The only silver lining is I guess as bad as I thought we played, there were chances to get back into the game. But there’s no silver lining in that.’’

Not in the Finals.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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