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Bob Ryan

Hosts weren’t pretty, but they were pretty good

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 4, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Well, now we know. The Boston Celtics aren’t the only team in this series capable of winning an ugly game.

There was a serious role reversal at Staples Center last night. The Lakers were the ones who dominated inside. The Lakers were the ones making all the hustle plays, and, in fact, all the muscle plays. The Lakers were the ones bending the Celtics to their will, rather than the vice-versa of two years ago,

And the Lakers, of course, won the first game of the 2010 NBA Finals, walking off with a 102-89 decision that did very little to advance the cause of NBA basketball.

“Well, that wasn’t the prettiest basketball game I’ve ever seen in my life,’’ said Lakers mentor Phil Jackson. “But it was a good win for us.’’

Kobe Bryant had his nightly 30 points, but he is now at such a level that it could be described as routine, almost ceremonial (the last 3 were the game’s final basket with 3.6 seconds left). Kobe was Kobe, but the Celtics could live with that Kobe for six more games. What they can’t live with is a repeat of the dazzling performance put on by Kobe Bryant’s faithful Tonto, the estimable Pau Gasol.

The elegant Spaniard, not the fiery Kobe, was the clear Man of the Match with 23 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks, numbers that are nice on which to hang one’s hat, but which don’t begin to explain his enormous impact on this game. It wasn’t so much that he totally outplayed Kevin Garnett, although he did. It was that he outplayed the entire Boston front line en masse, giving the Lakers a welcome inside presence that made up for any issues they might have had in this tedious game.

The game was an eyesore for any neutral observer because referees Joe Crawford, Joe DeRosa (marking his return to action after being suspended for that silly ball-tossing incident in Orlando), and Derrick Stafford apparently had cut a side deal with somebody in which they got paid by the call. It wasn’t so much favoring one team or the other. Both sides had completely legitimate beefs. Both teams had key players on the bench far too long with bogus fouls. What their tight control of the game did was eliminate any possibility of a nice flow.

In such a game, somebody has to make something happen on their own. Last night, that team was the Lakers. They were able to get the ball to Gasol, and even when they couldn’t, he would find a way to get it himself. The Lakers had an astounding, and eye-opening, and humiliating 16-0 edge in second-chance points, and it seemed as if Gasol had a hand in all of them (which, of course, he didn’t).

“I hadn’t analyzed the box [score] before I was run out here,’’ Jackson said, “but 16-0 in second-chance points is pretty remarkable . . . that was a big part of the game.’’

For some reason (motivation?), Jackson seems reluctant to rhapsodize on his Spanish big man.

“Well, you know, I thought Pau played a big game,’’ Jackson said. “He tried a couple of things to start the game that weren’t successful, and he found a new rhythm. Other spots in the game, I thought they did a good job on him in the post, but his movement and his activity was important.’’

As is his custom, Doc Rivers heaped praise on the foe.

“They were clearly the more physical team,’’ he said. “I thought they were more aggressive. They attacked us all night. I’ve always thought that the team that is more aggressive gets the calls.’’

What you’re now going to hear is how Jackson-coached teams are 47-0 in series in which they have won the first game. That is an amazing stat, but whether it is a harbinger or simply a fascinating statistical oddity will be determined over the next 10-14 days. There is no physical reason why that can’t end, but the Celtics will have to play a lot better than they did last night to make it 47-1.

“I wish I had it in the bank, so to speak,’’ Jackson noted. “We’ve got to play it out, and we know this is a team that’s got a multitude of changes, lineups, activities, capabilities. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s nice to know it’s on our side.’’

The Celtics led on the scoreboard for a total of 59 seconds. Rajon Rondo lost Bryant on a cut for a layup, and it was 2-0. Before very long they were down, 10-4. The fouls came early and often, forcing both coaches into early substitutions. By the time the Lakers had lurched into a 26-21 first-quarter lead, a total of 19 players had seen action.

The Celtics were thus forced into catch-up mode, and at no point did it seem they had anything close to an equal commitment. That’s just the way it is in this game, sometimes. About the only time it seemed as if the Celtics might find a spark came on a Bryant-like buzzer-beater by Rondo to get them in to the locker room down by 9 at 50-41. But in the end it meant nothing.

The history of this rivalry is clear: One game does not a series make. But if there was one truly disturbing element of this LA Game 1 dominance, it was the play of Garnett, who seems to have peaked in the Cleveland series and whose lackluster play included missing an uncontested layup, plus the follow-up, as well as not being able to dunk an offensive rebound with no one between him and Santa Monica. If that really is the gap between himself and Gasol — between himself and all the LA front-court people, really — then it may be necessary to rethink this whole thing.

Anyway, the Celtics as a whole can certainly play better. The problem is, so can the Lakers.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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