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Game 7 haunts Celtics’ return to Los Angeles

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — It took Doc Rivers two months to even look at the tape of Game 7, and once he did, he and his coaching staff needed lots of drinks afterward.

The loss that handed the Lakers their 16th NBA title last spring had many thorns. Kendrick Perkins, walking on crutches after tearing his ACL in Game 6, left Staples Center with a towel over his head. Tony Allen, who would eventually leave for Memphis via free agency, had tears streaming down his face. Rasheed Wallace, cramping from one minute to the next, would retire that night.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ Ron Artest ran the halls, choking bottles of champagne by the neck. Kim Kardashian waited outside the locker room as her brother-in-law, Lamar Odom, celebrated his second straight title. Kobe Bryant sat at the podium with his daughters, his grinchy playoff persona abandoned for an ear-to-ear smile.

Confetti seemed to stick to everything. Outside, riot police lined the streets, monitoring a celebration that teetered on chaos. Horns honked from downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood.

Today the Celtics return to that building for the first time since last June. The game, the scene, the loss stuck in their minds all summer.

“It’s going to be a lot of emotions,’’ said Paul Pierce.

When the clock ran down to zeroes on the Lakers’ 83-79 win and Sasha Vujacic burst into an awkwardly gleeful leap for joy, Pierce was just feet away, staring blankly. The Celtics’ double-digit fourth-quarter lead had vanished along with Pierce’s chance at a second title in three seasons.

“That ended our season last year on a bad note,’’ Pierce said. “It’s nothing we can really do to get that back.’’

The Celtics had marked their territory in the Staples Center, literally and figuratively, going into the Finals. They beat the Lakers, 87-86, in Los Angeles last February, and before they left the gym, Rivers rounded up $100 from everyone in the locker room and hid it, saying the only way they’d get their money back was to return to the Staples Center for the Finals.

They got their money, but they left the trophy behind.

In the days leading up to today’s game, Rivers kept hearing the question: “What’s it going to be like to play in that building after Game 7?’’

He didn’t have an answer.

But he knew the Lakers had their own struggles coming back to TD Garden after losing Game 6 of the 2008 Finals.

The visitors locker room felt haunted, Andrew Bynum said.

The hotel rooms and restaurants brought back painful memories, Pau Gasol said.

The city got darker and darker by the hour, Luke Walton said.

The Lakers swept the season series in 2008-09, winning on the Garden floor despite the demons. They came back last year, stole another one on the parquet when Kobe Bryant drilled a winner over Ray Allen’s outstretched arm.

“Hell, they have experience from that and they seem to do all right,’’ Rivers said. “So let’s see if we can do all right in their building.’’

Since training camp, the Celtics have used Game 7 as motivation. Had they won more games, protected their home floor during the regular season, they wouldn’t have played the deciding game at Staples Center.

But even with that loss being the recurring theme of the season, point guard Rajon Rondo said, “It’s just another game.’’

For what it’s worth, the Lakers have struggled by defending champion’s standards. They lost four straight games in late November. They lost three straight earlier this month, and they’re coming off an ugly 100-95 loss to the Kings Friday night.

Artest, an unlikely hero in the Finals, has bristled at Phil Jackson’s coaching tactics. Jackson has called out Bryant for straying from the principles of the triangle offense.

But none of it makes Boston look at the Lakers as anything but the team to beat.

“I don’t see them as ‘one’ I see them as ‘the,’ ’’ Pierce said. “I don’t really care what their record says; you get them in a seven-game series they’re tough to beat.

Beating them on their floor — even if it’s January and not June — will mean something.

“At this point in the year, we’re trying to be the top team and it’s important for us to get that win and try to plant a seed in their head that we can win on their floor,’’ Pierce said.

“It’s a regular-season game. It’s a great game. It’s our rival. It’s the rematch of the Finals, but unfortunately it’s not the Finals.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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