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Celtics 109, Lakers 96

Group dynamic

Celtics team up to defeat Lakers

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant was going to try to do it by his lonesome, and on their way to a 109-96 win yesterday, the Celtics were more than willing to let him try.

Bryant was piecing together his latest scoring binge, shot by difficult shot, dueling — in his mind, at least — with Paul Pierce, who was working on one of his own.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Bryant drove into Pierce, stopping to release a floater that made it 89-82 Celtics, as Pierce tumbled backward to the Staples Center floor. Bryant shot a quick stare as Pierce picked himself up. It was almost a challenge to go one-on-one. But Pierce had long withdrawn from the individual battle.

Ray Allen became Pierce’s reinforcement on defense, doing his best to blanket Bryant down the stretch. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo played a two-man game, and no matter how many times Bryant shot the ball, he found himself trying to beat the best team in the Eastern Conference as an army of one.

Bryant came down again, this time slithering by Allen near the same spot he stared down Pierce. He stopped, pulled up, looking to bank a midrange shot, but it bounced hard off the rim, ping-ponging in the forest of big men until Rondo gathered it with the tip of his fingers. Rondo rushed the other way, sizing up his options until he found a lane to lob a pass that Garnett laid in with two hands.

At that point, the Celtics were up, 98-87, with 4:03 left, and the 41 points Bryant would finish with couldn’t have looked more futile. Bryant took 11 of Los Angeles’s 21 shots in the fourth quarter, no other Laker took more than three. Meanwhile, the Celtics sprayed 20 shots from six shooters, knocking down 14 and aborting Bryant’s solo mission.

“We understood Kobe was going to get his points,’’ said Garnett, who scored 18 points, missing just three shots, while grabbing 13 rebounds.

The Celtics were still stinging from a loss Friday night in Phoenix that was equal parts ugly and embarrassing, but they were aware enough to know that Bryant was coming off a 38-point game against Sacramento. That, too, was in a loss.

“The last couple games he’s been aggressive as far as taking over games, being aggressive as far as scoring,’’ Garnett said. “So we knew if we could control everybody else, we had a decent chance of winning this game.’’

Pierce scored 32 points, dropping 14 in the third quarter when he knocked down 5 of his 6 attempts and drilled a trio of 3-pointers. He outscored Bryant, 14-8, in the quarter.

“I don’t try and get into a mano-a-mano game with him,’’ Pierce said. “He’s one of the greatest players to play this game, and I’m out here trying to help my team win. I just had an opportunity to knock down some shots.’’

The Celtics’ defense was stingy, holding the Lakers to 44.4 percent shooting, and their offense fed off of it, shooting 60.3 percent and drilling 9 of their 17 shots from long range.

“When you saw us play the last two games, then you see us play tonight, you don’t think it’s the same two teams,’’ coach Doc Rivers said.

Coming off a pair of physical games against the Trail Blazers and Suns, and returning to the Staples Center for the first time since a Game 7 loss in the Finals to the Lakers last June, there was residual belligerence. Ron Artest and Kendrick Perkins drew double technical fouls in the second quarter. Kevin Garnett took an elbow to the head from Pau Gasol, requiring five stitches. But the Celtics won the battle that cost them Game 7, dominating the glass, 43-30, and controlling the game because of it.

“I think everybody knew it was going to be a physical game,’’ Garnett said. “It’s always interesting when you play Kobe and the Lakers, so that was no surprise, how tough it is to play in the Staples Center. We knew that.

“When you look at the wins, whoever’s won out of this series, it’s been the one that’s controlled the boards,’’ Garnett added. “Doc, for about two days now, has been talking about rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Having Shaq [O’Neal] back helps, having Perk back helps, having Paul and Ray in there on the boards helping the bigs out helps a lot.’’

Bryant had his second 40-point game of the season, but the Lakers absorbed their second straight loss. After losing their composure in Phoenix, the Celtics bounced back, getting some small measure of revenge for Game 7 at Bryant’s expense.

“I told them, ‘Don’t overreact to Kobe,’ ’’ Rivers said. “Kobe’s Kobe. We knew that before the game. He’s going to be great today, tomorrow, and the next day. So don’t overreact to that. But as a group, let’s beat them.’’

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