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In Celtics-Lakers rivalry, spring is the time to step

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 31, 2011 09:44 AM

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Celtics followers should know better than to put much stock in one game, in January, in Los Angeles. The Celtics won at the Staples Center last regular season, too. And then, when the Celtics returned to LA for the finals, Boston could win just once in four tries, striking out in both Games 6 and 7 with an 18th banner at its fingertips.

The truth, unfortunately, is that yesterday’s 109-96 Celtics victory had a great deal to do with the Lakers than it did with the Celtics, a story we should know all too well here. Since starting the season 13-2, the Lakers are a mere 20-13. Los Angeles has lost two straight and 4 of 7. The Lakers are now the team that appears to have a rather sizable hangover, the way the Celtics did last year, when Boston went 27-27 over its final 54 games and seemed entirely disinterested in the regular season.

Then the playoffs came and the Celtics turned it up a notch, coming within a whisker of the NBA title during a season in which many of us had written them off.

Really, are there people foolish enough to write off these Lakers, who seem so unwilling to play defense that they allowed the Celtics to shoot 60.3 percent from the field yesterday and an even more absurd 69.4 percent in the second half, including 70 percent in the fourth quarter?

Team Staal played more defense than the Lakers did yesterday. So did the AFC.

"Is it the playoffs yet?" Lakers coach Phil Jackson openly and rhetorically asked following yesterday’s game when questioned about the lethargic play of his team.

We all know the answer to that one.

No.

Not even close.

We all know the Celtics do not take kindly to losing. Since Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston, the Celtics have suffered 18 regular season losses by double digits. In the follow-up games, they are 14-4. Friday night’s debacle in Phoenix was an utterly predictable outcome given the fact that the Celtics were playing the second of back-to-back affairs and with the Lakers in their sights. Nonetheless, late in that game, the Celtics were sufficiently frustrated by their performance that Garnett jabbed below the belt, all on a night when the Celtics amassed three times as many technical fouls (six) as they did 3-point field goals (two).

In the Valley of the Sun, from Doc Rivers on down, the Celtics blew their cool.

From that standpoint, the Celtics’ performance yesterday was also predictable. We all know how good the Celtics can be, how mentally tough they are, how downright resilient and competitive this team is. You just don’t win championships without all of those qualities. You don’t max out every season, with or without Garnett, as the Celtics have done since Danny Ainge gave the Celtics an extreme makeover during the summer of 2007.

Which brings us back to the Lakers.

Isn’t everything we claim to know about the Celtics generally true of Los Angeles, too?

Over the last three NBA seasons, for all of the talk that has centered around people like LeBron James and Dwight Howard, let’s be honest: the Celtics and Lakers have dominated. Boston (one) and Los Angeles (two) have accounted for all three championships. Boston and Los Angeles have been five of the six participating teams in the finals. The one exception came in 2009, the year Garnett was injured, when Howard and the Orlando Magic defeated James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, all before succumbing to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

In Los Angeles and beyond, you know what that produced?

Bryant still hasn’t won a title by going through Boston.

Well, Bryant has since gone through Boston, last year’s championship outcome so ground-shaking that Bryant’s former teammate and adversary, Shaquille O’Neal, decided to enter the fray. In the 20 regular- and post-season games played between the Celtics and Lakers since the Celtics makeover, the tally is Celtics 11, Lakers 9. Had Los Angeles held serve yesterday, the count would be 10-10. The point is that the Lakers are no more vulnerable now that the Celtics were last year, when Boston labored to a 50-32 finish that earned them a No. 4 seed, directly between Atlanta and Miami in the Eastern Conference.

Once the playoffs came, the Celtics made it quite clear that they were still the class of the East.

Would it really surprise you this year if the Lakers did the same in the West come springtime?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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