Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 3/12/12
LOS ANGELES Paul Pierce opened the door at the far corner of the visitors' locker room, surveyed the phalanx of reporters camped in front of his locker and receded behind the gray metal door. It was easy to understand why, after the Celtics handed a 97-94 victory to the Lakers, Pierce wasn't yet in much of a mood to face the uncomfortable questions that follow the decaying Celtics these days. Down the hallway, the erstwhile Ron Artest long Pierce's foil and in recent years, his purple-and-gold antagonist had a reprieve from similar questions. He sat comfortably at his stall, a stylish English flat cap atop his head, and rhapsodized about the latest edition of the NBA's most storied and probably still fiercest rivalry, once again jousting with Pierce. "It's that competitive nature, where everybody is trying to back up what they were saying," said Metta World Peace, the former Artest. "So today everybody was going to back up what they were saying. It was good fun." Yes, the Celtics and Lakers were good theater, once again Sunday afternoon an energetic crowd, national television audience, feisty players and a down-to-the-wire finish. It was enough to ask for an encore. Nostalgia notwithstanding, don't count on it. In this compacted lockout season, one made for fresh legs, deep rotations and familiar playbooks, the Lakers and Celtics looked like a pair of aged heavyweights, each bringing out the best in each other, and not looking half bad if you forget to measure them against the other contenders. There were so many reminders Sunday of Game 7 of the NBA Finals two years ago, especially when World Peace began sinking 3-pointers and tussled with Pierce, Boston was overwhelmed on the boards and the Lakers charged from behind at the end. Except that it seemed like five years ago. Pierce missed nine of his first 10 shots. Ray Allen no longer curled around screens with the ferocity of a slalom skier attacking a gate. And the Lakers, protecting a one-point lead, called timeout on their final possession to run a play for . . . Andrew Bynum. The Lakers center, operating against Kevin Garnett, backed him down and softly dropped in a jump hook to put the Lakers ahead 97-94 with 15.5 seconds left. The Celtics then got the ball to Allen, who turned to fire up a 3-pointer only to find Pau Gasol all over him. So Allen tossed the ball back to Pierce, whose 3-pointer was grazed by Bryant. Garnett grabbed the airball and fired it out to Rajon Rondo, whose shot at the buzzer wasn't close. More stunning than the difference in execution was that the call to go to Bynum was on the recommendation of none other than Kobe Bryant. "That, to me, is a mark of a great player," said Lakers coach Mike Brown, who now might recognize at least one similarity between Bryant and LeBron James. For those who were hysterical about this being a seminal moment in Lakers history, a changing of the guard, as it were, Bryant shrugged. "When I was younger, we had a guy named Shaquille O'Neal," Bryant said. "We used to throw it into him every once in a while." Asked if he ever suggested Shaq get the ball in the final seconds, Bryant could not resist a dig. "He was a little challenged at the free-throw line, so not so much," Bryant said. The victory allowed the Lakers to gloss over a few issues. They frittered away a 15-point lead, the third time in the last week they've given up a double-digit advantage. They turned the ball over 18 times a point guard anyone? And as dominant as Bynum's numbers looked (20 points and 14 rebounds) he often responded to double and triple teams like a giraffe in the headlights, and had a shot blocked by somebody named Greg Stiemsma. That Stiemsa, an earnest rookie free agent from Wisconsin, would be on the court illustrates the largest issue facing the Celtics these days. Already undersized, they may be without Chris Wilcox, who has been diagnosed with a heart ailment, for some time. Garnett, Allen and Pierce all of them at least 35-years-old played at least 35 minutes. Just as the Lakers are hunting for a point guard, the Celtics are looking for some size as the trade deadline approaches Thursday something to spark a pair of fading former champions. Or perhaps, general managers Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge, will play for the home run, breaking up their current core and starting over. Brown believes the Lakers will relax once the deadline passes, particularly Gasol, who has been bothered by trade speculation since he was traded and then not for Chris Paul. "I think that kind of threw things into flux for them, honestly," Rivers said. "They had two big trades, really, just one of them happened. I think that had an impact on their team it had to. I thought it made Mike's job almost impossible early on. Walking in to coach a team, you've had your preseason talks with them, you've got them all bought in and then a trade happens and then one's rejected. It's tough to trust after that. I wouldn't want to be in that situation." Really, though, it's hard to see where the differences are. The Eastern Conference is now the domain of Miami and Chicago, and the Western Conference if less formidable still is home to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the team that swept the Lakers out of the playoffs a year ago, Dallas. Not that anyone in either locker room appeared to be daunted. "I'm just going to say this, and I guarantee the Lakers feel the same way," Rivers said. "We know there are favorites in the East and there are favorites in the West, and there should be. We haven't deserved to be one and neither have they yet. But it's 0-0 when the playoffs start and if both teams are healthy, you just never know." Except that sometimes you do.
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