By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009
BOSTON -- The words were shot like rapid fire into his right ear, a ferocious stream of unpleasantries that was surely rated M, for mature. Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers glanced at Kevin Garnett while the Boston Celtics' all-star forward screamed and shouted, then he rolled his eyes in disgust and walked away, deciding to ignore Garnett as if he were some annoying stray barking aimlessly into the night.
Later, Lamar Odom felt Garnett ram an elbow into his back while trying to establish position in the low post. After Garnett was assessed an offensive foul, Odom tracked down Garnett, gave him a sarcastic, "atta boy" slap on the backside and got in his face. Both players were issued technical fouls for taunting, and Odom smiled as a flustered Garnett trotted down the court.
Back at TD Banknorth Garden, on the same parquet floor where Garnett and the Celtics handed them an embarrassing 39-point loss in Game 6 of the NBA Finals -- the second-worst loss in Finals history -- the Lakers were out to prove that, eight months later, they weren't going to get bullied anymore.
Words wouldn't make them wince. If the Celtics wanted to push, they'd shove right back. And facing the challenge of going the next eight to 12 weeks without their most physical defender in center Andrew Bynum, Gasol and Odom needed to show that a Lakers front line known more for its finesse shouldn't be confused with a fearful one.
"Lots of teams think that without Andrew Bynum, we're soft," Odom said after the Lakers survived the Celtics in overtime, 110-109, on Thursday. "We showed everyone that we are not. It was enough. We couldn't back down anymore. We had to make a stand."
The Lakers (40-9), who look to sweep a six-game road trip Sunday in Cleveland, will need more than a one-night stand in February against Boston to stay atop the Western Conference, get back to the NBA Finals and possibly win a title.
But Gasol hopes that winning a physical, grimy game against the defending champions -- and without Bynum -- will erase one of the labels attached to his team after the Celtics stomped them last June. "We took a lot of hits last year. [Critics said,] 'We're soft,' and all that stuff," Gasol said. "At least they can't say we were soft [on Thursday]. They'll have to find something else to say."
After being relatively unchallenged in the West most of the season, the Lakers suddenly appeared vulnerable when all-star Kobe Bryant crashed into Bynum five minutes into a game in Memphis on Jan. 31. Bynum, 21, collapsed, grabbed his right knee and screamed so loud that it made his teammates squeamish. Kneeling and staring at his fallen teammate, Bryant's face turned ashen, as if he had seen a ghost -- or was watching his championship aspirations dashed away.
In the five games before he tore his medial collateral ligament, Bynum was averaging 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots and had finally begun to dominate at a level that surpassed last season, when he missed the final 46 regular season games and the playoffs with a bone bruise in his left knee.
"My belief is that the Lakers still are the team to beat," Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl said. "I think they have lost a physical defensive presence they've been grooming a little bit. Their size and length was a nightmare to a lot of teams, and they are not going to be that big anymore. [But] they're still going to be a great offensive team."
In the first game after the Lakers realized they were going to spend the second consecutive year without Bynum for an extended period, Bryant -- usually the delivery boy when the Lakers need to send a message -- scorched the New York Knicks for 61 points. He scored 36 in Toronto two nights later, but Bryant couldn't get going offensively against Boston, missing 19 of his 29 shots.
The Lakers' much-maligned front line of Gasol and Odom bailed out Bryant and the team. Gasol had 24 points and 14 rebounds, providing a go-ahead three-point play and blocking Glen Davis's shot late in overtime. Odom had 20 points, including the decisive free throws. "They answered the bell," Bryant said of Odom and Gasol. "I think last year in the Finals, it was a little bit of shellshock, but not this year."
Since sliding over to center in place of Bynum, Gasol, who was named to his second all-star team, is putting up 28.7 points, 14.7 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.7 blocked shots, and is shooting 70.8 percent. "It's time for Pau to step up," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Gasol, who joined the Lakers in a trade with Memphis three weeks after Bynum was injured last season.
Odom also realizes that he will be on the spot as well. The versatile but enigmatic 6-foot-10 forward was angered about getting benched at the start of the season, even calling Jackson "out of his mind" for the demotion. "I can't put it on myself because I won't be able to live up to what Andrew was doing," said Odom. "He's a center, first of all, and he's a 7-footer, so he can do some things that I simply can't do. But this was the lineup that got us to the Finals. I hope that I can hold it down until he gets back and gets healthy and we're at full strength.
"We hope he can come back. But that's the cold thing about our sport, you have to keep playing. You don't forget, the kid was having an all-star year, but you can't wallow in your sorrows."
Or back down.