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Lakers stand ground against Celtics

BOSTON – The plane ride out of Toronto for Logan International Airport had been strangely silent. The Los Angeles Lakers had returned to the scene of sheer humiliation, and that sickening feeling washed over Kobe Bryant again. Back to the same hotel, back to the cobblestone streets, back to the embarrassment of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. As the sun was about to rise over the city, Bryant lay awake in his hotel room, punishing himself with the surround-sound memory of that 39-point loss, over and over and over.

“I stayed up thinking about the game,” Bryant said. “I was thinking about my teammates, and how they would respond.”

He could live with a loss to the Boston Celtics, but not the way with which the Celtics had bullied and brutalized them. The Lakers’ muscle in the middle, Andrew Bynum, was gone now, and Bryant knew the Celtics privately believed those soft, Euro Lakers of the Finals had returned.

“Bring it on,” Bryant sniffed outside his locker late Thursday, a stirring 110-109 overtime victory belonging to the Lakers. “That’s the statement I wanted to make tonight. You’re not just going to come in here and bump Pau [Gasol], and hit these guys.

“Enough is enough.”

He let his words sit, then spit them out again.

“Enough is enough.”

Yes, Bryant wanted desperately for the Lakers to beat the Boston Celtics, but there were bigger hurdles. Everyone believed the toughness of these Lakers never extended beyond the staggering strength and competitive will of Bryant, and the 7 feet, 250 pounds of Bynum. Truth be told, this had been fact.

It wasn’t that Lamar Odom got into Kevin Garnett’s mug and slapped him sarcastically on the butt. It wasn’t that Gasol would tangle with Kendrick Perkins, barking loudly, “[Expletive] off! …[Expletive] off!” as the Celtics’ center tried to body him. Those are feigned, wasted moments unless they’re balanced with the truest toughness in the game: poise and performance under pressure.

It’s Odom stuck in foul trouble, out of touch and rhythm, rising in the second half and overtime for 18 points and five rebounds. It’s Gasol, a wiry 7 feet, shifting back to center with Bynum gone, and delivering 24 points and 14 rebounds, delivering a presence. When Kobe wasn’t his best, his teammates had a most improbable thing at the Garden: Bryant’s back.

No one is harder on Odom and Gasol, but Bryant took a long look over an emptying locker room on Thursday night with the sweetest of satisfaction. He spoke of Odom showing “growth with focus,” and Gasol playing “strong” and “physical” and “huge.” This was a night that turned into something out of the 1980s, skirmishes breaking out everywhere on the floor. Bryant would get into it with Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. He knows these Celtics, insisting, “They’re going to try to take your lunch money.”

In a lot of ways, Bryant was wired to be a Boston Celtic. He’s uptight, antagonistic and unapologetic. There isn’t so much L.A. cool in Bryant as there’s East Coast gruff. As hard as the Celtics had been on these Lakers, Bryant is still the toughest opponent they’ll ever have.

Bryant couldn’t fight for his teammates until they fought for themselves. The Lakers couldn’t withstand the Celtics’ runs a year ago. They would get overwhelmed and let go. “Sometimes,” Odom said, “you just have to make a stand.”

This time, the Lakers fought back at the Garden. They ended the Celtics’ 19-game winning streak on Christmas Day and ended a 12-game run on Thursday. “The big thing for us was to match their physical play,” Bryant said. “That’s one of the things we wanted to do. We just felt like last year in the Finals, they just took it all away. That’s something that I’m not going to live with. If you beat us by outexecuting us, God bless you.

“But I’m not going to let my team get punked like that no more.”

Eight months ago in the Finals, Bryant wouldn’t leave this visiting locker room. He wouldn’t leave the Garden. Game 6 had long been over, but he hid in an adjacent room, too angry, too humiliated, to make the long walk down the hall to the interview room. Bryant could hear the Celtics in the hallway, celebrating the championship that night.

“Yes sir, 17,” Pierce screamed. “Might get another one, too!”

Yes, the Lakers have swept the Celtics this season, and they’ll go to Cleveland on Sunday to try and do that to the Cavaliers, too. The Garden brought back the most miserable memories of Bryant’s championship life, and he confessed he’s “still pissed” over the beatdown in Boston. Now he was on his way out of the Garden, and suddenly the city didn’t seem so bleak anymore.

The Lakers had something to prove to themselves – to Bryant – and they did it on Thursday. They beat back the demons, the ghosts, the eight months of feeling ill over that Game 6. Bryant wanted to fight everyone on the Celtics. For a time, it seemed like he wanted to try it, but it doesn’t work like that here. This wasn’t Madison Square Garden, where there’s no resistance. This was Boston Garden, where the Celtics forever stand in his way.

Only this time, the Lakers fought back for Bryant. They fought with him. And when he wasn’t his best, they had Bryant’s back. Enough is enough, Kobe Bryant finally witnessed his teammates tell the Boston Celtics.

Enough is enough.

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