Latest chapter of Lakers-Celtics rivalry nears end

BOSTON – Pau Gasol reached that long left arm into the air, toward the Garden rafters, the 17 championship banners, and smacked the Boston Celtics' chance for victory far, far from the rim. As the clock bled to 0:00 to end overtime, Ray Allen flicked his wrist, the ball fluttered on a clear, clean trajectory, and somehow Gasol spared these Los Angeles Lakers a most hellacious, heartbreaking loss.

“I was in the perfect situation,” Allen said later, “and he came out of nowhere.”

Four years ago, Gasol had come out of nowhere – out of Memphis – to set these Lakers on course to re-engage the Boston Celtics. Allen and Kevin Garnett had come together with Paul Pierce, Gasol with Kobe Bryant, and the greatest rivalry in the history of the NBA had been born again.

Four years later, they’ve played two excruciating, unforgettable series in the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the 2008 championship; the Lakers won it in 2010. They were dancing the dance one more time Thursday night, and deep down they all know this generation’s rivalry is coming to a close.

The Lakers escaped 88-87 and Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum had the big blocks, big baskets and big boards to beat Boston. All over again, Lakers-Celtics has been compelling theater, a link to the league’s yesteryear and it won’t be long until these games have little ramification on the NBA again. When Bryant comes back to Boston next season, Garnett and Allen likely won't be here. When Bryant comes back to Boston, Gasol probably won't be with him.

Change is coming because these teams are no longer constructed, constituted, for the championship chase.

“It’s always a brawl whenever we fight,” Bryant said. “It’s ugly. It’s physical. I’ve enjoyed competing against them. … We’re old school. Ray, Paul, Kevin. So is Rajon [Rondo]. How they prepare for the game, how much it means to them, the emotion they put into the game – you don’t really that see that much from the young guys out there.”

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It’s no accident that Bryant loves to walk the streets of Boston on off days here and commune with the Commonwealth. For all the nastiness inside the arena, he’s always amazed at the way they welcome a Lakers star here. There’s a connection, and they all want to hold onto it as long as they can.

“The fans hate your guts when you’re playing here, but very appreciative of the talent,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “When you see them out on the streets, it’s always a warm reception. 'Man, I hate you, but … I love watching you. How do you think the Celtics are going to do?' It’s a running conversation.”

It’s been a running conversation for a while, but it won’t be long until this rivalry is merely memories. The Celtics will go to a full rebuild and the Lakers a retool. The Lakers lost out on Chris Paul, but this was one more night when it was clear that a diminished Derek Fisher – 0-for-7 and two assists in 24 minutes – makes the point guard position such a liability for them. Fisher can still play a part, but these Lakers need a younger, defter playmaker, and Gasol is the lure to get one.

Gasol discovered that he missed out on getting selected to the All-Star game, and it was fitting. As it turns out, his younger brother, Marc, took his spot on the West roster. Four years ago, Marc’s rights were traded to the Grizzlies for Pau, and people called it the worst, most one-sided trade in history. Now, Marc's an All-Star and, yes, Pau was privately seething over the coaches leaving him out. Still, the Lakers didn’t deserve three All-Stars – and they knew it.

Nevertheless, Kobe was chatting Rondo up for most of the fourth quarter. Rondo's a player who so intrigues Bryant. Who wouldn’t want him? But he isn’t available to the Lakers. Everyone knows the Lakers need a point guard, and the price of a top playmaker remains the same: Gasol. The Houston Rockets still have a longing for Gasol, but the Lakers would want a player the Rockets are most reluctant to part with: point guard Kyle Lowry. The Lakers could probably pry a combination of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola for Gasol, league sources said, but it’s doubtful they’ll move Gasol without solving their point guard problem. Lowry has developed into one of the league’s finest point guards, but Rockets general manager Daryl Morey isn’t trading him.

[ Related: Pau Gasol left off West All-Star team ]

So the Lakers will keep probing the market, waiting. Bryant has patience because he believes in GM Mitch Kupchak. Nevertheless, there's fear the Buss boys are dictating basketball policy now, and that’s been apparent in the glumness front-office peers and agents sense from Kupchak when they speak to him.

For now, the Lakers have been looking over some recent workout tapes of free agent Gilbert Arenas and will likely watch him work out in person in the next few days. Still, Bryant mostly speaks about his belief in the Lakers' frontline and the need to clean up the sloppiness and missed execution in fourth quarters.

This was a hell of a victory, especially against these Celtics who’ve played so, so well in recent weeks. It’s strange what a comfortable place that Boston has become for Bryant, who once stopped by the New England Patriots' practice facility to meet head coach Bill Belichick. “I was rooting for the Patriots [in the Super Bowl],” he said.

When Kobe noticed Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski sitting courtside Thursday, he walked over and told him he should play. Gronkowski reacted with downright giddiness. If dancing away a Super Bowl loss hadn’t gotten him in trouble with Patriots fans, how about giggling it up with the Lakers’ Bryant courtside of a Celtics game?

Bryant laughed and said, “I’m so old most of these guys were watching me when they were in middle school.”

Boston’s his kind of town – passionate, proud. He knows it takes something to beat the Celtics. The worst night of his pro life had to be after that Game 6 loss in the 2008 Finals, when the Celtics humiliated the Lakers. It felt like Bryant would never come out of that dark training room that night. Yet he did, and the Lakers won back-to-back titles in ’09 and ’10.

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Bryant admires the Celtics, and he told Doc Rivers that the Celtics coach's son Austin had “huge cojones” after beating North Carolina on Wednesday night. When asked whether the Celtics would ever give away a frontline player in a salary dump to, say, the Miami Heat, Bryant pursed his lips and refused to say a word. He shook his head as though to say: You won’t get me to answer that question.

Lamar Odom is gone and so is his ball-handling, his offense, his unique talent. Gone for nothing, and you still wonder how the Lakers ever get past that this year. Still, they made it past the Celtics on Thursday night, with Gasol’s long arm slapping one final Celtics' shot out of the air and out of harm’s way.

Bryant had to stay on the floor a little longer for the postgame interview, and when he finally ran through the tunnel on the way to the Lakers' locker room, you could see all those Celtics fans leaning down, screaming, taunting, cursing him. Oh, how he loved it. And how he’ll miss it. Kobe Bryant will be back in Boston, but that old-school gang, those most familiar reflections with the Celtics, won’t be waiting for him.

“We’ve played against each other so many times, you know what’s coming,” Bryant said. “It’s been a dream come true. I’ve grown up watching it, and here I am, part of it.”

For one more night, when it still mattered anyway, when the Celtics-Lakers still commanded the sport’s stage. Next month, next year, it’s all coming fast now. Everyone wanted to hold onto this stage, this night – this long-running fight – a little longer on Thursday. Celtics-Lakers in overtime again, the clock running down. On his way out of Boston a winner one more time, Kobe Bryant made sure to breathe it all in.

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