LOS ANGELES – Pau Gasol stumbled backward, the ball squirted from his hands and, suddenly, Kevin Garnett was pushing past him, tomahawking six months of bad memories into the Los Angeles Lakers' consciousness. Sprawled on the court, looking up at the Boston Celtics once again, had anything changed for Gasol and the Lakers since the NBA Finals?
This time, Gasol said, "I had to make sure I took it to them."
Surprise, surprise, somewhere amongst all that talent beats a heart.
On Thursday, Gasol pushed himself to his feet then pushed back. He attacked the Celtics on three successive possessions, scoring seven points in 80 seconds, outplaying Garnett down the stretch, swatting away a Ray Allen jumper for good measure. When he was done, the Lakers had handed the Celtics just their third loss of the season, snuffing out their franchise-record 19-game winning streak in the process.
Yes, the Lakers grew up a little Thursday. No one more than their Spanish forward.
"That was a really critical time for him to step up," coach Phil Jackson said, "and he did."
Prior to the game, Jackson said he was most interested to see how his young center, Andrew Bynum, would perform against the Celtics. Bynum hadn't played well in the team's two regular-season meetings a year ago and his knee injury forced him to miss the Finals. With Bynum on the sideline, the Celtics received little fight from the Lakers' remaining big men. During their series-ending 39-point loss in Game 6, the Lakers were outrebounded 48-29.
"He's the one guy we've kind of pointed to as an individual that can help us in this situation, this matchup," Jackson said.
In truth, the Lakers likely wondered just as much about Gasol and Lamar Odom. They had withered in the glare of the Finals, shouldering much of the blame for the team's soft play, and midway through Thursday's fourth quarter, Gasol didn't appear to have toughened much.
Bullied, at times, by Garnett in the Finals, Gasol again played tentative. He passed up open shots and when he finally wanted to bang in the fourth quarter, Garnett pulled the chair out, depositing him on his rear. By the time Gasol looked up, Garnett had flushed a lob dunk to give the Celtics the lead.
The Lakers had eyed this Christmas reunion, Jackson said, "as soon as the schedules came out." Yet the Celtics still held the measuring stick, and once again, in the season's biggest game, on the biggest stage, they were rapping the Lakers' knuckles.
"I wasn't being effective," Gasol said. "I wasn't contributing the way I wanted to."
What happened next says something about where these Lakers might be headed. Gasol clinched his fists and began calling for the ball. Kobe Bryant found him for a 15-foot jumper then fed him again as he cut to the basket and tossed in a short jump hook. The next time down the floor, Gasol drove hard again to the rim, banking in a layup as Paul Pierce fouled him. On all three possessions, Gasol attacked when Garnett sagged into the lane. On all three, Bryant provided the assist.
By the end of the game, it was the Celtics who looked disorganized. Rajon Rondo and Allen squawked at each other on the court and in the huddle.
"We've been as composed as any team as I've seen in a long time," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "and I thought, quite honestly, we lost it a little bit at the end."
The loss won't do much to dent the Celtics' confidence. They won 19 in a row before Thursday and they're capable of reeling off another 19. Already, Garnett has likely digested Gasol's three baskets as motivation for when the Lakers visit Boston on Feb. 5. The Celtics also know the Lakers had something to prove Thursday.
Odom tried to dismiss the victory as "just another game." Bryant called it "just another win." "Do I look head over heels?" he joked.
But both know better. The Lakers had simmered all summer over their embarrassing performance in the Finals. Guard Sasha Vujacic, having vowed never to wear green again, had begun chiding reporters at practice who arrived in anything resembling the Celtic hue.
"I don't like them," Vujacic said of the Celtics. "I don't want to talk about them."
"More than that."
The Lakers needed to show that they deserve to stand with these Celtics. For much of the summer, they had talked about how the return of Bynum and energetic swingman Trevor Ariza would benefit them in the matchup. Still, they needed to see it for themselves.
Bynum provided nine points, seven rebounds and two blocks, and his presence in the lane clearly affected the Celtics. Ariza twice brought the crowd to its feet with his hustle, once running down the ball then spinning on the baseline and firing a sharp pass to Vujacic as he cut to the basket for a layup. Odom, who has inherited some point-guard duty with Jordan Farmar sidelined for the next eight weeks, even made back-to-back 3-pointers late in the third quarter.
The Lakers had rarely played with such urgency this month. Unable or unwilling to defend, they had surrendered 100 or more points to eight opponents in a recent 11-game stretch that included consecutive losses in Miami and Orlando. In their previous home game, they were booed off the floor at halftime after falling behind by 15 to the New York Knicks. On Thursday, Bryant dismissed any concerns about the team's defense.
"We're a little more scrutinized than the Celtics because the Celtics have proven they can do it time and time again," he said. "But even they have peaks and valleys."
For one night, at least, the Lakers looked down on their rivals. After swatting away Allen's 3-pointer, along with the Celtics' last hopes, Gasol clinched his fists, pounded his chest and, dare we say, snarled?
No, Gasol will never make a convincing enforcer. But even the defending champs had to admit this much: On this day, he took it to them.