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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

It's What's Left of a Regular Season

April 06, 2002|Mark Heisler

BOSTON — Swept by the Celtics, just like the old days.

Phil Jackson insisted Friday night that the rest of the season still had meaning, although it was sure hard to tell by the game that followed, when his overmatched Lakers lost by 18 to the Celtics, who even in their revived state bear little resemblance to the teams that hung the 16 banners they play beneath.

Now there's a new meaning, which has less to do with catching Sacramento--now 31/2 games ahead with six Laker games to play--than securing home-court advantage over everyone else.

To that end, Jackson is considering shaking up his lineup for the next game at Miami, and starting Shaquille O'Neal over Samaki Walker at center.

O'Neal sat out again, resting his sore wrist along with his arthritic toe and, as in New Jersey, there weren't many fans, players or coaches anguishing over his absence.

Said Celtic Coach Jim O'Brien of his center, Tony Battie: "I think he was the happiest man in the world to find out Shaq wasn't going to play. I was second."

Talk about your non-events in your former rivalries.

The Lakers and Celtics, who met in nine NBA finals in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s, have little in common these days. The Lakers are twice-defending champions. The Celtics haven't even been in the playoffs since 1995.

This was supposed to be the night the Celtics clinched their postseason berth, but even that didn't work out. Before they arrived at the FleetCenter, someone figured out Thursday's loss by Indiana meant the Celts were already in.

These days, the Celtics are sufficiently humble--a word never applied to them in the old days--to refrain from talking about being a rival to the Lakers.

The Lakers seem to think the Celtics are kind of a cute little bunch, if they think of them at all.

Or as Jackson said of Boston's spread-the-floor offense: "It's a different style of ball that will play here in the East [read: home of dwarfs]. I don't know if it would play in the West [read: where the men live.]"

Once the Celtics played in a house of horrors called Boston Garden, where visitors swore Red Auerbach had trained the rats to spy on them. During one finals in the '80s, Laker Coach Pat Riley had the drinking water provided by the home team thrown out, to make sure Red didn't poison them.

Now the Celtics have the FleetCenter, a venue almost as cavernous as the Staples Center, with atmosphere that is no more electric.

Once Celtic fans hated the Lakers with a passion that was scary to behold but more has been lost in the last seven years than some playoff dates.

As the franchise went from M.L. Carr to Rick Pitino and bad became worse, then pathetic and seemingly hopeless, Celtic fans simply turned away and they aren't all the way back yet. If it weren't for those 16 banners, carried over from the Garden, it would be hard to tell there was ever a dynasty here.

Friday, the scoreboard TV screen did show a couple of 8-year-olds in matching "I Hate L.A." T-shirts, but there were lots of kids in the stands wearing Laker gold. Paul Pierce, the current Celtic star, arrived four seasons ago from, of all places, Inglewood, Calif., where he had grown up as a die-hard Laker fan. He's over it, he says, even if he did wear a black-and-white Dodger cap Friday.

"I think it's pretty much all over," Pierce said. "It was one of those things, as a little kid, growing up in Los Angeles. But now, the role is reversed. I'm a Celtic now and I'm trying to beat the Los Angeles Lakers any chance I get.

"This was a great year for that. We swept 'em and who knows, maybe we can see 'em in the finals."

Well, it's possible. Someone has to make it from the East.

The Lakers and Celtics have played some great games, but this wasn't one.

Kobe Bryant was cold and, with O'Neal out, there was no Plan B they could go to.

Bryant spent the game trading jibes with New England Patriot safety Lawyer Milloy, who was sitting courtside with a friend. Of course, when the friend started pouring it on Bryant at the end of the first half, and Bryant managed to make a couple of shots, Milloy cautioned his buddy that a fired-up Kobe might go for 50.

That was as good as it got, however.

It may not have been much of a game, but it was appropriate for the Lakers right now, a no-show in a non-event in a former rivalry, in an ever-less-meaningful regular season.

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