If there's such thing as delayed payback, the type that sits for two years and accrues interest in the angriest of currencies, the Lakers unveiled it on Thursday.
They beat the Boston Celtics, 102-89, their lead swelling as large as 20 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but they also decisively swatted down the continual questions all week that probed their character and picked at their alleged lack of strength directly related to their flameout two years ago against the Celtics.
FOR THE RECORD:
Lakers-Celtics: In Friday's Sports section, a photo of Kobe Bryant accompanying the cover story about the Lakers' victory over Boston in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was credited to Times photographer Wally Skalij. It should have been credited to The Times' Robert Gauthier. —
Kobe Bryant had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists, looking as if he never left his soaring statistical parameters against the run-and-fun Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.
But this one was all about the dirty categories.
The Lakers out-Celticed the Celtics, pushing, prodding and grinding at Staples Center while taking all the categories they couldn't get two years ago.
The Lakers had 48 points in the paint, the Celtics only 30.
The Lakers had 42 rebounds, the Celtics had 31.
Second-chance points? Also not close. The Lakers had 16, the Celtics none, the stat line that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson called "pretty remarkable."
It was only one game, but it marked a 52-point turnaround from the last time the teams met in the Finals in 2008, when the Celtics throttled the Lakers in the clinching Game 6 in Boston, 131-92, the second-largest point differential in Finals history.
"I knew it was going to be physical. That's a given," said Pau Gasol, who had 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots, a vast generation from his 11-point, five-turnover flop in that Game 6 two years ago. "We understand what a rival is and how they play. You've got to compete and make sure you match that physicality, that aspect of the game in order to be successful."
The Lakers did it with defense, stifling the Celtics one after another, Paul Pierce (24 points) the only one to score with any regularity.
Kevin Garnett had 16 points on seven-for-16 shooting and had only four rebounds in almost 35 minutes. Ray Allen had 12 points on three-for-eight shooting while struggling with foul trouble all night.
The Lakers were more physical than the Celtics? Believe it.
"I thought the Lakers were clearly the more physical team today," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought they attacked us the entire night. I don't think we handled it very well. They killed us on the glass. I thought they were by far the more physical team."
The Lakers definitely didn't back down in a festival of fouls.
The teams combined for 67 free-throw attempts and 54 fouls, enough to create a herky-jerky rhythm at times.
"That wasn't the prettiest basketball game I've ever watched in my life," Jackson said. "But it was a good win for us."
It's redundant to keep saying it, but Bryant was there as well, continuing to deliver in many ways. He made 10 of 22 shots, neither great nor bad, but he made nine of 10 free-throw attempts and dictated the pace of an all-important third quarter in which the Lakers outscored the Celtics, 34-23.
He made five of seven shots and had 14 points in the quarter as the Lakers turned a 50-41 halftime edge into an 84-64 lead going into the fourth.
"I thought he was way too comfortable on the floor," Pierce said.
Said Rivers, practically shaking his head: "That wasn't our defense tonight."
Andrew Bynum had 10 points, six rebounds and, of greatest importance, played 28 minutes three days after having almost 21/2 ounces of fluid drained from a right knee that has been bothered by torn cartilage for more than a month.
Earlier in the day, Jackson said he hoped Bynum would play at least 24 minutes, half a game.
Jackson got his wish. Bynum's knee turned out to be just fine.
The Celtics perked up in the fourth quarter, moving within 11 points, and for a brief moment, there were shades of the Lakers' blown 24-point lead in Game 4 two years ago.
But then Ron Artest made a three-pointer with 1:47 left, pushing the Lakers back out to a 99-84 advantage.
No, the Lakers weren't playing the fun-loving Suns any longer.
This was about boxing out the rough-and-tumble Celtics. And any lingering demons from two years ago.
The results were telling. The Lakers are three victories from a championship.
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