The Celtics and Lakers have the most storied rivalry in the history of the NBA. No matter what’s happening with each team individually throughout the course of a given season, whenever the two teams meet, there’s always a special kind of buzz and energy that surrounds those contests.
That wasn’t the case in Boston on Thursday, however, because only one of the two teams bothered to show up.
While the Lakers lacked energy, the Celtics were exploding with it. Behind a huge third quarter run and a balanced team effort, Boston put the wood to L.A. and cruised to a 116-95 win, the team’s sixth straight after losing Rajon Rondo for the season with a torn ACL injury.
The Lakers were playing without Pau Gasol, who suffered a tear of the plantar fascia in his right foot near the end of the team’s win over the Nets in Brooklyn on Tuesday. It was announced shortly before tip-off that Gasol will miss a minimum of 6-8 weeks.
With Gasol out indefinitely, the pressure has been mounting on the enormous shoulders of Dwight Howard to return to the lineup, after missing his team’s last three games due to re-aggravating the torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may have added to that a bit, each saying over the last couple of days that Howard needs to try to play through the pain, especially since L.A. will be without Gasol for so long, and with the urgency to win games increasing with each passing day.
Howard played 28 minutes and finished with nine points and nine rebounds, but turned the ball over four times while going just 1-6 from the free throw line. He was unable to come close to matching the intensity and energy Gasol brought to the Lakers during the team’s three-game win streak (which took place during Howard’s three-game absence), and fouled out while Mike D’Antoni somewhat inexplicably had him still in the game for the first 6:53 of the fourth quarter, while the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 32 points.
Boston had control of this one from the start, but after trailing by as many as 16 in the first half, the Lakers were hanging around within 10 or 11 points midway through the third. That’s when the Celtics put on a devastating 23-8 run over the period’s final 4:52 — one that left them with a 95-69 lead, and put the game in the win column much earlier than expected.
Paul Pierce led his team with 24 points, and Kevin Garnett finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, and three steals in just 23 minutes of action. Garnett surpassed the 25,000 career-point milestone in this one, after connecting on a spinning, fadeaway jumper over Earl Clark early in the second quarter.
The Celtics remain firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. On the Lakers side, it’s easy to want to throw (more) dirt on the grave the team is seemingly unable to stop digging for itself. But the reality is that they remain just three and a half games out of the eighth and final playoff spot out West, and after winning six of seven before this most recent humiliating loss, the team isn’t likely to pack in the season just yet.
L.A. will need Howard to continue to recover and gain more confidence playing through the pain of his shoulder injury, as well as bring some intensity to his performances that his teammates can feed off of. Gasol was able to provide that at times, and while the Lakers are still Bryant’s team, the one who the franchise is looking to build its future around needs to start acting like the cornerstone he can be for L.A. to have any shot at redemption this season.