Almost exactly a year ago, the Lakers went into the TD Banknorth Garden looking to change their rep from runner-up to champion. They had defeated the Celtics on Christmas Day at Staples and entered that game with a 39-9 record, but still the Lakers had to prove to fans, observers, and themselves they were capable of beating an elite, burly, physical Eastern Conference squad on the road.
And they did, with a 110-109 overtime win answering all the lingering questions about their character. Kobe Bryant may have hit three critical triples in the final 5:24, but to that point he only had 17 points and it was his teammates keeping the ship afloat. And in overtime when Kobe was 0-4 from the floor, it was Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom who put all of L.A.'s points on the board. Odom dropped the game-winning free throws I know a healthy portion of Lakers fans thought he'd miss. Gasol stepped up with huge buckets, punctuating every good play with screams and yells and a crazy eye glint that, when combined with his already unkempt hair/beard combination, gave him a much-needed serial killer vibe.
Fast forward about 365 days, and while Sunday's game against the Celtics in Boston doesn't have the same weight as last year's version, don't put me in the camp believing it doesn't matter much at all.
What happens today is important.
The Lakers have lost twice to Cleveland. They've lost to Denver, Portland, Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Toronto, all on the road. Quite frankly, they haven't played many good games against elite competition away from Staples. No question this part of the season can be dull for a genuinely elite team like the Lakers, and I appreciate how the season isn't 82 games worth of Game 7's. They know they're good, they know they can play at a high level. It's something the Lakers have probably bought into a little too much, says Odom. "Cockiness gets in our way," he told ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin. "It does. Sometimes if you're a little too cocky then you wake up, look up and then you decide to turn it on, well, the other team already has it turned on. All their guys are hitting shots, getting to loose balls and the basketball gods are taking care of them the whole game. It happens to the cocky."
At some point, teams can't be cocky, they have to win. Moreover, they can't allow cockiness or complacency to become an explanation for stretches of poor play. Injuries and instability have contributed, but boil it down and the team just hasn't played to its capabilities with consistency.
Now that the "toughness" talk has started up again, the Lakers have another bit of incentive. Nobody in the locker room wants to answer masculinity questions for the next 30+ games. But if the Celtics come out and push them around this afternoon, I guarantee the Lakers will never hear the end of it. Even if a loss does nothing to dent the squad's confidence in themselves, playing flat (or even soft) against the league's best teams only makes their playoff road harder. There's no currency in letting squads with questions about themselves- and Lord knows the Celtics, having lost seven of 11, have much to prove- gain confidence. Cleveland came into the Christmas Day game at Staples surrounded by doubts. They weren't sure they were better than the Lakers, particularly after the Lakers defeated them twice last season.
Now, having returned the favor by sweeping the regular season series, Cleveland may not truly be superior to the Lakers, but they think they are.
No need to do the same favors to the Celtics.
Today begins a stretch of seven straight games against playoff teams, including a visit to Memphis tomorrow, Denver and San Antonio at home, Portland and Utah on the road. Plus Charlotte, a team they can't seem to beat in any building. The party line says the Lakers are a better team when faced with stiffer challenges. I buy it, but want to see it. That they'll face nothing but over the next month, then, is probably a good thing.