Lakers look to Boston for first big win

There have been hundreds of highlights and big moments.

There have already been plenty of big games.

It's what hasn't happened for the Los Angeles Lakers this season that's becoming a little alarming: big wins.

Oklahoma City Thunder? Eh …

New Orleans Hornets on the road? Not bad, still eh …

Those are good teams, not great ones. Those are teams the Lakers must keep down, not climb over.

Although the sample size is still small -- Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks -- the longer the Lakers take to finally make a mark on those few lines of the season reserved for signature wins, the larger the question will grow.

Why haven't the Lakers been able to beat the best this year?

Frank Hamblen's first instinct was to reject the premise entirely.

"We beat Denver," the Lakers assistant coach said. "On the road."

The Denver Nuggets?

Not much else needed saying. Hamblen understood as soon as he said it.

"Yeah, I guess we haven't beat a San Antonio, we haven't beat a Boston, we haven't beat a Miami; you're exactly right," Hamblen said, conceding the point at the same time he racked his brain for an explanation.

"But we obviously didn't have Andrew [Bynum] and he's a big part of our team, because we're built for length, not speed. So missing him hurt a great deal."

Reminded that the Lakers' losses to Miami, San Antonio and Dallas all came after Bynum returned to the lineup, Hamblen could only shrug.

"I wish I could say something more exciting," he said.

"Maybe there was a little complacency early, which is normal. You've won two championships in a row, been in the Finals three years in a row.

"But I think we got jarred out of that by not winning against Miami, by not winning against San Antonio. And now with Andrew back and rounding into pretty decent shape, I think you're going to see the real us."

"TheRealLakers" is not a clever Twitter handle or the accepted public caricature of the team derived from its patterns and personalities over the past decade.

"TheRealLakers" is actually a self-concept. Their self-concept. And the state of their union is strong these days.

Bynum is back and looking like Bynum again. Kobe Bryant seems to have healed. And their much-maligned defense has finally stiffened, allowing fewer than 100 points in 13 of their 16 games since that embarrassing loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.

"We've always remained confident," forward Lamar Odom said. "We feel like we can win any game that we're in. We feel like we do pretty good in big games, particularly Game 7s."

Reminded that the Lakers actually haven't done well in big games this season, Odom grew a little agitated.

"We haven't played any Game 7s," he said with a nod, not a wink.

It was, of course, an allusion to the team the Lakers will host Sunday afternoon: the Boston Celtics.

Neither team needs to be reminded of what happened the last time they played.

Neither team needs to be told what's at stake this time.

"I expect our guys to be ready to play Sunday," Hamblen said. "But Boston will be also."

But a funny thing happened on the way to rekindling this historic rivalry.

Phil Jackson started making nice.

Last week he said the Celtics were a better team than the Miami Heat and all but gushed about the way they played.

"I personally don't think they [the Heat] can get by Boston," Jackson told 710 ESPN. "I think Boston is too good a team. I think a team is still going to win."

He managed to slap the Heat with the back of his hand in complimenting the Celtics, but for a coach known as much for tweaking his adversaries as beating them, it was a rather astounding statement.

Jackson's championship teams have always had nemeses. In Chicago, his Bulls teams had holy wars on the court and through the media with the Knicks and Pistons. During his first Lakers three-peat, Jackson traded verbal daggers with the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs.

And now all of a sudden, Jackson is heaping praise upon the team that embarrassed his team 130-92 in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, and a city that nearly destroyed the team bus on its way out of town?

Whenever something doesn't quite add up, it's best to stop using a calculator to solve the problem.

Whenever something Jackson says doesn't quite add up, it's best to assume he's operating on a deeper level.

"I talk all the time to my team about respecting the opposition," Jackson explained. "It means you don't have to like them, but you can respect them.

"I think that brings out the best competitive nature, because you want to give credence to the people that deserve it. They play well as a team and we have to honor that."

He was, as usual, sending a veiled message to his team.

On Sunday afternoon the Lakers and Celtics will line up for the first time since Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals. The stage, as always, will be large. The stakes, as always, will be big.

The Lakers have whiffed in these moments so far this year.

Now would be a good time for "TheRealLakers" -- if they're in there -- to start seizing them.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.