Celtics set tone against Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- The Boston Celtics' 109-96 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday afternoon at Staples Center didn't erase any of the pain from a Game 7 defeat here seven months ago. But it provided the latest -- and maybe most convincing -- indication that these Celtics might just be able to atone this summer.

Returning to the scene of a crime, where Banner 18 was snatched from its hands last June, Boston didn't just topple the defending world champions, it did so by dominating the areas that caused its title dreams to be dashed.

With Kendrick Perkins in tow, only his fourth game back since the ACL injury that ended his season and Boston's championship hopes in Game 6 of the Finals, the Celtics asserted themselves on the glass Sunday, muscling their way to a double-digit advantage in caroms.

A Boston team that simply ran out of gas some six minutes before the finish line in Game 7 of the Finals saved some of its most inspired play for the latter part of the fourth quarter Sunday, sending celebrities and Lakers die-hards alike to the exits as early as they were late arriving, a 14-point cushion with 1:29 remaining all but emptying the arena.

"It's another game, but it's definitely an emotional game, especially since losing Game 7 here," admitted Celtics captain Paul Pierce, the offensive catalyst, who scored 14 of his team-high 32 points in a third quarter that helped Boston create its initial separation.

"The thing is, when you win a game here now, it's not for the championship. It's a regular-season game. When we play against the Lakers, it really gets our juices going, because they are our rivals. It's a big game just knowing that we can come into this building and get a win."

The Celtics didn't hide from the fact that this wasn't just another game. Players couldn't avoid the wave of emotions that washed over them walking into Staples Center, entering a locker room that coach Doc Rivers described this week as the saddest scene he's ever been a part of in basketball.

But the memory of walking off that confetti-covered court following Game 7 was, at least for a moment, replaced by the sight of replica No. 24 jerseys streaming to the exits as Boston did what it's struggled to do at times this season: Finish off an opponent.

And this wasn't just any opponent. It was the Lakers.

"When the two teams play, there's always more energy and all that," said Rivers. "It's special. But once the game is over, whoever wins, you feel great about it. Whoever loses, you look at it as just another game. But it's always nice [to win], and it's always nice to win in this building."

When Boston won a regular-season meeting here last season, Rivers requested $100 from every player and staff member, then hid a $2,600 kitty in the ceiling tiles in the visitors locker room. The only way to retrieve it: Meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

He said no such measure was necessary this time. No, while last year's team limped through a 27-27 finish to the 2009-10 season, stumbling to a fourth seed, and needed all the motivation Rivers could generate to propel it toward that championship goal, this year's team needs no carrot.

Game 7 provides all the inspiration the Celtics need.

And it's further evidenced by their play in marquee matchups. Boston already boasts two wins over the Miami Heat, avenged a Christmas Day loss to the Orlando Magic earlier this month, and has saved its most inspired ball for the opponents it might see again when the snow mounds around Boston finally melt away.

The Celtics shot a staggering 60.3 percent Sunday, fueled by Pierce's offensive outburst, which loosened up the Lakers' defense and allowed Rajon Rondo to register 15 second-half assists. Boston finished with 34 assists, while the Lakers had only 10.

Kobe Bryant produced one of the biggest offensive games in recent memory against the Celtics, connecting on 16 of 29 shots for a game-high 41 points. Alas, Boston's philosophy has long been to allow a team's superstar to have his, so long as the supporting cast is neutralized.

Ron Artest got yanked amidst a 1-for-10 shooting performance and an inability to slow Pierce. Pau Gasol was quiet at best (12 points, 7 rebounds), while Kevin Garnett dominated that matchup (18 points, 13 rebounds).

Boston simply wanted it more and it showed, maybe no more so than the blood-covered face of Garnett, who caught an elbow in the first half that later required five stitches, and played the rest of the game with a massive bandage on his noggin.

The Celtics wanted it more. They needed it more. They fully expect to see the Lakers again down the road and they needed to start the process of asserting that there won't be a repeat of last year.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.