Lakers vs. Celtics: Always a big game
Not even the Melodrama could tarnish the importance of this meeting of rivals
BOSTON -- Oh, right, there's a game.
Despite Carmelo Anthony stealing some of the juice from Thursday's NBA Finals rematch, it remains a big game for this Lakers team that has played so many big games in the past three postseasons that a regular-season date sometimes fails to register.
But make no mistake, Lakers-Celtics, no matter what the date on the calendar says, is a break-out-the-red-pen-and-circle-it kind of night.
"Obviously it's a game that we would like to win," said Pau Gasol after practice Wednesday when all the Andrew Bynum-to-Denver questions had been exhausted. "It's a game that could give us confidence going forward."
There aren't many teams you can point to that the back-to-back champions would play and actually gain confidence from. Lamar Odom says they suffer from overconfidence in that regard, pointing to their body of work over the years rather than the sample size against the league's elite this season as a litmus test.
But after failing to get up for the rest of the best this season -- going 1-6 so far against the Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls -- it's about time the Lakers showed up, if not for anything to serve as a practice test for the looming playoffs.
Their 13-point home loss to Boston 11 days ago stung so much that Lakers head coach Phil Jackson opted to hold off showing the team the game film until the eve of the matchup so it didn't dwell on the disappointing effort.
"They'll probably see part of [the game film]," Jackson said, before joking, "It's a midnight showing."
Waiting that long to learn the lessons from the Jan. 30th game when Kobe Bryant took 10 straight shots for the Lakers in the fourth quarter as Boston ran away with the game seems like too little, too late. But for a Lakers team that, starting Thursday, still has 30 games left before the playoffs begin, a signature win before the playoffs will be welcome whenever it comes.
"We should win [Thursday], we need to win [Thursday] obviously just to get even with the Celtics for the season," said Bynum. "That's our main focus, not to try to get people off our back or anything like that. It's more for a season split."
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As much as the Celtics game is about beating their rival, it also has implications in how the rest of the Lakers' road trip plays out.
The team has started its 13-day, seven-game journey with a 2-0 record after beating the New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies. But the Celtics game starts a three-games-in-four-days portion of the trip followed by challenges against the revamped New York Knicks and the Orlando Magic, whom the Lakers defeated in the Finals two seasons ago.
In the 2008-09 season, before the Lakers beat the Magic, L.A. used a six-game road trip from late January to early February to prove its championship mettle, going 6-0 and beating the Celtics in the fifth game and LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the sixth game. They snapped a 12-game winning streak by the C's and a Cavs team that had won eight of nine games coming into the Lakers matchup in the process.
"It's an important trip," Bryant said after the New Orleans game. "It's an important trip, no doubt about it."
And the most important game in the important seven-game trip may just be Thursday against Boston. Even if the Lakers go 6-0 in the other games, a Celtics loss would linger.
"Boston hurts more than any other team," said Gasol, who maintains that 6-1 would still be acceptable in his eyes.
But a loss Friday would shift the focus away from the MeloDrama and back toward the actual performance of the keepers of the crown against the rest of the league's other would-be kings this season.
"It's understandable that we're going to get some criticism if things don't work out at times," Gasol said. "It's part of being in this situation but we understand as a team, as a group, what we can do but we have to obviously prove it."
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At Wednesday's practice, the team deflected all of the trade speculation that came their way, dodging a bullet from allowing the story to grow into an ongoing narrative for the media.
On Thursday they'll have to show that they can still dodge a bullet that comes to them in the shape of a team wearing green and white on the basketball court.
"Everybody wants to be a Laker, huh?" said Ron Artest, shaking his head at the rumor mill that made its way through the team.
There's no better time to be a Laker than when you just beat the Celtics. But if they lose ...
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.