Those battles between members of “Mt. Rushmore” are well in the past, but not vanished in memory.
Being at the center of championship glory, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have went through many transforming periods. Although, the rivalry always feels real, within the heart of the fans and anyone old enough to remember watching green and gold wars.
Long gone are the days of Ray Allen trying his hardest to contain Kobe Bryant with the game on the line. As are the days of Kevin Garnett engaging in frontcourt battles — and verbal post-game shots — with Pau Gasol, or Paul Pierce‘s mini wrestling moments with someone formerly named Ron Artest.
This season, it was a two-game series between teams that, in all honesty, might not find it in their best interest to win games.
Los Angeles and Boston entered Friday’s matchup in Staples Center with a combined record of 37-72 this season. It’s painful to even address, as 2013-14 marked the worst total winning percentage (.339) in their series history.
The bright side can only favor one team this year, however, as the Lakers completed the season sweep of the Celtics on Friday, with a 101-92 victory.
Flash forward a month later, and the rosters are still embarrassing compared to what the two brands generally possess. However, it became two new additions for the Lakers that made the most noise.
Joining the injury plagued Lakers this week was former Warriors’ guards Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks, two players that Golden State felt were worth getting off the books for veteran Steve Blake‘s service. Many believed that D’Antoni would choose to stick with his smaller rotation and not feature the new athletic guards for large minutes, but that wasn’t the case on Friday. Bazemore was surprisingly given tons of opportunities — likely allowing Marshall some rest — by logging over 33 minutes in the win. Brooks, regarded as the better scoring talent of the two, played 23 minutes.
Setting the tone would be Brad Stevens’ fascinating bunch, as they jumped on the Lakers’ throats from the opening tip. Jeff Green, who has been Boston’s most formidable offensive weapon this season, scored 11 straight points for the Celtics on a variety of shots. Whether it was catching a lob from Rajon Rondo, drilling a 3-pointer, or attacking in transition, everything fell Green’s way in the first. Unable to get going offensively, Los Angeles found themselves in a 28-19 hole at the conclusion of the first, as the team’s five turnovers (three by Marshall) allowed Boston to generate easy looks.
Playing in his first game back since the groin strain, Pau Gasol appeared fresh and eager to get his low post game established in the first half. I’m one of many that believes Chris Kaman‘s February barrage motivated Gasol to get back on the floor post All-Star break, and prove why Mitch Kupchak should consider the option of re-signing the Spaniard this summer.
Kaman filled in for Gasol during the seven missed games, and averaged 17 points per game on 51 percent from the floor. While giving credit to Kaman, the numbers he’s capable of will never be more important than the presence and versatility Gasol gives the Lakers down on the block. We rave about both of their outside shooting, but there’s no debate when examining who has the better skill-set on the block, offensively and defensively.
By the time halftime rolled around, the talk of the game became Bazemore, and how he was beginning to make a difference in the second quarter. The two-year player out of Old Dominion scored seven points in the second to lead the Lakers, who entered the locker room satisfied with their 25-18 advantage in the quarter. After playing a sour first 12 minutes, D’Antoni’s squad had to be fairly happy to find themselves trailing just 46-44 at the half.
As for Bazemore, the second period served as a small taste of what type of player he can become. On one instance, he illustrated crafty handling and ability to slice defenders, before utilizing a nifty euro-step to finish at the basket. His speed in the open court was impressive as well, topped off with great body control to finish contested layups. With a guy that has averaged just 6.1 minutes per game this season, you have to look at how comfortable he feels on the floor and what his raw talent has to offer. From that perspective, his Friday night grade can be no lower than an A-.
MarShon Brooks on the role he and Bazemore committed to playing on Friday:
“Me and Kent just wanted to come out here and play with some energy,” Brooks stated. “D’Antoni gives you that confidence and he lets you go out there and play your game. So I felt free doing that. The difference in the game was on the other side of the ball. We played real good defense, forced some turnovers, and that really got us going in the fourth quarter.”
The third quarter became another ugly showing, as it mirrored the first period with Los Angeles getting out-scored 28-19 by the Celtics. This time, however, it was forward Brandon Bass that imposed the damage. Bass connected on 3-of-5 field goals in the third, and knocked in four free throws to give him 10 points in the quarter. Bass finished the game with 20 points and eight rebounds, but his over-powering play against Ryan Kelly and Jordan Hill is what helped the Celtics reach a 13-point lead at one point during the third.
It became time for newcomers to settle in at their own home.
This season has developed a trend for the Lakers, that says they love to give up leads in the second half and can’t find ways to execute late.
That was no problem at all for Brooks and Bazemore, as the two combined for 18 of the Lakers’ 38 points in the fourth quarter to complete another comeback win over the arc rivals. D’Antoni’s approach for the fourth quarter was surprising, as he stuck with just five players — Brooks, Bazemore, Farmar, Hill, and Kaman — to close out the game. Against any other team, it may have backfired.
But Brooks knew how big of a moment it was for him, personally.
Before being traded to the Warriors on Jan. 15, Brooks appeared in 10 games for Boston this season and, whether he admits it or not, that always provides extra fire and motivation to bury the team that exiled you.
Brooks made 5-of-7 field goals in the fourth, scoring 10 points and recording three steals during the Lakers’ run. His offensive arsenal is not just impressive …. it’s promising. This 25-year-old out of Providence can score in any way, but he sure enjoyed impersonating Kobe Bryant, the man he often wanted to be compared to coming out of college. With 10:33 remaining in the game, Brooks went vintage Bryant with a quick penetration into the paint before faking a spin to the right. Finishing with a turn-around jumper 10 feet from the basket, Brooks caught the eye of a lot of people that dreaded the Steve Blake trade. After seeing the contribution of both young guards, the Lakers did the right thing by changing up the look in a lost season.
“MarShon can score and get can get going,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said. “As difficult as change is sometimes, it’s also an opportunity. And (Brooks and Bazemore) both took great advantage of that opportunity today.”
Gasol, Kaman, and Jodie Meeks all contributed 16 points for the Lakers, in the first game of the season that three players shared the scoring lead.
Los Angeles’ bench came away with a marvelous 63-21 scoring advantage over the Celtics’ second unit, if anyone wonders what the biggest factor was in the Lakers’ nine-point win.
Nick Young, who has missed the last six games for the Lakers with a non-displaced knee fracture, will return on Sunday as the team hosts the Brooklyn Nets. Young was nearly everyone’s frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year before going down with the injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 5.
Xavier Henry — the forgotten Laker these days — has finally been cleared for basketball activities after sitting out every game since the Dec. 29 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Henry sustained a strained right knee that doctors eventually labeled as a bone bruise, but will begin practicing and getting back into basketball shape.
More Weeks For Bryant
After being re-examined during halftime of Friday’s game, Kobe Bryant has been listed as out for three more weeks with the left tibial plateau fracture. While Bryant has been doing all he can to rehab, the process hasn’t been as quickly as he hoped. The swelling of his knee has prevented him from engaging in serious activities outside of using a stationary bicycle.
When he does return to the court in mid-March, the Lakers will be down to their final 15 (or less) games on the schedule. The opinions surrounding a decision to shut Bryant down for the rest of the season have consistently been heard …. loud and clear.
However, Bryant is not someone that makes ill-advised decisions at 35 years old. If he’s not close to 100 percent, don’t think for a second that he’ll risk his final two years of his career for 15 or so games with a petty roster. But if he does feel the same as last year’s “Vino,” there’s no logical reason why he shouldn’t be on the hardwood.