After losing to the Boston Celtics in their first four meetings this season — including twice in the NBA Finals — the Lakers broke through Tuesday night, June 10.
Their 87-81 victory wasn’t a masterpiece, but few games at this level are. The intensity on both sides is too high, and the defenses take away much of what the offenses want to do.
But the Lakers narrowly avoided a home court defeat that would have put them on the brink of being swept.
Now, here are the big questions. Have the Lakers found a winning formula that could catapult them into championship contention? Or was that just the game they figured to win, a victory achieved by playing harder and more aggressively against a team that was superior in Games One and Two, a better team that will assert itself again?
Fans don’t have to wait long for the answers, because Game Four Thursday night and Game Five Sunday will provide the information by the end of the week.
And whatever happens in those games, the Lakers can’t clinch the series and will either be beaten or face the difficult task of completing the task with a return trip to Boston.
The words lingering in my head were provided Tuesday at Staples Center.
In a video tracing the history of the Laker-Celtic rivalry, Jerry West said:
“It hurt so much losing to them year after year. It reached the point where I despised everything green.”
I was around West and the Lakers in those years and can confirm his misery. To a fierce competitor, losing in the Finals time after time leaves scars that don’t heal.
Even a rival, the great Celtic center Bill Russell, noticed.
“If I could be granted one wish it would be that you are happy,” he said as one player who deeply respected another.
Later Tuesday evening, as the outcome of the game was uncertain in the closing minutes, Laker broadcaster Stu Lantz said to me:
“The Lakers have to win tonight. Otherwise their season will be over.”
They would have trailed, 3-0, and technically would still have a chance. But Lantz realized the dilemma a 3-0 deficit would bring.
The Laker win sent a sellout crowd home happy and brought hope for the remaining games.
But here are some words of caution.
The Lakers aren’t likely to win the series if both Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol have non-productive scoring games. Neither did much for most of Tuesday’s game, and the only Laker ably supporting Kobe Bryant was reserve guard Sasha Vujacic, who had 20 points.
Vujacic can have games like that but can also misfire. And it wouldn’t be wise for the Lakers to count on his scoring on a consistent basis.
Then there’s the matter of Paul Pierce having a poor game for the Celtics. That’s not likely to keep happening. He’s too good.
Well, three games into the series it’s competitive enough to merit the worldwide coverage. I remember the NBA Finals when hardly anyone outside the two competing cities cared. Oh, how that has changed.