It happens instantly and inexplicably, on a pleasant evening at Staples Center, a locale nearly exploding on every possession and forced a fuming Doc Rivers to signal for a timeout when the rabid crowd exploded amid an energized frenzy. The Lakers survived on a night the celebrities and non-celebs attended to witness Team Hollywood avenge an embarrassing 39-point loss two years ago in what was the worst elimination defeat in NBA history.

He wasn’t scowling or grinding his teeth like a vampire anxious to devour the Boston Celtics blood, but he was fiercely the dictator on the floor for setting the tone early in an onslaught against his archenemies. He seemed much too enraged in his home gold uniform, willing to secure his legacy and establish redemption, but more importantly beat down the Celtics to direct the Lakers to its 16th title and pull one shy of Boston.

Rather than acknowledging that the Lakers aren’t soft, undermined or relapsing, the everlasting misgivings allows a cynical individual to disregard the much-improved toughness of a core once ridiculed for softness and a feeble-minded mindset. At one point, the Lakers were insulted for perishing in the regular-season, in which the lords of basketball began to downplay the mental toughness and shrewd efficiency.

There is, believe it or not, a reason not to dismiss Bryant and his teammates. Finally diminishing lethargy and imprudence, realizing much is at stake. It’s clearly evident that the blueprint in resounding pride and polishing in a win over the despised rivals is to disclose the Celtics blemishes. If you haven’t noticed the Lakers are tougher and more potent, unlike two years ago when they were manhandled and shoved around by the much physical and aggressive Boston.

But this season alone, the aging Celtics were sabotaged at times and the slowness in matching the intensity of younger and faster teams revealed flaws in the transition and defensive schemes. Once described as the softest and harmless franchise, suddenly evaded all the instabilities and converted into a physical heavyweight. In other words, the Lakers would have lasted in the Octagon, exchanging a brutal knock out punch.

What we desired was an NBA Finals rematch between two of the greatest bitter rivals in sports, wishing for a physical showdown after the Lakers were unemotional and lackadaisical in initiating minor skirmishes and dominating inside. But no longer are the Lakers fearful or reluctant, empowered to outweigh the older and sluggish Celtics.

For instance, it turned into a physical match in the early minutes when Ron Artest and Paul Pierce were tangled with their elbows underneath the basket before the forwards crashed to the floor in a scuffled that led to a pair of technical fouls. It’s an indicator that we are glancing at a physical and aggressive series, probably one of the greatest in NBA history and could extend to a seven game series if the Celtics pull off a win in Game 2 Sunday.

During the season, the Lakers were doomed in repeating for a title, but now the loudest crowd on Thursday night believes they’ll win a second straight championship and amass title No. 16. It’s very overwhelming to see the Lakers rebound after coasting to a breezy 102-89 demolition to take Game One of the NBA Finals, assuring doubters and disbelievers.

After all, the fiercest of them all resides in L.A., and seems unbeatable and invincible as Pau Gasol moved the ball inside, as Artest taunted and heckled Pierce with his stellar defensive effort, forcing the veteran forward to accumulate fouls, and as Bryant weaved through the uncontested lane dominating the paint. It was a shaky night in which Pierce finished with 24-points on 6 for 13 shooting and appeared frustrated while in foul trouble.

But the Lakers were determined and hardly forgotten about the dreadful disappointment two years ago, ready to erase the ghastly afterthoughts. On a flawless night, the hostile Lakers faithful chanted unpleasantly at Boston. It’s a team they truly loathe, dating back to the ‘60s-‘80s era. When the Lakers blew open a large deficit late, fans started chanting, “BOSTON SUCKS, BOSTON SUCKS!”

For nearly two years, Bryant has waited for a moment to seek vengeance after it all ended so humiliatingly in the NBA Finals. What a difference a year makes, watching the Lakers grow and mellow into a physical and forceful core, which now isn’t an easy out. Because Los Angeles is more experience, angrier and vigorous, the fiercest competitors are playing with urgency and approach a game with a believable mindset.

With all the chemistry and reinforcements, Phil Jackson strongly believes the Lakers can beat their nemesis, delighted to have another shot at the Celtics and expunge sorrow and heartbreaking memories, presumably by winning it again. In the meantime, Kevin Garnett disappeared and tried to dunk, but failed to convert twice on uncontested attempts.

Most can recall when he used to be the renowned forward in the league and was clearly known for his turnaround jumpers and defensive force, but now is gradually declining in touches and making shots. He stands on wobbly knees, wearing ankle weights and obviously looks slower than two seasons ago when he shouted to the heavens after winning his first championship that “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!”

As it turns out, it seems highly impossible to win, especially when Gasol is defending and contesting every shot. He’s quicker than Garnett, establishing a post presence and becoming a shot blocker in the middle, no longer described as GaSoft. Remember, he was the scapegoat when the Lakers collapsed miserably to the Celtics two years ago, and condemned for his softness and incertitude. There’s no doubt that Gasol was the difference in Garnett’s faltering, coming in a competition Bryant scored 30 points and defensive specialist Artest handled the truth.

But as the spectators viewed from the stands, Boston’s sensational and mellowing point guard Rajon Rondo was a non-factor, and never really was involved in the offense. Whether it was rust or just a poor night, the Celtics will need the floor general to bring the intensity and return to regular form in Game 2.

He’s an essential piece to Boston’s functional offense, but whenever he has an off night the entire team tends to frail. It’s obvious that he creates and inspires the offense with his exceptional pocket passes and drives to the basket, setting up the brilliant offensive play. As for the Lakers, Gasol was the ripple-effect, scoring 28 points on 8 for 14 shooting and earned a trip to the foul line 10 times and led with 14 rebounds.

“Pau is the guy that has to be part of the scoring combo with Kobe. So he has to provide some of that for us in this series against probably one of the top defenders in the game,” said Jackson.

If the Lakers continue to play physical and assertively, then they’ll win the series. Turns out we were skeptical of the Lakers’ tenacity.


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