LOS ANGELES (AP) – Paul Pierce says the Boston Celtics had no reason to discuss their heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the NBA finals last summer before they returned to Staples Center on Sunday.
With a spectacularly fluid performance on offense against the outclassed Lakers, Pierce and the Celtics showed some things just don’t need to be said out loud.
Pierce scored 32 points, Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 13 rebounds with a large bandage over a five-stitch cut on his head, and the Celtics overcame Kobe Bryant’s 41 points in a 109-96 victory over Los Angeles.
Ray Allen scored 21 points for the Celtics in the longtime rivals’ first meeting since Los Angeles rallied from a late 13-point deficit for an 83-79 win in the deciding game last June, ending an exhausting series in dramatic fashion.
“It’s another game, but it was definitely an emotional game, especially because we lost Game 7 here,” said Pierce, who dueled down the second-half stretch with Bryant. “It feels good to come back in this building and get a win.”
The Celtics overwhelmed the Lakers in the rematch, with Rajon Rondo catalyzing the offense by racking up 15 of his 16 assists after halftime. Boston showed off its enviably complete game, outrebounding the Lakers 43-30 – a big problem for Boston in last season’s finale – while hitting nine 3-pointers and getting 34 assists to Los Angeles’ 10.
With his every assist against the defense of Bryant and Derek Fisher, Rondo also made a matter-of-fact statement about the Celtics’ prowess in areas the Lakers can’t match right now.
“We knew we could run on L.A.,” Rondo said. “L.A., given the personnel that we have, we thought we could outrun them.”
This victory also put the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics (36-11) well ahead of the Lakers (33-15) in the overall NBA standings.
You know, just in case.
“If we had home court last year, who knows maybe what happens in Game 7?” Pierce asked. “We’re not looking ahead, but maybe if it comes down to another Game 7, maybe we’ll have it at home.”
Bryant scored his 27,000th career point but couldn’t spark his Lakers teammates, who followed up their Christmas home loss to Miami with another flop against the best of the East, disappointing a home crowd pulsing with energy for the annual rivalry game.
“I think guys are upset, and they should be,” Bryant said. “We’re not playing very well against these top teams, so we need to elevate our level and need to get better if we’re to defend our throne. There’s no other option but that.”
Pau Gasol had 12 points in a quiet game for Los Angeles, which has lost four of seven. The two-time champions are doing nothing to counter the perception they don’t get excited about anything until the playoffs.
Bryant became the youngest player to reach 27,000 points on a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, but he frequently was a one-man show on offense. Ron Artest went 1 for 10, Andrew Bynum had 11 points while struggling with soreness in his left knee, and Lamar Odom had 15 points and five rebounds.
“Is it the playoffs yet?” Lakers coach Phil Jackson asked. “No. We’re still playing regular-season games. We’ll get there in time.”
Boston led throughout the final 21 minutes, but a flurry of points from Bryant pulled the Lakers to 91-87 with 5:20 to play. The Celtics responded with seven consecutive points to start a game-ending 18-9 run, highlighted by Rondo’s smooth alley-oop lob to Garnett for a layup in traffic.
“I told Rondo, in front of the team, that I thought it was one of his best games of the year,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I think he called an absolutely perfect game. He’s our pitcher. … (We) lost our senses in the second quarter for a stretch. We got into complaining about everything except for playing basketball, and I told them at halftime just keep playing through anything.”
Two nights after an embarrassing 71-point performance in a loss at Phoenix, Boston earned its eighth win in 10 games – and the Celtics’ star big man even showed his grit through a little blood.
Garnett had a gaping cut near his left temple midway through the second quarter after Gasol hurt him while fighting for the ball. No foul was called, infuriating Rivers and Garnett, who went to the locker room and returned with a large tan bandage on his head.
“I got elbowed in the head, and it didn’t change anything,” Garnett said. “If anything, it woke me up to be a lot more aggressive to the basket.”
Los Angeles’ fans didn’t love Garnett’s campaigning for a foul on the play, chanting “Wheelchair!” – a reference to Pierce curiously leaving the court in a wheelchair after hurting his knee during Game 1 in the 2008 finals.
Shaquille O’Neal didn’t score and received mostly boos when introduced as the Celtics’ starting center. Shaq won three titles and three NBA finals MVP awards during eight seasons with Los Angeles, but he has returned to Staples Center since with four teams – although this choice stung a bit to the isolated fans who shouted “Traitor!”
NOTES: The Lakers visit Boston on Feb. 10. … The Lakers wore throwback uniforms from their 1971-72 team, albeit with shorts adjusted for modesty. … Fans near courtside included Matt Damon, Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Sandler, Brooklyn Decker, Nick Swardson, Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, Zac Efron, former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest and director Robert Rodriguez.