That’s all it took for the Los Angeles Lakers to convey to the Boston Celtics that this isn’t going to be a replay of the 2008 NBA Finals.
It’s too early to say for certain whether Thursday night’s 102-89 Lakers win will be a leaping off point for the franchise’s 16th NBA title … even if Phil Jackson is an impressive 47-0 when his team wins the first game of a series. But you could already tell on just the second possession of the game that the Celtics aren’t going to bully their way past the Lakers this time around.
That trip down the court ended with Ron Artest and Paul Pierce locking elbows, then wrestling each other to the floor and earning a technical foul apiece.
Of course, Artest being Artest, he denied he was trying to send a message.
"That’s not a tone that we want to set," Artest said. "I was a little emotional, and I had a little bit of anxiety at that point, and I was fired up."
Intentional or not, the tone for Game 1 — and possibly the entire series — was set during that first-quarter scrum. And just in case the Celtics didn’t get the message in those first 27 ticks, the ensuing 47:33 should have hammered the point home.
You aren’t going to push us around this time.
Since it was Artest who announced early on — in his own inimitable style — that this wasn’t going to be your typical Hollywood sequel, that seems as good a place as any to start.
It was in the aftermath of that infamous Game 6 blowout in 2008 that Artest made his way into the Lakers locker room, found a still-showering Kobe Bryant and offered his assistance (presumably on the court and not in the shower, but with Artest you never know). It may have taken a year, but the memory of that dismantling was no small factor in the Lakers’ decision to take a chance last offseason on the mercurial Artest.
And while it’s just one game, at least so far, it looks like the gamble is paying off.
Pay no mind to Pierce’s final line score (24 points on 6-of-13 shooting). Most of that damage was done in either the first quarter (when Artest was on the bench with two quick fouls) or the fourth (after the Lakers had already put the game away). In between, Artest rendered Pierce a complete non-factor. Even though he was on the court for all but 2:21 of the second and third quarters, Pierce took just four shots and made only one. With the 2008 Finals MVP sufficiently muzzled, the Lakers extended their 50-41 halftime lead to 20 points — the final three of which came, appropriately, on a 3-pointer from Artest.
"He had to go sit down for a while (with foul trouble)," Jackson said. "But he came back and I thought solidified our defense for quite a period of time. … He made some big baskets for us also that I thought were real shot-in-the-arm kind of shots for us."
"Ron is a great defender," Pierce said. "I have a lot of respect for him. You’ve got to expect him to be physical. He’s going to work hard. He’s their defensive leader. I don’t know what you want me to say. He’s a good defender."
He’s also a big body, something that was in short supply for the Lakers the last time these two teams tangled in the Finals. And which they have a surplus of this time around.
Most notably, Andrew Bynum was in street clothes back in 2008 — 7 feet and 285 pounds of much-needed muscle sitting helplessly on the bench when his team desperately needed it on the court. That hopeless feeling is part of the reason why Bynum’s playing through the pain this time around, putting off surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee in order to give his team whatever he can in order to avoid a repeat of 2008.
Thursday night, he gave them a little over 28 minutes of lane-clogging presence. And while Bynum’s numbers may have been modest — 10 points and six rebounds — it’s certainly no coincidence that with their big man back in the lineup, the Lakers controlled the paint in a manner we didn’t see in 2008. L.A. dominated every major category — points in the paint (48-30), rebounding (42-31) and second-chance points (16-0) — defying the conventional wisdom that Boston’s big men would once again have their way with Lakers.
"You know, it was great to have Andrew," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "Obviously he was a big factor tonight. Really contributed in different ways and we want so see him as much as possible out there."
I bet Gasol does.
Unlike Bynum, Gasol was there in 2008, although he admittedly disappeared for large portions of that series, swallowed up by a sea of Celtics big men intent on saddling him with that "soft European" label for the remainder of his career.
If Game 1 is any indication, this series should put a stop to that in a way that back-to-back third team all-NBA honors and the 2009 championship haven’t. As impressive as his overall numbers were (23 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 14 rebounds), the two biggest signs that this isn’t the same 98-pound weakling who spent much of the 2008 Finals getting sand kicked into his face were his eight offensive rebounds and three blocked shots.
"You know, for me it was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help as much as possible out there, win the first game," Gasol said. "That was my mindset tonight. There was no statement to be made."
"He was more aggressive," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. "He attacked us. I thought he was the best player on the floor. I thought he made terrific plays, terrific passes, shot when he should shoot. Yeah, he’s better. He’s far more aggressive. If you heard for two years what you couldn’t do, you’re probably going to come in and try to prove that, and I thought Gasol proved a lot tonight."
While Gasol was proving he isn’t the same player we saw in the 2008 NBA Finals, so too was his Celtics counterpart. And that doesn’t bode well for Boston.
The aging of Kevin Garnett was most obvious — not to mention, most embarrassing — on the offensive end, where, unable to elevate, he missed a pair of dunks and couldn’t even get one putback attempt to the rim.
But it’s most damaging to the Celtics’ title chances on the defensive side of the court. It’s hard to imagine Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher taking the ball to the basket with the same degree of success against the 2008 version of KG, the chest-pumping, primal-screaming soul of the Celtics’ championship defense.
"We did not handle their guards off the dribble," Rivers said. "They were in the paint, Shannon Brown, Kobe, Fisher, I mean, it was a parade down the paint."
And if it keeps up, there’s going to be another parade. But unlike in ’08, it’s going to head down Figueroa to the L.A. Coliseum.