Lakers 111, Celtics 98

What would you have done on Dec. 31 if someone said they could promise the Lakers would go 8-7 in January? Kwame Brown had just gone down with a severely sprained ankle and Lamar Odom was still trying to get back from a sprained knee ligament. My guess is that almost every Lakers fan would have taken the offer.

After Wednesday’s victory over the Celtics, the Lakers officially clinched the winning month. That in itself is remarkable given everything they endured. They finished January 8-7 after going 10-5 in October/November and 10-6 in December. If you can post a winning record every month of the season, you’re going to wind up with a high playoff seed.

Looking back at my seaon prediction from October, I had the Lakers going 11-4 in October/November, 8-8 in December and 8-7 in January. So they’re about plus-one right now from my projected record of 48-34. We’ll see what February brings; I thought they would go 7-5 before the season started.

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Ronny Turiaf said he suffered some hip pain when Wally Szczerbiak pulled him down in the third quarter and was called for a second-degree flagrant foul. The NBA draws the distinction for a flagrant foul involving “unnecessary and excessive” contact. Turiaf stayed in the game and made 1 of 2 free throws.

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I asked Kobe Bryant afterward how he would describe the ferocious windmill dunk he threw down at the end of the game. He said he was planning on flipping in a reverse layup but was caught a little off guard by how high he elevated. So he dunked the ball instead and earned a spot on every sportscast in the country.

“My legs are back, man,” Bryant said.

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After turning 21 five days ago, Celtics guard Gerald Green got an education from Bryant in Wednesday’s game. But Bryant praised the second-year guard, who finished two points off his career-high with 22. The Celtics selected Green with the No. 18 pick in the 2005 draft.

“I told him, `You have a lot of talent. The important thing is to keep working. Just have tunnel vision,”’ Bryant said. “It’s a tough situation for him here because they’re losing so much. But it’s important for him just to stay focused on what he has to do. I told him if he ever needs anything, track me down. He’s a hell of a talent.”

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There are definitely no guarantees from night to night with Phil Jackson and minutes. Sasha Vujacic started Tuesday in New York with Bryant suspended but played just 1:58 against the Celtics. Jackson yanked him immediately in the second quarter; Vujacic did take a 3-pointer in the short time he played.

That was more than could be said for Brian Cook, who was on the floor for the Lakers late in the fourth quarter against the Knicks. Cook didn’t get off the bench in Wednesday’s game.

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

BOSTON–If Kobe Bryant felt as if he was “grounded while sitting in his hotel room and serving a one-game NBA suspension Tuesday night, then how would he describe the feeling in returning with a 43-point barrage against the Boston Celtics?

“It felt like I was finally able to run out in the yard, Bryant said, “and just run a little wild.

It was more like Bryant ran roughshod Wednesday in the Lakers 111-98 victory. After not taking a shot in the first eight minutes, Bryant could hear “M-V-P chants in this city once so hostile to the Lakers as the final seconds ticked away.

He connected on seven 3-pointers, scored 12 points in the last 6 1-2 minutes as the Lakers finally put away the Celtics and threw down a savage reverse dunk with 1:40 left to cap his one-man show.

The Lakers ended their three-game losing streak at the expense of the Celtics, who lost for the franchise-record-tying 13th consecutive game. Boston has played the last 21 games without star guard Paul Pierce, who is out with a stress reaction in his left foot.

Searching for a silver lining, Boston coach Doc Rivers cited two of his young players and said that if “Gerald Green is a Kobe Bryant and Al Jefferson is whoever you want him to be and youre winning games, youre not going to give a crap about what happened.

Bryant, meanwhile, was able to move past his suspension and deliver the Lakers the first victory on this eight-game trip. He said he was more nervous watching Tuesdays loss to New York on television than he ever would be playing in a game.

With the perspective that came with sitting out, Bryant offered his teammates a reminder to have fun Wednesday. “We tend to get a little too serious on these road trips, Bryant said, “and kind of forget about how much fun the game is.

There also was none of the expected vengeance on Bryants part in returning from suspension. Bryant laid out his intentions before the game and had to be reminded by Lakers coach Phil Jackson to take open shots in the first quarter.

“Its important for us to get back on track. Not for me to necessarily take over the game, Bryant said. “Hopefully we wont need that. Weve got a long trip ahead, its important for everybody to get on track and get into some type of a rhythm if we want to do well on this trip.

The Lakers needed Bryant to finally close the door on the Celtics. He went to the bench with 8:39 remaining and the Lakers leading 91-77 but had to return not even two minutes later as Brian Scalabrine scored seven consecutive points for Boston.

With the lead down to seven points, Bryant returned for the final 6:50. He drove for a layup on his first possession back, buried two 3-pointers from 26 feet and threw down the dunk on Green that left the crowd gasping.

“I just got in a good rhythm, Bryant said, “and was able to put on a good show there.

The Celtics turned to Green, a second-year guard, to try to stop Bryant. Green said after the game, “Its tough when you are in the game and those shots keep going in and “We knew he was kind of upset about the suspension.

Bryant made 13 of 25 shots and approached a triple-double with eight rebounds and eight assists. He hit a spectacular 3-pointer to beat the third quarter buzzer after Bostons Wally Szczerbiak lost the ball with a chance to make it a five-point game.

Bryant also described serving his suspension in the simplest of terms before the game: “I felt like a kid that was grounded. I couldnt go outside and play on the swings. It was terrible.

The Lakers led 35-23 after the first quarter – – with Bryant not taking a shot until the 3:56 mark – – but what should have been an easy night against a Celtics team that hadnt won since Jan. 5 wasnt meant to be.

Bryant went to the bench to start the second quarter but came back after not even two minutes. Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar all missed 3-pointers for the Lakers, who had no trouble shooting 57 percent in the first quarter.

“Theres some people that might have learned a lesson out of the game tonight, Jackson said, “because the second unit was quick with their shooting, their defense didnt stand and suddenly that 12-point first quarter lead was a tie game.

With Bryant coming back from suspension, Jackson promised before the game to rein in his superstar guard. “My interest is to not let him go off and get too wacky out there, Jackson said, “in case hes got retribution in mind.

Jackson proved it with 4:00 left in the second quarter. Bryant hit the side of the backboard on a jumper and Jackson called for seldom-used guard Shammond Williams to replace Bryant.

The Lakers now have to find a victory on this trip to replace the one they wanted against New York but were denied by Bryants suspension.

“We gave up a game last night, so we have to get back two, Jackson said. “That means we have to win somewhere else.