It never did feel even a little like Christmas.
Nor did it change anything that happened last June.
But for a few hours Thursday afternoon, the anguish the Lakers and their fans had been left to gnaw on for six long months was finally vanquished as they beat the Boston Celtics 92-83 in round one of the much-hyped rematch of last years’ NBA Finals in front of a raucous sellout crowd at the Staples Center.
How much weight or measure can be taken from the events of Thursday’s game probably won’t be clear for a while, if ever.
How much satisfaction the home team took home with it Thursday night after snapping the Celtics franchise-record 19-game winning streak was easier to surmise.
“It’s a great gift,” Laker guard Kobe Bryant said. “It makes the day that much more enjoyable to go home and spend with your family.
“But we’re 24-5 That’s it. (The Celtics streak) is neither here nor there. We want to get it done in June.”
As much as Bryant and other team leaders tried to downplay the importance of Thursday’s Christmas Day game, it was clear early on that this was no ordinary regular season game.
At tipoff, nearly every seat inside the arena was filled. Even those held by the fashionably-late set who generally tend to linger in Staples Centers’ swanky lounges deep into the first half.
Chants of “Boston Sucks” rang out midway through the first quarter, young children held up homemade signs saying proclaiming their hatred for the Celtics (27-3).
And the arena nearly erupted in cheer when Sasha Vujacic converted a three-point play following a frenetic series of loose-ball tips and saves by Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza with 9 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
On the court, the emotion was just as high. Elbows flew, players dove into the sidelines for stray balls, voices were raised and jaws clenched.
“You know what, it did have a little spice to it,” Ariza said. “It was a fun game to play. I wouldn’t say it felt like June, but it felt like a big game.”
Pau Gasol would.
For much of Thursday’s game, it felt exactly like his disastrous June gloom against the Celtics. In the first quarter the Spaniard inexplicably lost his shooting touch. He missed four of the five shots he took in the first quarter and finished the half just 3-of-9 from the field.
If lessons had been learned in the six months since the Finals, the time had come for Gasol to show them.
“I wasn’t being effective, I was a little tentative and not as confident as usual,” he admitted. “So I had to be aggressive. I had to make sure I took it to the basket and not just settle for jumpers, which I usually make, but wasn’t making.”
Finally, with about four minutes remaining in the game, that’s exactly what Gasol did, scoring seven of the Lakers final 13 points and keying an 11-2 run to close out the game.
He also blocked 3-point attempts from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce as the Celtics were trying to shoot their way back into the game in the final minutes.
Bryant finished with 27 points, but did most of his damage early in the game. Gasol had 20 points, 14 of which came in the second half.
“I’m really happy with Pau,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He stepped up in that fourth quarter when we really needed him to step up.”
As they had done in the Finals, Boston essentially forced someone other than Bryant to beat them. Early on, they allowed the reigning MVP to score almost at will with only one defender trailing him around the court. In the second half, they sent two or three players at him.
With Gasol and Derek Fisher (2 of 10) struggling from the floor, it was an easy adjustment to understand. But unlike years past, Bryant didn’t force the issue.
“I wanted to put them in a position where they had to free my other guys up,” Bryant said. “Just send a message that tonight you’re going to have to beat us, one guy is not going to be enough.
“Once we established that in the second half, I was able to get Pau going, get guys some easier opportunities because of it.”
With Bryant shifting his focus from attack to react, the Lakers bench outscored Boston’s reserves 22-13. Vujacic had 10 points, as did Lamar Odom, who hit two rare 3-pointers.
Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, who were both injured or largely ineffectual last June, both made their marks around the margins of Thursday’s game.
Bynum ( nine points, seven rebounds) altered countless shots and actually swatted two of them. Ariza made two key “hustle plays” on loose balls that led to fast-break points.
He also helped subdue Allen and Pierce in the second half. After making his first three shots, Boston’s sharp-shooter went just 2 of 11 from the field. Pierce had a big third-quarter (12 points), but got off just one shot in the decisive final frame.
Kevin Garnett led Boston will 22 points and nine rebounds on 11-of-14 shooting.
“We lost to a team that played better than us tonight,” Pierce, last year’s Finals MVP. “Give them all the credit. We just have to play better down the stretch.”