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Lakers have closed gap on Celtics

By David Moore Dallas Morning News

My schedule didn’t allow me to attend the latest game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Hey, cut me some slack. Even Jack Nicholson misses a game here and there.

But you didn’t have to be in Staples Center on Christmas Day to get a feel for how important this rematch was to the Lakers and their fans.

Boston was clearly the superior team six months ago. The Celtics were the more physical team. They were much better on defense and made Kobe Bryant look rather ordinary as they dared his teammates to step up and fill the void.

None did.

Well, the Lakers supplied evidence with their victory that they have closed the gap.

Soft? Pau Gasol bore the brunt of that criticism after losing to the Celtics in the Finals. He started slowly in this game but scored nine points in the final quarter and didn’t miss from the field. His seven points sparked a 13-2 run in the final 3:37 to give the Lakers the victory.

Gasol will never match Kevin Garnett’s intensity and passion. Few players can.

But remember, when these teams met in June, the Lakers started Gasol at center and Lamar Odom at power forward.

The return of Andrew Bynum has allowed Gasol to move to his more natural position of power forward and let the Lakers install Odom as their sixth man. This gives Los Angeles more size and a more physical presence up front. It also puts Odom in a position that is a better fit for his temperament and offensive skills.

Defense has also been a point of emphasis for the Lakers this season.

“We’re definitely a better team defensively,” Bynum said. “We have a scheme that coach has put in place that forces everyone in the same direction. We know where we’re forcing teams, to the sideline or the baseline, and we come trap.”

Los Angeles forced 18 turnovers and held the Celtics to 5-of-22 shooting from 3-point range. Boston coach Doc Rivers said the Lakers’ length bothered his team.

“It was a good measuring stick for us to show how much we’ve progressed since the Finals,” Bryant told reporters after the game. “We added Trevor (Ariza) and Andrew, who are healthy. We have a better defensive system, and I think we’re a better ballclub.”

The next test of this theory will come Feb. 5 in Boston.

The Lakers had been criticized before their win over the Celtics for losing focus. They lost to Sacramento, Miami and Orlando this month and were pushed at home against New York.

I’m a proponent of consistency. But let’s face it, a random loss to the Kings or Heat at this stage of the season isn’t going to prevent the Lakers from their destination.

San Antonio will challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference before all is said and done. Cleveland will do the same to Boston in the East. But the odds favor a Lakers-Celtics rematch in the Finals.

If that happens, it should be more competitive than the series we witnessed six months ago.

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