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BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett clapped his hands and barked and screamed at Lamar Odom ... while defending him off the dribble. Nate Robinson hollered in Odom's face after a hard foul. Glen Davis showboated after baskets, making faces previously seen only on Maori warriors dancing the Haka and spewing enough drool to warp the court.
It wasn't always pretty, but it was as raw a display of emotion as you'll see on a basketball court, by a club that was in desperation mode heading into Game 4. Boston rode that emotional wave in front of a raucous home crowd to beat the Lakers 96-89, evening the NBA Finals at two games apiece.
But the Celtics may have accomplished more than merely winning a game. On this night, at least, they also got inside the Lakers' heads a bit. This was the Celtics at their woofing, preening, unlikable best. Yes, unlikable. Opponents hate them because they do this and even more because they get away with it, and break down the other team's spirit with their sheer intensity.
"I thought their animation and their activity level affected us," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "Guys wanted to get back into it with them a couple times."
Nobody I talked to disputed that the Celtics were barking much more than in the first three games, especially with Boston adding heavy doses of Robinson and Davis to its mouth ensemble. Jackson noted that the chirping from Robinson got his team especially off kilter.
"They need to do that in order to get themselves up," said Jordan Farmar, who was victimized by a Robinson steal early in the third quarter and then got a front-row seat to the ensuing over-the-top celebration when Robinson called timeout from the floor. "That's part of their persona and how they play. They hype themselves up."
"I just love bringing the energy," said Robinson. "The more energy I bring, the more I get the crowd involved, my teammates, the energy of the building, the sky's the limit."
The Lakers are familiar with this routine, because it tripped them up in 2008. Boston wore them down emotionally with all its trash-talking and physicality, breaking their spirit in a 131-92 rout in the Game 6 finale. And for the first time in the 2010 Finals, we saw the same events taking place.
This doesn't foretell the same outcome, of course. In fact, the odds still stand in L.A.'s favor with two of the final three games in Los Angeles.
However, one may fairly ask if we saw a bit of a turning point in the second half, when Andrew Bynum's brave effort to compete on a gimpy knee ran out of steam and the Lakers were forced to play Pau Gasol at center and Odom at power forward.
That was L.A.'s lineup in 2008, and Boston reverted almost immediately to 2008 tactics. Kendrick Perkins, now guarding Gasol, reveled in unnecessary physicality without ever going over the line. Perkins tapped and bumped Gasol at dead balls or running upcourt, raising his hands in the air innocently while nudging him with his chest, and generally doing anything he could to physically intimidate the slender Spaniard without picking up a foul or a technical. (Had Gasol been smart, he would have barked back and goaded Perkins into a double-technical foul, which would have resulted in an automatic suspension on Perkins.)
Garnett, now matched against Odom, used similar tactics. His clapping and jawing at Odom in that third-quarter sequence yielded a forced runner by Odom that missed; when Boston got the rebound Garnett was ahead of the pack and laid the ball in to pull the Celtics within a point. On the next trip he hit a short turnaround over Odom and then waited for him at half court, pulling his shorts up Ed Grimley-style before taking a knee and pounding the hardwood with his fist.
As usual with Boston, the emotion occasionally overflowed into mistakes. Robinson and Rasheed Wallace both picked up fourth-quarter technicals for after-the-whistle histrionics, with calm vet Ray Allen adding some reason to the mix by restraining Wallace after his tech and upbraiding Robinson in the huddle following his gaffe.
"That's probably our most emotional group," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "when you have Nate, Tony [Allen] and Rasheed on the floor at the same time. So the techs happen. We have a no fourth-quarter tech rule, which was blown out of the water today. But other than that I thought our energy was terrific."
That emotion still could come back to bite them in the future too -- both Wallace and Perkins are now one technical foul away from a mandatory one-game suspension.
The reason it was so important, however, was because it carried the Celtics home on a night when they didn't play well from a technical standpoint. Boston missed several open shots and displayed a phenomenal talent for screwing up easy transition opportunities; for the night the Celtics got only 77 points from their 83 field goal attempts.
But the energy stats were all Boston. The Celtics owned the Lakers on the glass (16 offensive boards, 20 second-chance points) and in the paint (54 points in the paint, to 34 for L.A.), and their activity on D forced 16 Lakers turnovers.
"They're pretty emotional," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "They had their backs against the wall, and they played desperate, and they got away with it."
They did more than get away with it. They, for a minute, saved their season with it. And while the Lakers bizarrely spent the postgame interviews blaming a lack of ball movement rather than their own emotional capitulation in the second half, they have bigger worries from a mental perspective.
Jackson will have to prevent his troops from succumbing to further bullying -- both emotional and physical -- in Game 5, because the Celtics will again try to ride their emotions in front of the home crowd. And if they succeed, we'll remember Boston's barkfest in the second half of Game 4 as the turning point.