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Game in shadow

LOS ANGELES -- It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to make a Lakers-Celtics game feel so ancillary. Perhaps that was a final measure of the impact of Dr. Jerry Buss. Sure, it felt appropriate that the archrival Boston Celtics were in town for the Los Angeles Lakers' first game since their unparalleled owner died Monday morning. However, in this case it was simply a fortuitous bit of scheduling, the background music and not the main theme.

This night was about saying goodbye. Farewell to the man who made the Lakers the biggest show in this showbiz city. Godspeed to the owner who oversaw 10 of the 11 championships the Lakers have won in Los Angeles.

The lurking subplot was the possible departures of Celtics fixtures Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics have not ruled out the most drastic of transactions ahead of Thursday's trade deadline. Would they finally move Pierce? And would that incite Garnett to waive his no-trade clause?

All that was enough to relegate the actual game -- between, let's face it, two teams with a combined 54 losses coming in -- to a level below the typical Armageddon whenever those green and gold jerseys share the court.

It's not often you'll see Kobe Bryant step out for the opening tip while on the brink of tears. "I saw it in Kobe's eyes," Pierce said. "He was real emotional coming out."

Bryant was called upon to deliver his thoughts on the late Buss from half court before the game and did a fine job.

"He was a brilliant and incredible owner, and he was even a better person with a great heart," Bryant told the Staples Center crowd, which seemed to have fewer Celtics infiltrators than normal. "His vision has transcended the game, and we are all spoiled by his vision and his drive to win year after year after year."

Bryant was even more eloquent at his locker after the game, saying, "It's a huge honor to play for this organization. Everything that he's built. You look around and you look at all the trophies, you look at all the parades, all the support that we have and this organization means, and that all came from one man, his vision. His vision transcended the game. It became pop culture. The impact is global."

There was a tribute video that showed pictures of Buss from his Wyoming childhood through his many glorious trips to the dais to accept championship trophies. The arena lights dimmed for a moment of silence, during which a spotlight shone on the suite -- a double suite, actually, combining suites B10 and B11, necessary to accommodate all the friends and young women who surrounded Buss when he watched the games. There was no one in the suite Wednesday night. Just a single, illuminated chair.

The party was over, but the show must go on. His daughter Jeanie Buss was back in her customary seat, which she had rarely occupied this season. A red carpet's worth of photographers snapped pictures when she was visited by Dyan Cannon, who at some point became better known as a courtside fixture at Lakers games rather than an actress in perhaps the greatest testament to the Lakers lifestyle Jerry Buss promoted. The aisle turned into a receiving line for Jeanie Buss, who put on a brave face in her first public appearance since her father's death and even danced along to a Michael Jackson song played during a timeout.

The Laker Girls, just one of the Jerry Buss innovations, were dancing. And there was even winning basketball, not the most common occurrence for the Lakers this season.

It would be a stretch to say their 113-99 victory over the Celtics was purely fueled by the spirit of Buss, orchestrating things from above.

Dwight Howard mentioned the motivation provided by Buss but in the same breath discussed payback for the 116-95 drubbing the Celtics gave the Lakers in Boston two weeks ago, as well as the need for a team that's still 3½ games behind Houston for the final Western Conference playoff spot to win every game it can.

Howard had a standout performance, with 24 points and 12 rebounds. He credited a little recuperation during All-Star weekend (normally an oxymoronic concept).

"This All-Star break was the first time I really got a chance to get some rest in," Howard said.

Steve Nash, in turn, credited Howard's activity level inside and willingness to set screens for him far from the hoop with allowing Nash to make six of seven shots and score 14 points. Nash also dished out seven assists to surpass Magic Johnson for fourth place on the NBA's all-time assists list.
Yes, the game itself was more about the practical and physical than the spiritual. Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are the only Lakers on the roster who have been around long enough to have significant interactions with Buss.

And such is the twisted nature of this Lakers season that it was actually the Celtics' coach who was best able to encapsulate Buss' impact on the league. Mike D'Antoni was playing in Italy throughout the 1980s, when the Showtime Lakers ruled the NBA, and Buss was already hospitalized by the time D'Antoni became the coach in November. Doc Rivers, who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1983, gave this bit of perspective on Buss: "He made this a cool place. This is where everybody wanted to go, where everybody wanted to play. Players take note of that."

That didn't mean D'Antoni didn't appreciate the magnitude of the moment.

"We play basketball, but there are things in life that are important," D'Antoni said. "This is important."

Winning was important to Jerry Buss. For all of his innovations, from in-game entertainment to regional sports networks, he cared most about winning. And on that front, on one night, the Lakers delivered.

So it was fitting that there was one additional note tacked onto the whiteboard that normally serves to announce the Lakers' practice or travel plans.

"Thurs: report 10:15," it read.

And below that: "R.I.P. Dr. Buss."