By A.Sherrod Blakely
LOS ANGELES Paul Pierce has been at his best in the biggest games for the Boston Celtics.
Sunday was no different, as the Captain led the way in Boston's 109-96 win over arch-rival Los Angeles Lakers.
It was Boston's first time at the Staples Center since losing in Game Seven of the NBA Finals.
Regardless of that last meeting, there's always added significance to the game whenever these two longtime rivals face each other.
"These type of games, you love to be in," Pierce said. "It feels good when you come out with a win."
And Pierce's play had a lot with the Celtics pulling away in the second half.
He had a team-high 32 points, which included a 14-point outpouring of offensive juice in the third quarter that washed away whatever control of the game the Lakers enjoyed.
"I was able to just run the break, and Rondo just really kicked it ahead," Pierce said. "I was moving without the ball, really getting myself open. Just try to move without the ball, get out on the break, find the cuts, get to open spots, and Rondo and the other guys made the extra pass and I was the recipient of it."
As well as Pierce shot the ball, he wasn't the lone player putting up big numbers.
Kobe Bryant had it going offensively as well, leading all players with 41 points. He became the first player this season to score 40 or more points against the Celtics.
Even as Bryant continued to drain one shot after another, Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't seem overly concerned.
Because even as Bryant was going off, the rest of the Lakers were, well, off.
Bryant's 41 points came on 16-for-29 shooting from the field. The rest of the Lakers shot a combined 20-for-52 from the floor.
"I didn't think anybody else wanted the ball," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "We did run a couple other plays to get guys into position, but I thought those times he had the best opportunities when other people were moving to the ball. But, a lot of times it didn't look like we were running anything out there offensively."
Boston continued to switch defenders on Bryant, but it didn't matter.
Bryant, who did not tally a single assist, was not going to be stopped.
"I told them, 'Don't overreact to Kobe. Kobe's Kobe,' " Rivers said. "We knew that before the game. He's not going to change. He's going to be great tonight, tomorrow and the next day. So don't overreact to that."
While there was a stretch in which Ray Allen (21 points) seemed to limit Bryant's effectiveness, Rivers was quick to caution to not read too much into that stretch of play.
"Right before Ray went out, Kobe was starting to get it going on him," Rivers said. "And we put Paul on him. Kobe is good. You can't keep one guy on him; just the look of a different guy helped."
Boston had a bunch of players who looked quite different than the guys who struggled the last time the C's were in this building.
In the Game Seven loss, the Celtics were horrific on the boards as the Lakers out-rebounded them by 13.
On Sunday it was the exact opposite, with the Celtics holding a 43-30 edge on the glass.
"Defensively and rebounding, were the key," Rivers said. "We held our own on the glass. And then our execution offensively, was . . . when you saw us play the last two games and you saw us play tonight, you don't think that's the same two teams."
Another change from the last time they played in the Staples Center, was the Celtics got some much-needed offensive firepower from the bench.
In the Game Seven loss, Boston's second unit only scored a total of six points, all by Glen Davis.
On Sunday, it was a different game, different story.
Davis, who was questionable leading up to the game because of a sore right hamstring, came off the bench and scored 13 points.
"It was a big game," Davis said. "It hurts a little bit, but if you can run, why won't you play?"
He wasn't the only Celtic giving the C's a lift off the bench.
Nate Robinson, who came into the game having missed 20 of his last 29 shots from the field in Boston's previous four games, had 11 points off the bench on 4-for-7 shooting from the field.
But against the Lakers, you can never be comfortable with a lead as long as Bryant is on the floor.
After a lay-up by Rajon Rondo gave Boston an 89-80 lead, the Lakers countered with a 7-2 run which included all seven points being scored by Bryant.
Rivers has seen Bryant when he gets on a roll like that, which is why he called a time out with 5:19 to play in hopes of cooling him off.
Kevin Garnett nailed a jumper.
And after a defensive stop, Davis completed a 3-point play to give Boston a 96-87 lead with 4:29 to play.
The Celtics weren't done.
Another defensive stop allowed the Celtics to get out in transition.
That's when Rondo, who tallied 15 of his game-high 16 assists in the second half, connected with Kevin Garnett on a lob pass for a lay-up that gave the C's a comfortable 98-87 lead.
"We got the ball in Rondo's hands. He's the playmaker," said Garnett, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds for his 15th double-double this season.
And the Celtics continued to play their best against the best teams.
But in terms of what Sunday's win will mean to this rivalry, or even more significant, a potential meeting in the playoffs?
Not a whole lot.
"It's two good teams," Rivers said. "Both of us have to play better if we want to see each other again in the Finals. We're both winning games, but honestly, we both have to be better teams than we are."