LOS ANGELES // Ron Artest proved it in his opening-minute scuffle with Paul Pierce, tumbling to the ground with a vice-like grip on the Celtics star's elbow. Kobe Bryant emphasised it one last time with a rub-it-in three-pointer in the waning seconds of an NBA finals opener that was already a rout.
These are not the same Los Angeles Lakers who got pushed around by their biggest rivals on the NBA's biggest stage two years ago. They are rougher and tougher - and surprisingly willing to play the Boston Celtics' bad-tempered game. Bryant scored 30 points, Pau Gasol had 23 points and 14 rebounds, and the Lakers, the defending champions, did a remarkable job of the dirty work in their 102-89 victory over Boston in Game 1 on Thursday night.
Game 2 is tomorrow night in LA. Artest scored 15 points after his tangle with Pierce in the opening minute of the 12th finals meeting between the NBA's most decorated franchises. Artest and Pierce backed into each other with their elbows locked while battling for rebounding position. Both got technical fouls after they crashed to the court and got up ready to rumble. "That's not a tone that we want to set," Artest said. "I was a little emotional, and I had a little bit of anxiety at that point, and I was fired up."
Yet other Lakers were grateful for the tone, and they were not surprised Artest set it. The Lakers' defensive stopper is their only new player this season, and he quickly showed Pierce - the 2008 finals MVP - that the trophy will not be quite so easy to earn against the Lakers this time. "I knew it was going to be physical. That's a given," Gasol said. "After consecutive finals, we understand the nature of the game. We understand who our rival is, how they play. You've got to compete, and you've got to match that physicality, that aspect of the game to be successful."
The Lakers overwhelmed the Celtics in the third quarter, taking a 20-point lead with sturdy defence and a quick-strike offence. Los Angeles out-rebounded the Celtics 42-31, outscored them in the paint 48-30 and put up a lofty shooting percentage until a fourth-quarter slump. Bryant added seven rebounds and six assists to his 12th 30-point game of the postseason. Andrew Bynum scored 10 points on his injured right knee as the Lakers improved to 9-0 at home in the play-offs, with 12 consecutive postseason home wins dating to last year's championship run - and not many were more physical than this one.
Pierce scored 24 points and Kevin Garnett added 16 after a slow start for Boston, who might not want to know that teams coached by Phil Jackson in Los Angeles and Chicago have won 47 consecutive play-off series after winning Game 1. The Celtics were frustrated after giving up 100 points for just the second time in their last 10 games. "They were the more physical team by far," said Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach. "They were more aggressive. They attacked us the entire night. I didn't think we handled it very well."
While the Lakers played to their strengths, the Celtics' ostensible advantages - toughness, defence and veteran savvy - were not so much in evidence. "You can't ease into the game, especially in the finals," Pierce said. "That's one of the better rebounding teams. We've just got to do a better job rebounding the ball, eliminating easy opportunities. When I look up and we've given up 100 points, I haven't seen that in a while."
Ray Allen scored 12 points in just 27 minutes, saddled with constant foul trouble while trying to guard Bryant. Pierce also picked up early fouls, while Garnett simply struggled, going seven for 16 from the field and grabbing just four rebounds. That's mostly because of Gasol, determined to assert himself after admittedly getting pushed around by Garnett two years ago. Gasol capped a strong game by sprinting down court and catching a long pass in stride for a dunk with 6:21 to play.
"Pau played a big game tonight," Jackson said. "I thought they did a good job on him in the post, but his movement and his activity was important." After Artest and Pierce got wrapped up, the mood did not improve much in a game featuring 54 fouls. Yet the Lakers' aggressiveness was reflected in 10 free throws apiece for Bryant and Gasol, who made 16 of them, along with steady guard penetration from Bryant, Derek Fisher and back ups Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. * AP