Many expected it to be more of a fight, but the Los Angeles Lakers were able to cruise to a 102-89 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 3 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles dominated on offense in the series opener, shooting 48 percent from the field as a team, and 40 percent from three-point land. They also smothered Boston on defense, holding the Celtics to 43 percent shooting from the field and a woeful 10 percent from beyond the arc. Los Angeles also out-rebounded Boston, with 42 rebounds to the Celtics’ 31.

A 30-point game from Los Angeles star Kobe Bryant was to be expected, and a 15-point, two steal performance from Ron Artest was no surprise. Instead, it was Pau Gasol, the same player who received much criticism for his performance in the 2008 NBA Finals, who provided an unexpected contribution.

Gasol’s 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks set the tone for the Lakers, a far cry from the power forward/center who was called “soft” after Boston manhandled him two seasons ago.

“I thought the Lakers were clearly the more physical team today,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said in the postgame press conference. “I thought they were more aggressive. I thought they attacked us the entire night. I didn’t think we handled it very well. They killed us on the glass.”

“Physical” is a description that has eluded Gasol since that fateful 2008 Finals meeting when Boston pushed and powered him out of the way on their way to a 17th title. At the time, Gasol was barely into his fifth month with the Lakers after being acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies that February. Two years later, Gasol, 29, is well versed in Los Angeles’ triangle offense and has become second only to Bryant in his importance to the team’s success.

But just how important is Gasol? After Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat following the 2003 season and three championship runs, the Lakers slumped to a 149-141 regular season record over the next three and a half seasons. The Lakers missed the playoffs once and were ousted in the first round in two consecutive seasons before Gasol’s arrival. Since trading for Gasol, Los Angeles is 130-37 in the regular season with him in the lineup, and Thursday night marked their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

Gasol and center Andrew Bynum, who missed the ‘08 Finals with a knee injury, proved their worth in Game 1 against the supposedly more physical Celtics. The Lakers outscored Boston on second-chance points, 16-0. Los Angeles also outscored Boston in the paint, 48-30.

Gasol matched the Celtics’ top four big men in rebounds by himself, 14-14. If the Lakers’ big men are “soft,” they certainly didn’t show it in the series opener.


Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk