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More news and notes from STAPLES Center as we look ahead to tonight’s big game…

• Other than a potential meet-up in the Finals, the All-Star Game is the only time all season other than two regular season games when the Lakers and Celtics will share the same floor. Just because the game is an exhibition, though, doesn’t mean the rivalry takes a night off, too—at least not for Lakers fans, who vociferously booed Paul Pierce every time he touched the ball during last night’s three point shootout. Fellow shootout competitor and new all-time three-point record-holder Ray Allen got off a little easier, but there was still no mistaking the disdain in the building for the enemies in green. “I think that’s normal,” said Gasol after yesterday’s All-Star practice. “I think that’s the passion of the fans. We all know how they feel about the Celtics.”

• With All-Star regulars like Dirk, Yao, Pau, Manu, etc., the league’s showcase weekend also doubles as a testament to the NBA’s rapid international expansion. “It means a lot,” explained Gasol. “It means that international basketball has grown so much and it’s produced incredible players. To a certain point, the Dream Team of ’92 had a big effect on a lot of players from my generation who started to play there and are now playing in the NBA.”

• We all know Kobe has a flair for the dramatic and has historically performed well in previous All-Star games. Does that automatically make him the go-to option down the stretch of a close game on such a star-studded roster? Gasol chimed in with his two cents: “I’m sure if the game comes to the point where the West needs to hit a game-winner, I’m sure he’ll step up and take it for sure and he’ll be thrilled to do so. I mean, what better scenario than at STAPLES Center.” If his play on Team USA is any indicator, his teammates should and will look to Bryant in the clutch.

• Of the many ails that plagued the Lakers leading up to the All-Star break, Pau believes that a renewed sense of energy is all his team needs to get back on track in the second half of the season—and the (underrated) return of Matt Barnes. “I can’t wait to get back together with the team Monday and work on whatever things the coaching staff wants us to work on and get it going,” said Gasol. “We have a tough back-to-back starting right after the break, so I look forward to that to.” On the impact of Barnes re-joining the team: “We’ve just got to get Matt healthy so he can help us in the small forward position. We have pretty much the same championship team we had last year, so that should be plenty to go for another one.”

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If the last All-Star Game held in Los Angeles in 2004 feels like like a lifetime ago, Kobe’s All-Star Game debut in 1998 seems nearly pre-historic by now. Long before Kobe-to-Shaq, a Most Valuable Player Award and five NBA Championships, there was a precocious skinny kid who went toe-to-toe with an aging icon — Michael Jordan. Fourteen seasons and 13 All-Star nods later, it’s Kobe who’s playing the part of NBA legend.

Even as the years go on and the talent pool in the NBA continues to widen, it’s #24 who still drew the largest crowd during today’s post-practice media session. By no coincidence, he’s also the one player that his All-Star peers look to more than anyone else.

“I remember Kobe’s first one; he was squared up against Jordan,” said first-time All-Star Kevin Love. “He had the 360 and then Kobe won the dunk competition in ’97. I remember all that stuff.”

As one of the babies of this year’s group, you can forgive Love if he’s still processing the sheer amount of talent surrounding him this weekend.

“I was talking to those guys in the locker room before we came out here that this is my first time and they’ve been out here like 13, 14 times,” said Love. “It’s unbelievable.”

One of those players is fellow big man Pau Gasol, who’s still in the middle of his All-Star journey, somewhere between Love and his Lakers teammate, Bryant.

“Those are guys I try to emulate and loved watching growing up, so being here with them, I just try to pick apart their game and hopefully get a closer look at them tomorrow,” Love said.

Doling out advice to rising stars like Love at All-Star Weekend is two-fold for players like Kobe and Pau, giving them a chance to reflect on their own All-Star history, too.

“Obviously, it’s a great compliment that the young guys try to emulate you and do the things you do out there—especially young talented players who have the potential to be terrific players,” said Gasol, whose first All-Star appearance in 2006 was soured due to an illness that forced him to miss most of the weekend’s activities.

“I was in bed the whole weekend,” Gasol said. “I missed practice, I missed everything, but I had to play no matter what. But I played—I played 13 to 14 minutes and I got like 12 boards or something. I didn’t score one point, but I had a good time. I told myself I had to give myself another chance to actually get to enjoy another All-Star game.”

Five years the wiser, Pau’s given himself plenty of additional chances, making it to three consecutive All-Star games, while joining Bryant on the list of regular All-Star veterans — an achievement not lost on the seven-footer.

“It’s a big opportunity to have this great party—this great basketball party—here at home with the locals. It’s really an honor,” said Gasol.

For the Lakers duo, there’s nothing jaded about this weekend. Even after back-to-back NBA titles and whispers from Father Time, Kobe and Pau will approach tomorrow’s All-Star game with every bit as much fire and anticipation as Kevin Love.

“This one’s a little bit more special,” said Bryant. “For a player to have an All-Star game in his home town twice is pretty cool.”

Records: Lakers 38-16 (2nd in West), Magic 34-21 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.4 (2nd in NBA), Magic 108.0 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (10th in NBA), Magic 102.3 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass, Dwight Howard
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Magic: Brandon Bass (questionable – UPDATE: Bass expected to make surprise return today)

The Lakers Coming in: Every year when the NBA releases the schedule for the upcoming season, one of the first things I look to is the annual Grammy trip — so often a tipping point over the past decade. The hope is that the extended time away from STAPLES will unify the team and redirect their focus for the stretch run, which is exactly what has happened through the first four games of the seven-game trip. Kobe looks as spry as ever as evidenced by back-to-back strong performances against Boston and New York on Friday. Add a resurgent effort on the defensive end and the Lakers are finally starting to resemble the team that has won back-to-back titles.

The Magic Coming in: Orlando entered the season with high hopes of not only retaining, but topping its status as one of the league’s elite teams. At 34-21, it’s safe to say that they aren’t there yet and may never be even after changing the dynamic of their roster with a December blockbuster that essentially shipped out an unproductive Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turoglu and Jason Richardson. Aside from an early 9-0 winning streak with the new pieces, the Magic have been mired in an extended 9-9 (0-8 against teams with winning records) funk that’s left them 18-11 overall since the trade and potentially looking forward to starting the postseason on the road. Still, they remain a threat, if not somewhat of an enigma simply because of the sheer talent (see: Dwight Howard) and versatility they can throw on the floor at any given time.

Magic Blogs: Check out Magic Basketball for the latest info on Superman and Co. Orlando Pinstriped Post also does great work.

Keys to game: If the past four games are any indication, the Lakers are in full attack mode right now. Orlando is always a tough place to play and that was before they moved into their shiny new arena this season. I fully expect the Magic to come out aggressive, looking for a signature victory — their third in a row at home against L.A. — in an otherwise disappointing season.

Although the Magic have shuffled some pieces around, the basic ebb and flow of their offense remains the same — Superman down low, surrounded by a surplus of shooters on the perimeter. It’s a recipe that’s worked for the Magic for most of the past three seasons, but also one that the Lakers have pretty much solved by now. The reason why is simple: against most teams, Howard is used to having free rein around the hoop, but that’s not so when playing against L.A.’s vaunted front line. With Bynum, Gasol and Odom, the Lakers have the personnel to make Dwight work on both ends of the court. If you remove him from the equation — whether systematically or via foul trouble — the Magic are woefully small inside and still lack a reliable, go-to second scoring option. If the Lakers stick to their game plan and run an inside-out offense through their bigs, Orlando simply won’t be able to catch up. As they’ve seen in past losses to them, though, they’ll try their best to turn today’s game into a shooting match for which L.A. is ill-equipped.

Speaking of big men, my eyes will be on Bynum today, who always seems to get up for games against his young center counterpart in Orlando. Andrew didn’t play particularly well against the Magic last season, though, as L.A. and Orlando each defended their home court. Howard didn’t exactly go off either, averaging 20 points and 14 rebounds in two games against the Lakers. Even if Dwight is able to mitigate Bynum’s contributions, they have absolutely no answer for Pau, so the Lakers would be wise to hit up the Spaniard early and often. The same goes for Kobe against the Magic’s more offensive minded guards in Richardson, Redick and whomever else Orlando tries to throw at him. The key for #24 is to resist the urge to chuck up volume shots against the Magic, which is something he’s fallen prey to in past matchups against Orlando.

Jameer Nelson has been a thorn in the Lakers’ sides for several years now thanks to his ability to beat Derek Fisher and the like off the dribble and penetrate deep into the lane for one of his signature floaters or dishes to Dwight. The Magic offense undoubtedly got more athletic with the additions of J-Rich and Arenas, but their core philosophy is still predicated on their ability to feed their shooters. As the key cog in that cycle, I expect limiting Nelson to be at or near the top of the Lakers’ priority list in today’s game. Turkoglu’s name should also make that list as his passing ability has caused all kinds of matchup problems for the Lakers over the years even as the name on the front of his jersey has changed. J.J. Redick’s emergence this season as a consistent bona fide threat from beyond the arc has also added to the Magic’s dangerous shooting arsenal.

I’m no doubt guilty of looking ahead here, but if the Lakers can top the Magic today, they appear well-positioned for an improbable 7-0 road trip so long as they can knock off an always troublesome Bobcats squad and a reeling Cavs team who just celebrated the end of their 26-game losing streak. First thing’s first, though — continuing to play with improved offensive execution and continuity on defense.

Where you can watch: 12:30 p.m. PST start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 AM.

Records: Lakers 33-14 (2nd in West), Celtics 35-11 (1st in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (1st in NBA), Celtics 108 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (9th in NBA), Celtics 100.1 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Just when you start to think that maybe the Lakers have finally moved past their extended first half of the season malaise, they produce yet another confounding dud against the Kings last night. As Darius wrote in his preview yesterday, the game represented a typical trap game before tomorrow’s matinee showdown with the Celtics — and the Lakers fell for it, hook line and sinker. The loss itself wasn’t alarming considering the team’s shoddy defense from the outset; what has to make you question the Lakers’ current mindset, though, is the fact that this veteran team spoke candidly before playing Sacramento about how they refused to look ahead to Boston…then were guilty of doing exactly that. Luckily, that’s what magnified regular season games like tomorrow’s are for — to test their collective championship mettle with only two and a half months left until the playoffs begin. I fully expect that the loss to the Kings has long been forgotten already and for the Lakers to come out with a playoff mindset that’s been lacking for most of this season.

The Celtics Coming in: The Celtics, who have been ravaged by injuries to their front line throughout the first half of the season, received great news this week when injured center Kendrick Perkins — out for seven months after injuring his knee against the Lakers in last year’s Finals — was given the go-ahead to return to the court. With Shaq ailing of late and Jermaine O’Neal out indefinitely, the timing of Perkins’ return couldn’t be better for the player who Doc Rivers believes would have been the difference in Game 7 last year. He should also dramatically help the C’s on the glass, too, where they are currently worst in the league with only 38 boards a night. Even with Kendrick’s return, the Celtics were perhaps also guilty of looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, suffering their worst loss of the season, 88-71 against Phoenix. Still, at 35-11 and with a comfortable three game lead in the loss column over Miami and Chicago back East, this healthier Boston squad appears primed to officially begin their march to another NBA Finals.

Celtics Blogs: Celtics Hub always does a great job documenting the boys from Bean Town.

Keys to game:

Ah. And so we meet again. By now, every party involved knows the story between these two teams. The ending has shifted over the past few years, but the essential pieces remain the same.

Both the Lakers and Celtics can put the ball in the hoop, but as we all witnessed last June, the verdict between these rivals is almost always determined by defense and rebounding. Unlike last year’s Finals, the keys to both teams’ defenses are finally back and healthy. Andrew Bynum was limited throughout that series, but has made a sizable difference to the Lakers’ D since returning from injury this season. The same can be said for Kevin Garnett and as I mentioned above, Perkins, too. The presence of Shaq, almost specifically brought in to combat the Lakers’ front line, has the potential to change things a little, but we already know Bynum isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Big Fella. Pau Gasol — so clutch against these same C’s in Game 7 — seems to really elevate his level of play against Boston, especially on the defensive end, where his underrated defense against KG was a difference-maker in last year’s Finals. Kendrick’s return will no doubt help the Celtics on the boards, but one of the Lakers’ most valuable strengths in their recent title runs — and for tomorrow’s game — has been their ability to flat out rebound the ball.

The Celtics’ backcourt has run amok on the Lakers basically since the 2007-08 season. The plot line is usually similar: Rajon Rondo dominates extended stretches of games and Ray Allen seemingly gets wide open shot after wide open shot. Despite his improbable poor shooting in Game 7, how many point blank shots did he have in that game? Enough to make most fans crawl into the fetal position on more than one occasion. Though Kobe has had many adversaries over the years (Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, etc.), personally, I’ve always enjoyed his head-to-head battles against Allen. At least with Kobe, you know you have a player who has consistently displayed the requisite skills needed to slow down a guard of Ray’s caliber. If only finding a solution for Rondo — averaging a jaw-dropping 13 dimes a night — were so easy. I give all the credit in the world to Derek Fisher for his clutch play against Boston in Games 3 and 7 of the Finals. That said, he has not once proven himself capable of deterring Rondo from controlling the tempo of the game during the past three seasons against the Celtics. As a result, the Lakers team defense becomes even more important against a disciplined team like Boston. The key here, as always for L.A. (or anyone facing the C’s for that matter), is to try to disrupt Rajon’s flow by enticing him to shoot the ball. The game of percentages is simple here; who would you rather have shooting that eighteen-footer — Rondo or Allen/Pierce/KG?

Major characters aside, how many times have we seen the Nate Robinson’s, Ron Artest’s, Glen Davis’ and Lamar Odom’s single-handedly alter the outcome of games between the Lakers and Celtics? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s matchup, Odom stands out to me as a player who could make a huge difference against Boston’s slower front line. With Shaq, Perkins and Davis already with their hands full with Bynum and Gasol, who is left to try and stop Lamar? While I whole-heartedly believe that both L.A. and Boston’s rosters are the most complete, evenly matched in the NBA, the Celtics don’t really have an athletic wing defender who has the length and speed to match up against the Lakers’ versatile assassin. From a defensive standpoint, I think that the Celtics’ inability to stop Odom is almost tantamount to the Lakers’ glaring weakness at point guard. As we saw during Game 7, it was Lamar who quietly triggered L.A.’s comeback from 13 down in the third quarter by using his long arms and dribble penetration to repeatedly get inside the lane or grab a pivotal offensive rebound.

Over the past four years, both the Lakers and Celtics have proven themselves capable of beating the other on the road. You want to believe that STAPLES Center will come to life and give the Lakers an edge as it did in last year’s Finals, but I’m not really sure that it even matters much at this point. These two battle-tested teams know each other intimately by now. It’s an unquestionably an important game for both teams; for the Lakers — who haven’t beaten a true title contender yet this season — and for the Celtics, who are finally almost whole again for the first time this year. Win or lose, tomorrow’s game already seems more like foreshadowing for a greater climax to come, though. But, if anything is going to jolt the comatose Lakers out of their extended 2010-11 nap, it’s a hard-nosed victory against that one-of-a-kind shade of green.

Also, be sure to check out the awesome fan-made promo vid at the top of the page to relive some of the greatest moments of the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, 2.0. I’ve got goosebumps; what about you?

Where you can watch: 12:30 p.m. start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710 AM.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The Lakers would never admit that they needed a win against a potential contender in the middle of January, which is precisely why that job falls onto people like us. This team, yes — the back-to-back defending champions — needed a solid, momentum-building victory over a strong playoff team and they got exactly that tonight, even if the kinks in their armor were still readily apparently throughout their balanced 101-94 win over Oklahoma City.

From the outset, Kobe primarily played the role of facilitator and did so adeptly, leading to five players scoring in double figures, led by his own 21. This game might be remembered more for Gasol’s resurgent effort than anything else, though, as the Spaniard matched Kobe’s scoring total, while also nabbing seven boards to go along with three blocked shots. I actually attended tonight’s game and can personally attest that the tension during Pau’s early possessions was palpable. Both his teammates and an an anxious crowd kept waiting for him to grab the bull by the horns so to speak and get back to playing a more aggressive brand of basketball. On offense, he finally came through in the clutch for the first time in a while, hitting a pair of buckets on consecutive possessions with under four minutes to go that swung momentum back in favor of the Lakers. That he only finished 8-19 isn’t really the point here; it’s more that he broke out of his shell and took 19 shots to begin with, instead of resorting to the tentative play we’ve become accustomed to for a number of games now.

The Lakers defensive story was a bit of a mixed bag tonight, but overall, it was a step in the right direction as they held one of the league’s most exciting, fast-paced offenses to 42.5% shooting, including a paltry 2-22 from beyond the arc. On the downside, Russell Westbrook absolutely terrorized L.A. throughout the night, repeatedly driving past Lakers defenders as if they were stuck in quick sand en route to a game-high 32 points and 12 assists. Anyone who’s still questioning his status as an All-Star this season need look no further than his performance tonight on a national stage. At this point, I’m not really sure the Lakers backcourt can whip up an antidote for point guards like Westbrook, but Bynum and Gasol can certainly do a better job of closing than they did tonight. While stopping Russell was a sore spot for the Lakers, Ron Artest’s outstanding defense on Kevin Durant was probably the difference in tonight’s game. The NBA’s scoring leader was held to just 24 points on a woeful 8-24 from the field. Aside from an early scoring burst in the first quarter and a brief reboot when Luke Walton was guarding him in the second half, he never really established any kind of rhythm, which ultimately hurt Oklahoma City when they needed him to come through down the stretch.

Kudos to Derek Fisher for setting the tone early by coming out of the gates firing, on his way to a season-high 15 points. The second unit also did a solid job of holding the lead while Kobe and Artest sat for almost the first six minutes of the fourth quarter with the lead wavering around six or seven points at the time. Lamar Odom (16 points, seven rebounds) deserves the bulk of praise for that, though, as he nailed two tide-changing threes and cleaned up around the hoop, too. Even though it’s silly to look too much into one made shot, Steve Blake’s lone three-point attempt and make looked more confident than anything he’s thrown up toward the hoop in the past week. Though L.A. got away with it tonight, relinquishing another second half lead — this time, a 15-point third quarter lead — will eventually come around to bit them hard against talented teams like the Thunder. The fact that the clearly undersized Oklahoma City bigs (40 rebounds) were able to match the Lakers (41 boards) on the glass is also cause for concern.

In the playoffs, there are gonna be grueling, grind-it-out types of games like we saw in tonight’s affair. The Thunder had their chances down the stretch and very easily could have escaped STAPLES Center with a big road win, with L.A. dodging several bullets in the final two minutes. We’ll focus on the positive, though, and credit the Lakers for taking a punch from one of the better teams in the Western Conference and finally delivering a knockout blow of their own. It’s a cautious sign of optimism as they embark on a brutal season-ending stretch, beginning with a tilt in Big D this Wednesday.