Lakers, Celtics Ready to Renew Rivalry

June 5, 2008 11:29:56 AM PDT
Nearing Super Bowl-like proportions, the buildup has included black-and-white footage from the 1960s - images of Red Auerbach puffing a victory cigar, Bill Russell swatting away a shot and Jerry West rising for a jumper. We've revisited the 1980s, taken back to those days of Ronald Reagan, bad haircuts and short shorts by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the icons whose meetings on the court defined an era and resurrected a league.

Memories of hard fouls, big shots, Jack Nicholson's shades and chants of "Beat L.A."

All of it has led up to the rebirth of a rivalry, THE rivalry: Boston vs. Los Angeles. Celtics vs. Lakers.

"I've watched more Lakers-Boston games over the last three days on TV," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "It's been great. It's been fun to watch."

It's time to watch again.

Like long, lost fraternity brothers who left school, drifted apart and barely kept in touch, the Celtics and Lakers are getting back together in a place they both know so well - the NBA finals.

"I feel like a little kid," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who grew up in L.A. and used to sneak into the Lakers' home arena. "Now I understand that, hey, I'm going to be a part of history. This is something I grew up watching, the Laker-Celtics rivalries."

Following a 21-year separation, pro basketball's pillars of power will revive their rivalry Thursday night in Boston for Game 1 of a best-of-seven series drenched in nostalgia and stuffed with hoops history.

The famed franchises, who have combined to win 30 of 61 championships, are squaring off in the finals for the 11th time and first since 1987. These finals figure to deliver a needed jolt of excitement to the league, which began the 2007-08 season entangled in a gambling probe involving one of its referees and whose signature event has strained to recapture the sporting spotlight since the '80s, when Celtics vs. Lakers, Bird vs. Magic was a rite of spring.

Television ratings are expected to jump dramatically thanks to a finals loaded with juicy storylines: Kobe Bryant's run toward a fourth championship ring - and first without Shaquille O'Neal; Boston's Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen shooting for their first ones; and Lakers coach Phil Jackson trying to win his record 10th title, one more than Auerbach, the Celtics' late legend whose presence hovers over the team like smoke from one of his stogie.

"I think this is a great thing not just for the NBA, but just for sports in general," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "I think it's a great thing when the best gets a chance to compete against the best, and whoever comes out on top, they earned it. I think both teams should be proud to be here."

A year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine these hardwood Goliaths in the playoffs, never mind clashing for a title.

The Celtics won 24 games last season, and all the mystique and charm that makes them special had seemingly vanished. Last year, Boston's immediate future looked bleak after the club failed to win the NBA lottery, a devastating blow for a team in full rebuild mode.

But the green-and-white began its rebound on draft night last June, when general manager Danny Ainge traded first for Allen and later managed to land Garnett, a superstar stuck in Minnesota, and a player, as it turns out, who almost became a Laker.

"We gave a great chase to Garnett last year," Jackson said Wednesday before his team practiced. "We put a lot of pressure on the Minnesota franchise and felt like we had the inside track on that, and that we could end up missing out on that opportunity and still be here in this challenge, the finals, is really kind of a great story in itself."

For the Lakers, though, nothing trumps what Bryant has done to get the franchise within four wins of a 15th championship. After the club was bounced in the first round of the playoffs last season, a frustrated Bryant challenged the team's front office to upgrade the roster.

By summer, he was demanding a trade while at the same time enhancing his reputation as a selfish, arrogant, egomaniacal player. In truth, Bryant just wanted to win - badly - and didn't want to be on a team that didn't share his drive.

However, in his 12th season, Bryant has matured on and off the floor. He has led by example, mentoring the Lakers' younger players and winning his first MVP award, an honor he probably deserved in the past but never received in part because of his perceived me-first, team-second image.

"He's the captain of this team, and we follow his lead," Lamar Odom said. "Kobe is the first one in the gym, the last one to leave. He's the first one in the weight room, the last one to leave. If we have a 10 o'clock practice, Kobe is there at 8:45 preparing to be the best.

"And some of that has rubbed off on me and my teammates, and that's the only reason why I'm sitting here talking today." Bryant understands the importance of the league's fiercest rivalry and what it means to uphold the Lakers' legacy of greatness.

"It's such a rich tradition," he said. "I think when you look up at the jerseys that hang in the rafters at Staples Center, and with the Celtics, as well, they're not only great Lakers players, but they're some of the greatest to ever play. So that's a great deal to live up to."

And this series, with its link to games of yesteryear, is no different.