NBA Finals preview
THE RIVALRY CONTINUES
There is a little grin on the statue of Red Auerbach, sitting on that bench in Quincy Market. And around this time, Magic Johnson's ubiquitous smile turns into a slight scowl. This is the heart of Lakers-Celtics, one of the most storied rivalries in sports.
What this matchup means is that for the 33rd time in 64 NBA Finals, one of these teams will emerge the champion. That's how much these two franchises have dominated the league. This will be the 12th time they meet for the title, the most for two teams in pro sports. The Celtics own a 9-2 advantage, which goes back to a sweep by Boston over the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1958-59 Finals. The Magic-Bird era saw the teams meet three times, with Magic's Lakers winning twice (1981-82 and '86-87).
The Lakers are making their 31st NBA Finals appearance, which is the most of any franchise, while the Celtics are second with their 21st. But though Boston has gotten there fewer times, its winning percentage is much greater. The 17 titles won by the Celtics are the most of any NBA team, but the Lakers are hot on their tail with 15.
The ring is always the thing for Kobe Bryant. This one would bring him his fifth and within one of matching his idol, Michael Jordan. But it would also help erase a bitter defeat to the Celtics in 2008 and put him in the class of Lakers greats who have defeated Boston for the title.
Kobe, of course, is downplaying the idea of revenge and said he "didn't give a damn who we played" in the Finals. "The challenge is to win the championship," he said after the Lakers advanced by beating the Phoenix Suns in six games. "The Celtics are in the way. They feel the same way about us."
The loss in '08 was the second time Bryant lost in the Finals. After the Lakers won three straight from 2000-02, they lost to the Pistons in '04. But there was more of a sting in '08 because of the way the Lakers lost, especially the humiliating Game 6 blowout in Boston that clinched it. The tougher Celtics clearly intimidated Bryant's supporting cast.
COACHES' LAST STAND?
Never mind wondering which of the two coaches, the Lakers' Phil Jackson or the Celtics' Doc Rivers, will hold the trophy at the end of this series. The more intriguing question is which one will return to their respective team next season?
Jackson is at the end of his contract and has made it known that Lakers owner Jerry Buss told him his next contract will not approach his current $12-million salary. Jackson has suggested that if he doesn't retire, he'd likely return to the Lakers, especially if there is an opportunity to win a third straight title (and his 11th overall as a coach). But there has been speculation that he could be interested in other openings around the league, especially if it means teaming up for a title run with yet another superstar, LeBron James.
Rivers has talked about his interest in being home with his family. Rivers' top assistant, Tom Thibodeau, is a leading candidate for the opening in New Orleans and is also on the radar for the Bulls and Nets. If Rivers were to leave, one would think Thibodeau, who is often credited for being the mastermind behind the Celtics' trademark defense, is the top choice to replace him.
Will Kobe guard Rajon Rondo? It will be a matchup to watch because if Bryant has to focus on stopping the Celtics' floor leader then it could impact his offense. But then again, the Celtics have to find a way to stop Bryant, who takes over games down the stretch. Rondo is too long and quick for Derek Fisher, who is rugged enough to battle through screens to guard Ray Allen.
A big difference from 2008: The Lakers have Ron Artest to defend Paul Pierce, the MVP from that Finals. The Lakers enjoyed a size advantage throughout the first three rounds, but the Celtics have plenty of length. This is no time for Pau Gasol to be Gasoft against Kevin Garnett.
Lamar Odom came to life in this year's playoffs and is unquestionably the most talented reserve in the series. Rasheed Wallace is the most important sub for the Celtics, but will 'Sheed be focused?
Jackson didn't waste any time with his usual pre-series gamesmanship, making reference to Boston's "smackdown" style of defense (remember, NBA referees read the newspaper, too). Answered Rivers: "We thank Phil for the compliment." Jackson may have nine more coaching rings than Rivers, but this is hardly a one-sided competition.
An epic battle that we can only hope will go the distance. We say miles have to catch up with Boston eventually and Kobe gets No. 5. Lakers in 7.