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Celtics vs. Lakers: Legacies are on the line

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has a chance to capture his 11th NBA title, two more than legendary Celtics mentor Red Auerbach.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has a chance to capture his 11th NBA title, two more than legendary Celtics mentor Red Auerbach. (Jeff Gross/getty Images)

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 3, 2010

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Talk of history and legacies have permeated sports in recent years, most of it grossly overstated. But not in this case, not as it pertains to Celtics vs. Lakers in the NBA Finals. The NFL strives for parity. MLB likes to reward the winner of its marathon regular season. The NBA can't get enough of Celtics vs. Lakers, whether it's Russell and Cousy against West and Baylor, Magic and Bird, or Kobe vs. the Big 3 -- which has now evolved into the Big 4.

The two have won 32 of the NBA's 63 titles. This is the 12th time they've faced each other for the championship, and no teams have met as frequently with a title at stake in North American sports leagues. In basketball history only the 1998 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Jazz, featuring Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen vs. John Stockton/Karl Malone had teams with more playoff experience than these Celtics and Lakers. For teams with so many championships, so many players who already have Hall of Fame résumés, one more title matters tremendously.

An 11th championship would further separate Lakers Coach Phil Jackson from Celtics boss Red Auerbach, who lorded over the Lakers for so long. It would even help Jackson distance himself from the NHL's Scotty Bowman, the closest thing Jackson could have to a peer when the history of professional coaches is written. A fifth championship would pull Kobe Bryant within one of Michael Jordan, who is Jack Nicklaus to Kobe's Tiger Woods. A fifth championship separates Kobe even from Shaquille O'Neal, ties him with Magic Johnson, maybe nudges him up the ladder of Lakers greatness past Jerry West and up in that rarefied Lakers air that only Magic and Kareem have breathed.

A second championship make Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen real Celtics, multiple champions, puts them in the conversation -- especially Pierce -- with Dave Cowens. It moves all three of them right into the Hall of Fame with no debate, makes them worthy successors to all the Celtic greats who ever won championships. It legitimizes the comparison we're beginning to hear between Rajon Rondo and Bob Cousy, blasphemous as that may sound to old timers who remember the Cooz. It'll take a lot more winning to make Rondo as decorated, but the evidence is piling up during these playoffs that Rondo is the best Celtics point guard since Dennis Johnson, and he's young enough at 24 to become the best since Cousy. He's certainly the best player the Celtics have now, the one the Lakers might not be able to guard, the one who if healthy can lead Boston to an 18th championship, which would be three more than the Lakers.

No other franchises in the NBA have this kind of history, not individually and not collectively. And don't think they don't know and celebrate it. The irony is the Celtics don't respect anybody like they do the Lakers and vice-versa. It took me a while to understand why Magic Johnson, as much as he loves beating Boston, essentially roots for the Celtics when they're not playing the Lakers. It's because he knows only the Celtics know how it feels to sit atop the basketball world for the franchise's entire existence.

The Lakers didn't want to see Orlando across the court from them come Thursday at 9 p.m. And as nice as it would have been to watch Kobe vs. LeBron, the Lakers didn't want the Cavaliers to represent the Eastern Conference either. The Lakers wanted to defend their championship against the Celtics, to get back at Boston for shoving them around like little boys two years ago. That, of course, was before Ron Artest arrived, before the Lakers had two seven-footers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, starting on the front line. The Lakers are still stinging from that defeat, a humiliation really, from the trashing Boston administered during Game 6 to the rock-absorbing bus rocking attack the Lakers endured after the game. Gasol, talking to Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports, recently, said, "It was painful. It is a feeling I want to keep in my mind for every single minute that I'm out there playing them."

Usually, I discount these emotional games because the games are all played between the lines and revenge doesn't work as a strategy. But in this case, it might help provide a resolve that serves as a tiebreaker. The Lakers have home-court advantage in this seven-game series and they have a certain determination, a certain pride that used to define only the Celtics, back when they were hammering the Lakers spring after spring after spring. Lamar Odom, who grew up in New York a Yankee fan, has a sense of it. "Playing for the Lakers," Odom said, "is unlike playing for any other team in the world. It's almost like being a Yankee."

Except that the Lakers occupy a much bigger piece of the sporting pie in Southern California than the Yankees own in metropolitan New York.

But the Celtics still lead the NBA in championships won, like the Yankees do baseball. If there was ever a time that there was a surprise to see the Celtics in the Finals this is it. It was supposed to be LeBron's year, not Rajon Rondo's. They've talked about this team being like the 1968-69 Celtics that finished fourth in the conference, just like these Celtics. Those Celtics, with Bill Russell coaching, and playing his final season, beat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, then won Game 7 on the road in Los Angeles, handing the Lakers a crushing defeat. Perhaps it's the 9-2 lead in Finals confrontations that leads the Celtics to feel still superior to the Lakers in many ways. The way they shoved around the Lakers two years ago doesn't hurt.

But these Lakers know all they can do is even the score with these Celtics. It's the Lakers who are defending a title now, it's the Lakers and Jackson whose legacies will be defined by this series even more than the Celtics. And it's the Lakers who, with Kobe Bryant playing perhaps the most important series of his career, will win this championship series, let's say in six games, and write yet another chapter in the best rivalry in American sports.


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