For Celtics and Lakers, it's a whole new ballgame

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- The re-resurrection of the NBA's most storied rivalry was the result of an awkward exchange, a chance encounter, some misfortune leading to a dynamic shift and the pursuit of a dynastic gift. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are back in the finals for the second time in three years -- and 12th time overall -- but the participants aren't interested in looking back to black-and-white footage of Bill Russell from the 1960s, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson highlights from the 1980s or even Paul Pierce's wheelchair incident from 2008, because so much has changed and so much more is at stake this time around for the past two NBA champions.

"I only think about one matchup," Kobe Bryant said, with Game 1 of the NBA Finals set to begin on Thursday at Staples Center. "The happy times of Magic winning against Boston or the sad times of Jerry West losing to them has no impact on me whatsoever. I have a series to play. I have a series to win. I'll just focus on that."

The Lakers eventually overcame their embarrassing six-game ouster to the Celtics two years ago and are now seeking their second consecutive title, while the Celtics have returned to the NBA Finals after having an opportunity to defend their title usurped by a Kevin Garnett knee injury. But these teams have hardly picked up where they left off in Boston, where Bryant wept as the Celtics splashed Coach Doc Rivers with Gatorade and Garnett kissed the parquet floor and shouted, "Anything is possible!"

"Every time you're able to get to the finals, it's an accomplishment, but it's not the goal," Garnett said. "What was burning in me two years ago is probably intensified just because of last year and feeling like we never had a chance to defend our own title."

The Celtics' collection of former all-stars in Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen are a tad older and at times have oscillated from starring roles into the supporting cast for emerging point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo's ascension to superstardom this postseason seems to have been as rapid as his mad dash and dive to retrieve a loose ball between the legs of Orlando's Jason Williams in the Eastern Conference finals; the signature hustle play of this postseason. But he actually began to gain control of the team in Garnett's absence last season, and is now spearheading the drive for the Celtics' 18th NBA title.

"I try to stay focused and stay humble," Rondo said. " I haven't done anything in this league compared to my teammates, so that's a grateful situation to be in, to have three future Hall-of-Famers that you're playing with and try to strive to be one of those guys that's going to be next to follow. People still don't consider me the best point guard, so I'm still going to keep trying to continue to be the best player I can be and go out there and show it every night."

After being a favorite for most of their title run two years ago, Boston had to bounce back from a sluggish regular season finish and fourth-place finish in the East to defeat Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic, the last two opponents having finished with the two best records in the regular season. "This was a far tougher journey to get here," said Rivers, one of just two coaches to defeat Lakers Coach Phil Jackson in the NBA Finals, "but we kind of expected that going into it."

Bryant barely had time to accept the 39-point drubbing the Lakers suffered in Boston's Game 6 clincher two years ago before Ron Artest, then a member of the Sacramento Kings and watching his friend and former teammate Lamar Odom, approached Bryant in the shower and told him he could help him win a ring. Artest, the mercurial forward best known for his role in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004, joined the Lakers as a free agent in the offseason hoping to deliver on his promise by slowing down Pierce and helping Bryant get his fifth championship -- one more than Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, the same number as Magic and one fewer than the player Bryant once sought to emulate, Michael Jordan.

Bryant has been playing with such determined focus this postseason that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had to offer his praise. "I don't think there's any doubt that this is one of the great playoff performances," said Jackson, who is going after his 11th NBA championship, which would give him two more than the late Red Auerbach.

The Lakers will also have 7-foot center Andrew Bynum, who missed the postseason two years ago with a left knee injury. Bynum is playing despite a torn meniscus in his right knee and will be needed to take some pressure off Pau Gasol, who hit the weight room and got stronger after the soft label that dogged him in Memphis got stamped across his forehead against the Celtics two years ago.

"We aren't the same team. They aren't the same team," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. "We haven't really looked at like, this is 2008, so alright, we're going to plop it down in 2010. It's a totally different series, the personnel -- even though a lot of the key characters are the same - it's still different. We're just really focused on where we are now. We obviously remember 2008, [stinks] real bad."

By happenstance, Pierce, the 2008 Finals MVP, was walking his dog last summer when Jackson approached the crosswalk in his convertible. Apparently not satisfied with the title the Lakers had just won over the Orlando Magic -- a matchup Pierce compared to a German Shepard fighting a poodle -- Jackson challenged Pierce to get his team back for a rematch. "He talks so low, I really didn't hear too much of what he said. It was just like he said something, and it was like, all right, peace out. So I guess that's what he said, 'Get back to The Finals,' " Pierce said. "I didn't want to run into Phil, I know that. They just won the championship. We don't like that around here, not in Boston Celtic nation."

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