Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lakers-Celtics rivalry brings pulse back to NBA postseason

Lakers-Celtics rivalry brings pulse back to NBA postseason
Jun 3 2010

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers and Celtics better take this series to a Game 7.

The NBA postseason, you see, needs to be saved. Saved from the Atlanta Hawks, the only team to be eliminated in three games in a best-of-7 playoff series. Saved from Manu Ginobili's hand-made nasal strip. Saved from Kobe patting Alvin Gentry on the fanny.

And saved from LeBron James' presto-bizarro-disappearo act in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the biggest unexplained mystery since whatever happened to Vince Carter.

Those are the haunting images that remain of the last several weeks. Gee, thanks. Seriously. When LeBron's summer plans dominate the postseason discussion, just ahead of LeBron vanishing from Game 5, it's clear the NBA could use a moment or three here on center stage. Thank goodness the S.O.S. (Save Our Spring) was received by the Lakers and Celtics, who know something about drama and entertainment this time of year.

The promise of good basketball is on the way, starting Thursday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which for the most part also qualifies as Day One of the postseason. Really, it begins now. No more lopsided matchups, fizzles, blowouts, feelings of deflation and emptiness or televised shots of Stan Van Gundy looking like he's going through labor. At least that's the anticipation, anyway, in a series that seems a toss-up.

The Lakers are so concerned about the Celtics that Phil Jackson started working the referees three days earlier than usual. The Celtics are so respectful of the Lakers that Rasheed Wallace, given the chance, did not predict a certain part of their anatomy will tighten up, as he famously offered up for Orlando.

Above all, these teams bring history. The Junior-junior-sky hook, Henderson-steal, Nicholson-mooning, Rambis-clothesline kind of history. The real kind. The kind they don't whip up anymore.

"The backbone of the league was built on these two prestigious teams," said Kevin Garnett. "You have to have an appreciation for the players who made this rivalry. So it's our responsibility, as Celtics and Lakers, to leave everything on the floor because of the players who came before us."

Well. Doesn't that give you more goosebumps than the surface of a Spalding? KG never said anything that profound before the Celtics-Heat first-round series. Just sayin': We're on another level here. The Lakers are defending champions. The Celtics won the year before. And if you ask them, each team believes it should've won both years. And could make a strong case.

"How could you not, as a fan, want to see us play for the championship?" said Lamar Odom. "I predict a great atmosphere, a great outcome."

The Celtics and Lakers are surging at the right time and, without question, are the best the league has to offer. Here's why:

Rajon Rondo: No, it's not because he came up with The Dive, The Steal and The Layup all in one smooth, shocking motion against Orlando. It's not because he went for 29, 18 and 13 against the Cavaliers in the sickest single-game effort of this postseason. It's not because he's now bossing the Big Three around the floor, as opposed to two years ago, when it was vice-versa. And no, it's not because he has ramped up his game to where he's one of the top five or six point guards around. No, he's now a household name because half of America finally knows how to pronounce the name: ra-JOHN. And Celtics fans will be quick to remind you his last name rhymes with "Hondo."

KG's knee: Do you have it? Maybe your neighbor? A friend, perhaps? Wherever it's at, the balky joint that KG dragged around for almost a year, the knee that required medical attention, the knee that supposedly would transform him into a soft, jump-shooting big man is now on someone else's body. Not saying KG is running bump-free these days. Nobody who goes through surgery at such an advanced age comes out better than ever. Still, KG believes he's good enough to last four more wins. You doubt that?

Ron Artest: Here's where we see if the ghost of Trevor Ariza haunts the Lakers. They made the cost-conscious decision last summer to let Ariza, their valuable complimentary player, chase the dollars in Houston while replacing him with Rodman Lite, who brings more of a defensive swagger. Artest is perhaps the only Laker other than Kobe who can get a rise from the laid-back Laker crowd, which recoils in horror every time he gets a 3-point itch ("Noooooo"). But he does accept the challenge of guarding the other team's shooter. And he did put back Kobe's airball last series. Does he get blamed if the Lakers don't take the title?

Tom Thibodeau: He's only the most famous assistant coach since Shooter in "Hoosiers" (RIP, Dennis Hopper), helped greatly by his role in designing the Celtics' defense. He gets major TV time by leaving his chair and pointing his finger every time the Celtics get into their stance. He'll have his own team next season, either in New Orleans or Chicago, neither of which are ready to contend. So he'd better bling up now.

Derek Fisher: Statistically, he was the worst starting point guard in the league this season, and actually was savaged on L.A. sports radio whenever the Lakers fell into a funk. How soon they forget that Fisher saves his big shots for June. He's the only Laker who Kobe will even look at in the final seconds.

Paul Pierce: I think it's safe to say Pierce is one championship away from becoming one of the all-time greats in Boston sports history. Not quite with Bird and Cooz and Russell and Brady and Orr and Yaz and Big Papi. But close. Funny coming from someone raised in Inglewood, who dreamed of playing for the Lakers and hated the Celtics.

Kobe Bryant: His face is twitching, his eyes are narrowing and his lips are tightening. Must be that time again.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist.


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