Celtics-Lakers rivalry heritage adds new NBA Finals chapter
June 3, 2010
Who doesn't want the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals? Forgive the people, Dwight Howard. Sorry LeBron James. It's not you.
It's them â€”Celtics and Lakers. Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett. Rajon Rondo and Derek Fisher. Coaches Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers.
Second time in three seasons, 12th since first meeting in the 1959 Finals, most in NBA history. Jerry West vs. John Havlicek. Elgin Baylor vs. Bill Russell. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Coaches Pat Riley vs. K.C. Jones. Oh, that Red Auerbach fella, too.
In Los Angeles, it's a blockbuster script. In Boston, it's the great American novel.
Ready for another intense page-turner?
"It's a sexy matchup," Bryant says of Thursday's start between the last two NBA champions.
The matchup oozes history, drama and interest. The Celtics have 17 titles, the Lakers 15 â€” first and second all time.
A Celtics-Lakers Finals was a realistic prediction at the start of the season. It remained so Dec. 27 when the Celtics had the best record in the Eastern Conference and the Lakers had the best in the West.
But the Celtics went 27-27 over the final 3Â½ months, and the Lakers drifted to 15-12 in the final eight weeks.
Yet here they are, the most history-rich franchises, punctuating an otherwise lackluster playoffs with their star power and desire to put the other team in its place.
How did Magic Johnson put it in his role as ESPN studio analyst? With a grit of his teeth and a high-pitched screech, he implored the Celtics to "Bring it on."
The Lakers are the defending champs, playing in their third consecutive Finals. The Celtics beat them for the 2008 title.
Jackson wanted this series. He ran into Pierce last summer after the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic for the title and told him, "Get it back; we want to meet you in the Finals."
Roiling under the surface are captivating subplots. Among them:
â€¢ Bryant is chasing one of the greats he often is compared to, Michael Jordan. Bryant has four rings to Jordan's six.
This is important to Bryant, 31, who understands the all-time greats are measured in titles.
"The challenge is to win the championship," he says. "The Celtics are in the way. They feel the same way about us."
â€¢ Pierce, 32, is returning home for another shot at a title against the Lakers, his team when he was growing up in nearby Inglewood.
"I've always accepted the Celtics' tradition," says Pierce, who has spent his 12-year career with Boston. "I'm part of it."
Bryant and Pierce, the last two Finals MVPs, will play significant roles in each team's success.
â€¢ If Jackson wins, he'll have 11 titles, extending his lead to two on Boston legend Auerbach.
It is a fail-safe series. The NBA can't go wrong with Celtics-Lakers. It's good for business.
Their presence should attract bigger TV audiences and ratings. Boston's six-game victory against Los Angeles in 2008 generated the Finals' biggest TV ratings in the last five years (9.3 on ESPN's ABC), according to Nielsen.
By comparison, Los Angeles' five-game victory against Orlando last season drew an 8.4 rating on ABC.
The return of Los Angeles and Boston to their championship ways in the early 1980s saved the NBA Finals from the ratings doldrums of the late 1970s â€” and paved the way for the even bigger TV audiences attracted by Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the mid- to late 1990s.
The Celtics-Lakers Finals in 1984, 1985 and 1987 â€” matching rival superstars Bird and Magic â€” drew ratings of 12.1, 13.5 and 16.7, respectively, on CBS.
Jordan's and Chicago's last Finals appearance, against the Utah Jazz in 1999, posted an 18.7 rating on NBC.
Tickets for this Finals are drawing higher prices in the secondary resale market, according to brokers. The Lakers' home games are averaging $987 and the Celtics' home games are averaging $692, according to Christian Anderson of FanSnap.
By comparison, tickets for the Lakers' home games in the 2009 Finals averaged $814 and those for the Magic went for $604.
It's the classic East-West rivalry.
Boston with its lobster rolls, higher education and blue collar, old style. Los Angeles with Hollywood, celebrities, the beach, new school.
"It's fun, because it's both coasts and it's two different cultures involved," Celtics great and Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn says. "The people who you flew over to play the games get engaged in it, and it's fun to watch."
Celtics rule rivalry
And yet if this is a rivalry, it is a lopsided one. Of the 11 times the Celtics and Lakers have met for the championship, the Celtics have won nine.
"Anything like this is based on what's happened in the past," former Lakers great and Hall of Famer Jerry West says. "What's happened in the past is this hasn't been much of a rivalry. It's been dominated by the Celtics, but it's created a lot of interest because some of the Finals were closely contested."
Boston dominated the 1960s, winning all seven Finals against the Lakers from 1959 to 1969.
If the 1960s were marked by the Celtics' annual triumphs with Auerbach lighting up victory cigars, the 1980s rivalry was defined by bitter loathing â€” and physical play â€” generated by the ultra-competitive duo of Johnson and Bird.
"I hated the guy because I knew he could beat me," Johnson said in November when the two were on a book tour. "The dislike for him and the Celtics was definitely there, and I'm just happy we were able to have each other because both of us made each other better."
The Lakers won two of the three Finals in the 1980s. Former Lakers guard Byron Scott still feels ill will toward the Celtics. "I can't sit here and say that it has gotten less and less because the years have passed," Scott says. "I like certain players. ... But I can't ever root for them."
Boston won in six games in 2008, but the final game of the series was a blowout, a 131-92 victory.
"There's nothing worse than losing in a Finals," Jackson said. "It's about as low as you can get after riding a high, getting through three series, going into the fourth one and the Finals. I had hoped I'd never experience it, but I've done it twice now, so I know it's a real difficult summer after that."
Bryant vs. Pierce
If that loss sticks with Bryant, he isn't admitting as much. He says he didn't care who the Lakers played in the Finals. He says he isn't out for revenge.
But he remembers.
"Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us," Bryant says. "It taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal."
Bryant, the longest-tenured Lakers player, knows NBA history, knows this rivalry.
"When I was a kid growing up in Italy, those were really the two teams that came on TV ... and the big Finals rematches that they had," he says.
Today, he dismisses the rivalry.
"I'm playing in it. I don't give a damn about it," Bryant says. "That's for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning."
It has been vintage Bryant in the playoffs. He has elevated his game, averaging 23.5, 32 and 33.7 points in successive rounds.
In 11 of the Lakers' 16 playoff games, Bryant has scored 30-plus points. He turns shots from impossible to possible with a pump-fake and release.
The criticism leveled at Bryant this season was the same hurled at the Celtics as a team: aging and injured with eroding skills.
Bryant scorns words right now. He is in one of those moods. Defiant, contrary and focused with a tinge of sarcasm. He's about action. Fans saw it last year in his single-minded determination to win a championship.
No time for jokes or small talk.
For Pierce, the MVP of the 2008 Finals, he faces the team for which he grew up cheering.
"Even though I grew up a fan of L.A., I'm no longer a fan," he says. "I just like being part of history. This is the kind of series that got me into basketball, watching Lakers vs. Celtics."
Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo has received a significant portion of attention for his play in the postseason, but Pierce has been outstanding, too.
Need rebounds? Sure. He led the Celtics in rebounding against the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, at 8.3 a game.
"If you want to see how Paul Pierce is playing, go to the rebound numbers. If those numbers are high, that means he's playing well," Rivers says.
Need defense? Pierce did the best anyone can do against James in the Eastern semifinals. He prevented him from dominating every game.
Need points? Pierce is a natural-born scorer, torching Orlando for 24.3 points a game, including 31 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the Game 6 clincher.
"Paul's our best offensive player, and when we have (favorable) matchups, he's really good," Rivers says.
Pierce has been the Celtics' longest-tenured player, drafted in 1998. He endured losing seasons wondering if he would ever win a title.
Celtics greats are remembered for titles. Along came Garnett and Ray Allen and a title in 2008.
Now, Pierce has a chance for another, and he understands the present with the insight of a Buddhist monk.
"We never take these moments for granted, especially at this point in my career where it's winding down," Pierce says.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. To get back here is a great accomplishment but even greater if we win another one."