Not out for revenge? Not buying it
Don't believe it when Lakers say embarrassing loss in 2008 Finals isn't on their minds
The Boston Celtics would probably prefer you not refer to the 2010 NBA Finals as a rubber match. After all, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Magic in last year's title round; Orlando simply topped Boston along the way.
Sure, the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008 and Los Angeles rebounded to win a crown of its own in 2009. But as the teams prepare to meet in this year's championship series, it would seem the only team eager to settle the score is the Lakers.
Last time we played [the Celtics in the NBA Finals], it was a great learning experience for us. 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 in that series [in 2008].” -- Kobe Bryant
After Saturday's Game 6 triumph over the Suns to secure the Western Conference crown, Los Angeles players immediately tried to squash the revenge talk, but it's hard to buy what they're selling.
"The challenge is to win the championship," Kobe Bryant said. "The Celtics are in the way. They feel the same way about us."
True, both teams probably couldn't care less how they end up with the Larry O'Brien trophy. But both sides are sure to be amped because of the rivalry between the teams.
But Los Angeles can't possibly suggest that it won't have extra motivation given the way the 2008 Finals unfolded.
As ESPN.com's J.A. Adande wrote in Sunday's Daily Dime, the one thing Bryant hasn't done in his decorated Lakers career is top the rival Celtics on the league's biggest stage. His Lakers legacy could forever be tainted as "the guy who couldn't beat the Celtics."
Yet, Bryant emphatically maintained that it's not an issue to him. All that matters is another chance at a championship ring, he insists.
"I didn't give a damn who we played [in the Finals]," Bryant said. "Didn't matter to me."
Maybe it didn't matter six months ago. But it matters now.
It'd only be surprising if an athlete admitted as much. Just flat-out said, Yeah, you know what, losing Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals by 39 points has really stuck in my craw for two years now, and we want to return the favor. Now we finally have that opportunity.
That didn't happen Saturday.
Asked about Boston's 131-92 triumph in Boston's clinching Game 6 triumph in 2008, Lakers coach Phil Jackson simply smiled and quipped: "I have amnesia. When was that?"
"This is a whole new situation," he added. "We have five new members of the team, but some of these guys remember how it felt to lose. There's nothing worse than losing in a Finals. 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."
The Lakers don't want another miserable summer. Losing in the NBA Finals immediately makes for a bad vacation; losing to Boston would make it even harder to swallow.
In the big picture, the alterations to these two rosters since 2008 are rather minimal -- in fact, Boston has the same starting five, while Los Angeles beefed up around its core -- so the revenge talk is pretty much inevitable.
The Lakers can downplay it, but they're going to be asked about it for the next five days.
"I don't know if it does us any good to compare ourselves, or their team, to the teams in '08," Derek Fisher said. "For ourselves, we know Andrew [Bynum] is an extremely important member of our team. The things he's able to do for us out there, even not being 100 percent, are going to be huge in this series.
"We aren't looking at them and lining them up against the team in '08 and trying to figure out how they're not as good as they were then or how we're better. This is gonna be the 2010 Finals."
Bryant did admit that the previous series will offer the Lakers a barometer for just how far they've come as a team since 2008.
"It's a great challenge for us to see how much we've improved, how much we've gotten better, to be able to go up against this team in a playoff series," Bryant said.
"Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us. 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 in that series."
The Lakers wanted revenge last year and atoned by winning it all. But that might not be good enough for some players on the team. It's like the Patriots winning a Super Bowl without going through Pittsburgh and/or Indianapolis. Or the Red Sox winning a World Series without seeing the New York Yankees.
Los Angeles can extract true revenge this year. And if that happens, then we can talk about a rubber match in 2011.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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