Commentary

Celtics-Lakers: Here we go again

Longtime rivals will pen yet another chapter beginning Thursday night in NBA Finals

Updated: May 31, 2010, 2:07 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Sunday marked the silver anniversary of one of the most critical victories in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers: Game 2 of the 1985 NBA Finals against the Celtics.

Three days prior, the Celtics bombarded the Lakers in Game 1, 148-114, a rout that became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Pat Riley, the Lakers coach, had three days to get over that, and he made his team watch the tape of that game over and over again. The Lakers came out and won Game 2, 109-102, and eventually took the series in six games.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant, Paul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesCan Kobe Bryant conquer the Celtics, or will he, like Jerry West, cement his reputation as a legend who couldn't beat Boston?

It was the first time the Lakers had ever beaten the Celtics in an NBA Finals after losing eight times in two different incarnations (Minneapolis and Los Angeles). Overall, they have met in the NBA Finals 11 times, with the Celtics winning nine of those matchups. The two gold-standard franchises of the NBA have accounted for 32 of the 63 NBA titles.

It will soon be 33 of 64.

Yep. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again."

It starts anew Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Celtics will be the undisputed underdog despite having eliminated Cleveland and Orlando, the teams with the two best records in the regular season. The Celtics took a curious route to the league's championship series, winning twice without the homecourt advantage, and, for the fourth straight time, will be facing a team led by a first-team All-NBA performer.

They got by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Do they have enough to get by Kobe Bryant as well? Bryant has more help than the aforementioned trio, including the man President Barack Obama regards as the best big in the league: Pau Gasol.

Bryant, in the view of Lakers legend Jerry West, will be regarded as the greatest Laker of all time when he finally retires. But will he retire as West did, winless against the Celtics in the NBA Finals? Or will he replicate Magic Johnson, who lost his first NBA Finals against the Celtics and then won the next year (and two years after that as well)?

The history of these two teams in the NBA Finals will be rehashed ad infinitum over the next several days. The Bill Russell-led Celtics teams beat the Lakers seven times, starting with the first-ever 4-0 sweep (1959) and finishing in 1969 with a victory in Game 7 at the new LA Forum. That was the most agonizing of the Lakers' losses in that era. The team had series leads of 2-0 and 3-2 and still couldn't close the deal. Then Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons in the rafters waiting to be released with the Lakers' supposed victory.

The two teams didn't meet again for the title until 1984, when Larry Bird and Johnson were the iconic figures. They met three times in four years in the 1980s, with the Celtics winning the first time, a series saved by Gerald Henderson's famed steal in Game 2 and Kevin McHale's takedown of Kurt Rambis in Game 4.

(By the way, if you Google Kevin McHale these days, you're just as likely to get the actor who plays the wheelchair-confined Artie in "Glee.")

There was a 21-year lapse after the Lakers' victory in 1987. The Celtics smoked the Lakers in 2008, winning in six and basically outplaying them in every game. They finished them off with a 131-92 shellacking in Boston.

Here are five things to watch in this Finals matchup:

  1. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who passed Red Auerbach for NBA titles last year by winning his 10th, has never lost any playoff series when his team has won Game 1. Five teams he has taken to the Finals have lost Game 1: the 1991 Bulls, the 1998 Bulls, the 2001 Lakers, the 2004 Lakers and the 2008 Lakers. Only the 2004 and 2008 Lakers did not win the series.
  2. The current Celtics starting five has never lost a playoff series, winning all seven. And the Celtics still believe that if Kevin Garnett had been healthy last year, they'd be going for a three-peat.
  3. The Lakers are about to encounter something they haven't seen for a while: a team that defends. They averaged 113.5 points a game in the Western Conference Finals. That ain't gonna happen against Boston.
  4. Lamar Odom is the Lakers' barometer in home games. In the three wins over the Suns in the Staples Center, Odom averaged 17.7 points and 14.3 rebounds a game. In the three games in Phoenix, it was 10.3 and 9.3.
  5. The rosters are pretty much the same from their last meeting in the NBA Finals, the one major difference being Andrew Bynum, who was injured in 2008. He averaged almost 30 minutes a game against the Thunder in the first round, but dropped to 20.8 against Utah and Phoenix. He is bothered this time around by a torn cartilage in his right knee. Both coaches usually go with eight-man rotations, but that could change with Nate Robinson's play in Game 6 of the Magic series and the return of Sasha Vujacic.

So get ready for the "Beat L.A." chants in Boston and something profane in return in the Staples Center. It's a matchup few expected when the playoffs started, but one that promises to be competitive and fun.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent ESPNBoston.com contributor.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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