Commentary

Celtics-Lakers past is Finals prologue

The struggle for supremacy between Boston and Los Angeles is the lifeblood of the NBA

Originally Published: June 2, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Forty-one years ago, they were here -- the Boston Celtics wheezing into the postseason but as formidable by the Finals as the 4-seed they are today; the Los Angeles Lakers, bronzed and powerful, waiting then as now, as the muscular favorites.

The dynamics might change -- in '69, the Celtics dropped the first two games of the series but won a classic Game 7 in Los Angeles -- but the circling does not.

Celtics-Lakers XII will be touched by the past (Boston's attempt to keep the Lakers at least one step behind them in the medal count), by yesterday (the last time these two met in the Finals was a 131-92 title-clinching rout for the Celtics in Game 6 in 2008, in which a Phil Jackson team came as close to quitting as anyone can remember) and -- best of all -- by the present and future (subplots that include Paul Pierce's quest for respect, Kobe Bryant's try for a Magic Johnson-tying fifth title, Doc Rivers' attempt to join Auerbach, Russell, Heinsohn and KC Jones as Celtics coaches with multiple titles).

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianKobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are the latest in a long line of Laker-Celtic stars who've matched up with an NBA title on the line.

There may be a subset of the population tired of this historical Clash of the Titans series, but it is the dynasty -- not the Cinderella or the superstar -- that gives professional sport its lasting identity, that provides the generational threads that keep the sport alive in memory throughout the decades, Russell to Bird to Pierce, Baylor and West to Chamberlain to Magic to Kobe.

The 2010 Finals can be looked at that way, as two powerhouses continuing to secure their legacies. But the game on the court is equally compelling, matching the breakout Rajon Rondo against dangerous old pro Derek Fisher, or the respect-starved Pierce staring down not only Kobe this time around, but an old nemesis: the stifling Ron Artest.

Today, and for as long as the sport embraces a free-market economy, the Lakers, and not the Celtics, are the NBA's Yankees. The Lakers have the geography to attract the league's best free agents, the young and beautiful people who want to star in movies, make rap records or simply be where the action is when they aren't nailing 3-pointers. No individual market -- not even sexy Miami or Phoenix or New York -- can compete with the Lakers' geographical advantage.

Celtics-Lakers, however, remains in the imagination as the lifeblood of the sport. The NBA over the past 20 years has attempted to embrace the new shiny markets that mimic the nation's economic shifts toward the South and Southwest by establishing strong franchises in San Antonio, Phoenix, Miami and Dallas, while the Eastern Seaboard and its backboards -- Philadelphia, New York and, for two decades, Boston -- seem to have been left to rust together.

No two franchises have ever dominated a team sport as thoroughly and equally as the Celtics and Lakers. Once, it might have been Yankees-Dodgers, but those two haven't played each other for a championship in nearly 30 years; the Dodgers have waited more than 20 since their last World Series appearance. By the end of this year's Finals, the NBA will have crowned 64 champions; and in 34 of those seasons, the champ was either the Celtics or the Lakers.

Boston and Los Angeles aren't merely the most important part of NBA history; they are NBA history. If the Yankees represent the standard of the American professional sports dynasty, the Celtics and the Lakers have alternated being as close as basketball comes to the equivalent.

The Houston Rockets won the 1995 NBA title (the franchise's second straight) in Cinderella style, with a tired old group of Hall of Fame-level veterans that resembled this current Boston team yet soon faded from memory; and the Rockets made the 1981 Finals after finishing the regular season with a losing record, beating the Lakers along the way in the playoffs. But in the NBA, Cinderella has no real place.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird and Magic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn 1985, it was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

And even though superstars live forever, their teams do not. When Michael Jordan retired with six titles and six Finals MVP awards in six appearances, the Chicago ("Organizations win championships") Bulls reverted back to being just another team. It will be interesting to see if the post-Duncan-Ginobili-Parker Spurs retain their championship caliber. If LeBron James leaves Cleveland, his time with the Cavaliers likely will be regarded as an oasis in what has otherwise been a basketball desert.

But when a Lakers or Celtics great retires, there always seems to be another to take his place, for another chapter of the history awaits. The 1969 Finals were as famous for the game's greatest player, Chamberlain, injuring his leg with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 7 while the game's greatest champion, Russell, screamed at him to get back on the court for the finale, as it was for the Celtics' old dynasty winning its final championship and the Lakers' owner, Jack Kent Cooke, lining the ceiling of the Forum with celebratory balloons that never fell.

A decade and a half later, in 1985, those particulars were long retired; but the championship celebration in the visiting locker room was no less passionate, in part because it exorcised that 1969 ghost: A new group of Lakers, led by Kareem and Magic, had done something no Lakers team had ever done. After eight tries, they had beaten the Celtics in an NBA Finals.

And 23 years after that, when the Celtics rose from a 20-year sleep to finally win Banner 17 (the consortium that comprises the Celtics' ownership group bears that name) and crown the playoff-checkered Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as champions, part of the significance was that Boston had denied the Lakers their 16th title, which would have tied the two franchises for the most championships in league history.

For a time, the Celtics were the unquestioned dynasty of the NBA. The titles, and their 17-3 record in Finals series, proved it. But since the Lakers won their first title in Los Angeles back in 1972, they have 10 championships to Boston's six. The Celtics do not attract big-name free agents in their prime -- and have yet to do so in the two-and-a-half decades of pure free agency -- and thus without creative, daring trades are not on a par, competition-wise, with the Lakers.

In the standings, the Lakers mimic the Yankees even more. With the exception of the occasional blip, the Western Conference, since Magic Johnson entered the league in 1979, has belonged to Los Angeles.

The Celtics have the reputation. The Lakers have it all.

[+] EnlargeRay Allen/Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonTwo years ago, the triumverate of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce prevailed over the Lakers in the Finals.

Boston's return to respectability perhaps can best be seen through the eyes of Pierce, who carried the responsibility of being a Celtics captain through the dark years. Unable to tailor his game and emotions into winning basketball, Pierce sometimes appeared to be a losing player. The low moment was the 2005 first-round playoff series against Indiana. Pierce was ejected in Game 6 after a childish elbow of Jamaal Tinsley in crunch time, which was followed by the franchise's second-greatest embarrassment (being swept by Milwaukee in the '83 playoffs is the first): a 97-70 home defeat in Game 7 two nights later. Afterward, Pierce talked less about the 27-point loss than about the "sacrifices" he made for the team.

And now on the cusp of a second title in three years, Pierce is enjoying a second career, his narrative rewritten from petulant anti-captain to caretaker of a proud franchise -- a franchise that until 2008 hadn't recovered from the twin deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, from its inability to adjust to the free-agent era and, of course, from the pingpong-ball unluckiness of the 1997 lottery that put Duncan in San Antonio instead of Boston.

In the most unexpected of twists, Pierce revived himself and his team in 2008, outplaying the Cavs' James in the conference semifinals and the Lakers' Bryant in the Finals to win an elusive championship. This year, to win, as he continues to fight to belong, he has had to go through Dwyane Wade and defending conference champ Orlando, as well as James again. And now, Bryant once more.

So here they go again: Bryant, the greatest champion of his time, attempting to conquer his franchise's greatest foe for the first time, Celtics Pride providing the last obstacle.

For 50 years, Boston-L.A. has always boasted the biggest names in basketball. But the franchise names on the front of the jerseys have always trumped the players' names on the back. The players in the drama have wanted it that way, and that is exactly how it is.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

MORE COMMENTARY