Commentary

Dueling perspectives on Celtics-Lakers

Neither team hitting on all cylinders in advance of Sunday's clash of rivals

Updated: January 31, 2010, 1:41 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg and Dave McMenamin | ESPNBoston.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com

To get ready for Sunday's Celtics-Lakers clash, ESPNBoston.com Celtics reporter Chris Forsberg and ESPNLosAngeles.com Lakers reporter Dave McMenamin exchanged e-mails in the days leading up to the first of two regular-season battles. Below is the back-and-forth dialogue:

From: Chris Forsberg
To: Dave McMenamin
Sent: Thu 1/28/2010 1:17 PM

Dave, for all the history surrounding the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, it's easy to forget that, barring a dance in the NBA Finals, we're only privileged to two meetings each year. And even though it's been nearly a full year since the Lakers emerged from the TD Garden with a 110-109 overtime triumph on Feb. 5, 2009, as of Thursday few people in Boston were even talking about Sunday's game yet because the Celtics had big matchups against the Magic and Hawks this week (Boston lost both games).

And while the Celtics will certainly need no inspiration to get motivated for Sunday's game, it really couldn't come at a worse time. The Celtics, ravaged by injuries for much of the season, are starting to get healthy bodies back -- most notably Kevin Garnett, who missed 10 games with a hyperextended right knee suffered in late December -- but Boston is still restoring its chemistry and confidence.

As Ray Allen noted earlier this week, Sunday's game might have a playoff atmosphere, but don't expect playoff-quality basketball.

The Celtics dropped eight of 12 games before Garnett's return, starting with a visit to the Los Angeles Clippers in which KG's hyperextension was originally tweaked when he got kicked in his surgically repaired knee (it happened again two days later against Golden State, forcing him to the sideline).

Without Garnett, the Celtics also endured at least one game apiece without Marquis Daniels (left thumb surgery), Paul Pierce (right knee infection), Rajon Rondo (sore left hamstring), Eddie House (illness), Tony Allen (illness), Glen Davis (sprained right ankle) and Rasheed Wallace (sore left foot). What's more, Kendrick Perkins battled an illness that nearly forced him to miss a team flight and Brian Scalabrine played through a shoulder separation with an injury-depleted frontcourt.

So, Dave, a few complementary questions to set the table from the L.A. perspective: (1) Is there hype about this game out West? (2) What's the injury status of the Lakers? (3) Where exactly does L.A. stand having already made the turn to the back nine of the season?


From: Dave McMenamin
To: Chris Forsberg
Sent: Thu 1/28/2010 3:21 PM

Chris, if you don't think Boston is talking about Sunday's Lakers-Celtics game, you should check out L.A. It's not that Hollywood is acting more blasÚ than Beantown, it's just that there are more pressing storylines surrounding the team right now than the annual tussle at the TD Garden.

The Celtics game just represents No. 7 of 8 on this crucial road swing the Lakers are on right now. They've won the past two games, in Washington and Indiana, after starting off 1-2, and they have to make sure they take care of Philadelphia -- a team that beat them at Staples Center last year on a buzzer-beater by Andre Iguodala -- before they start setting their sights toward the Hub (The Lakers beat Philly, 99-91 on Friday night).

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images Kobe Bryant has gotten used to playing with a metal splint on his fractured right index finger.

Just like Kobe Bryant & Crew downplayed both of the Cleveland games this season, they will only say the usual platitudes when it comes time to talking about Boston anyway. What differs from the Cavs games, of course, is that just about everybody on L.A.'s roster but Ron Artest, Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison was on the Finals team that lost to the Celtics, so they'll admit to the rivalry that exists between the two teams, but don't expect them to pin the season's outcome on Game No. 48 of 82.

Plus, we're talking about L.A., where people like to talk about themselves and pretend nothing else exists outside their sunny California bubble. Two Lakers-self-congratulating storylines that are getting more play than the Boston game are Bryant's chase of Jerry West's franchise scoring title and Phil Jackson's win total in Tinseltown ticking toward Pat Riley's franchise record.

As for injuries, of course there's Bryant's fractured right index finger. I assume you've heard about it. I mean, President Barack Obama knew about it enough to be extra gentle when he shook Bryant's hand at the White House on Monday. Bryant has gone back to using a metal splint under his heavy tape wrap on the finger, and he's averaging 27.3 points on 53.7 percent shooting in his past three games. He has figured out a way to play with the injury. And as for his back, elbow and knee ailments, they are nonissues. Bryant is in full Bruce Willis mode and wouldn't admit to their hurting even if they were.

The player whose injuries seem to be hurting the most right now is Artest. At one point earlier this week he averaged just four points per game during a three-game stretch after tweeting that plantar fasciitis in both his feet was paining him. It doesn't help things that he sprained his right index finger against San Antonio a couple of weeks back and although he seems to be over the cloudiness that came with his Christmas Day concussion, he's still playing catch-up in understanding the triangle offense.

All in all, though, all 13 players on L.A.'s roster are available to play, which is more than a lot of teams can claim at this point in the season, so I don't think the Lakers will let injuries infringe on what they're trying to do.

As for question No. 3, Chris, did you just quote yourself there? I think I saw that "back nine" phrase in your midseason Celtics report card. Don't think I'm not reading your stuff. L.A. right now is still mired in a bit of "malaise," as Kobe said after the Toronto loss, but the Lakers are becoming more aware of what's going on. The tail end of this road trip can do wonders to center their focus on what they need to do for the next three months to head into the playoffs playing their best ball. Winning on the road comes down to execution, defense and energy.

If they do those same things at home, with the fans' support behind them, they will not only win but romp.

The first half of the season is behind them. They're healthy. They're focused. They have the formula they need to win. If they can't put it together against Boston, then they really haven't learned what they claim to have realized.

Now, a question for you: Do the Celtics still feel they're in the Lakers' head from that 39-point loss in Game 6 two years ago?


From: Chris Forsberg
To: Dave McMenamin
Sent: Fri 1/29/2010 10:40 AM

Like a good investment firm, the Celtics believe that past results do not guarantee future success. So even if they thought -- even for the slightest of moments -- that they were in the Lakers' heads after that Game 6 victory to secure banner No. 17, the Lakers' season sweep last year en route to a championship of their own certainly reminded the Celtics who the current top dog in the NBA is.

But it sounds as if the Celtics and Lakers are a lot alike right now.

Both have issues that supersede a, dare I say, meaningless regular-season clash. Don't know whether you got a chance to catch Celtics-Magic on Thursday night, but that might have been one of Boston's most excruciating losses of the season. Not only did a veteran team absolutely crumble in crunch time but KG used the same expletive three times to describe his performance -- and he might have understated how bad he was.

Needless to say, not everything is sunshine and puppy dogs for Celtics fans right now.

KG's play can almost be excused as he's still coming back from that hyperextended knee, but it's clear he's a step slow. He refuses to blame it on physical injuries, but I'm assuming he didn't mentally forget how to play basketball in the three weeks he was out. If he puts up a few more poor performances, he might even find himself on the bench again.

Unfathomable?

The Celtics truly view the regular season as a big warm-up to the postseason. They stress they want to get better every game and, although they would love things like a lofty seed and home-court advantage in the postseason, they won't sacrifice health to get that. Plus, it doesn't hurt that they can shrug off regular-season struggles by blaming the fact that they didn't have a full complement of players.

Regardless, Boston's current problems go far beyond injuries as the Celtics are simply not playing good basketball right now -- at least not for 48 minutes. It's a little baffling to see it for such a prolonged stretch.

So my question to you: Where does this Lakers team rank in comparison to last season's title squad? Is it possible to gauge with all the injuries? Is this team as hungry for another title?


From: Dave McMenamin
To: Chris Forsberg
Sent: Fri 1/29/2010 2:24 PM

I saw the highlights from Thursday night, and it was pretty painful to see Rashard Lewis treat Kevin Garnett like a folding chair in an empty gym and drive around undeterred to get a layup on a crucial possession.

The Lakers aren't playing to their full potential right now, but for them to get to where they need to be, it should only take tweaking instead of wholesale changes. Last year's team won 13 of 14 games in late January through late February, including big victories against Cleveland, Boston, New Orleans and Phoenix. This season's Lakers team has won eight out of its past 11 (counting Friday night), but two of those losses came against quality teams in San Antonio and Cleveland.

The Lakers aren't playing as well as last year's team. And they don't have that same single-minded focus that drove them toward the championship last season. But, like that old Temple of the Dog song, they're growing hungry, growing hungry.

This trip's been a wake-up call. The Cavs loss was so embarrassing that Kobe called out the team in a postgame diatribe to the media. The Raptors loss reminded them that every team in the league is targeting them as a chance to turn its season around using an upset win as a springboard to grow the confidence needed to carry it through to the postseason. The trip to the White House to meet the president reminded them why they play the game: to win a championship and receive all the benefits that come with it, including being recognized as the best team in basketball by the leader of the free world.

Just how banged up is Garnett? Is it a condition like Kobe's finger where he can suck it up and play through it and still be effective?

Are fans calling for him to shut it down instead of risking further injury? Garnett is in his, what, 15th season? Gregg Popovich is starting to give Tim Duncan random nights off to save his legs, and Duncan is healthy. It might be prudent for Doc Rivers to follow suit and give Garnett some time to get prime again.


From: Chris Forsberg
To: Dave McMenamin
Sent: Fri 1/29/2010 4:09 PM

The Celtics got Garnett to shut it down for nearly two weeks after the initial hyperextension, which Doc Rivers dubbed a "minor miracle." In his 15th season, Garnett understands his limitations and has made all sorts of references to listening to his body, including a particularly humorous 1976 Ford Pinto metaphor that dragged on for about a week (and led to Rivers' talking about how the backseat of his Buick Skylark caught on fire and his father wouldn't replace it, but that's neither here nor there).

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett is back in the Celtics' lineup but is not playing like the KG of old.

The Celtics lost six of 10 without Garnett, so there's a thought that they really need him right now to help right this ship. Which is unfortunate because it does seem as if Boston would benefit from the luxury of giving him some maintenance days as he works his way back.

Just how banged up is he? We might never know for sure. Garnett swears the injury is not related to the one that forced him to miss the end of last season, but even if it's not related, that right leg has taken a beating the past two seasons.

Garnett might never be the player of old -- or even the one that helped the Celtics to the title in 2008 -- but, as we saw last season, the Celtics certainly aren't going far without him. The Celtics thought having Wallace as a sixth man would take pressure off if Garnett did need rest, but Wallace has been streaky, as well.

Needless to say, this is the major storyline for Boston moving forward. There were plenty of questions about his health earlier this season, then he caught fire and those questions faded.

But if he continues to play like he did Thursday, he'll be hounded by questions the entire second half of the season.

So, as I toss you the ball for our final play, how do you see Sunday's game playing out? From our conversation here, it sounds as if we have two road-weary teams that will be running on rivalry fumes at the Garden. I'm expecting a bit of a sloppy game -- certainly not up to playoff standards -- and I think the Lakers will prevail, sending Celtics fans into full-blown panic mode before the All-Star break.


From: Dave McMenamin 
To: Chris Forsberg 
Sent: Fri 1/29/2010 7:02 PM

I really hope that KG is healthy enough to play. Not just for his sake, because you never want to see a warrior like him denied the opportunity to go out on his own terms, but for the good of the Lakers, as well.

For all the success Los Angeles has had this season, its résumé is lacking many signature wins. The road win in Dallas when Kobe's back was still bothering him was nice. The victory against Orlando in their Finals rematch carries a little bit of clout with it. But the couple of Cavs losses they have continue to sting more than those wins sing.

Beating the Celtics on the road with Garnett at full strength would be a signature win as big as the John Hancock Tower.

If the Lakers can't get up after for a game after making a trip to the cold confines of Boston and reheating one of the premier rivalries in all of sports, then Mitch Kupchak had better start working on finding some basketball-centered Cialis because it would signal to me that they're simply incapable of getting up for big games.

I agree with you, though. I think this is a game the Lakers will win. L.A. seems to be just a half-step behind hitting its stride.

What better way to catch up than with a clutch performance against the C's?

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com