June 4, 2008

Lakers vs. Celtics: A Rivalry Renewed

I realize that this is not supposed to be a sports blog, but my Lakers fever is boiling over this week! If you didn't already know, I have been a Los Angeles Lakers fan ever since I watched Magic Johnson on TV at a babysitter's house in the mid-80's. While my San Francisco-raised dad passed along his childhood affection for Y.A. Tittle's 49ers and Willie Mays' Giants (imparted to me in the form of Joe Montana and Will Clark), he was never really into basketball. Thus, I was free to love the Lakers.

I never knew I was mispronouncing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's name up until the 4th grade when he retired, but I loved to watch Magic run the "Showtime" fast break with James Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green. If my Lakers license plate holder and 5-disc DVD box set are any indication, not much has changed in the past 20 years in terms of my NBA allegiance. I still haven't grown out of my childhood loyalty to the purple and gold, although you won't find any Eddie Jones or Nick Van Exel posters on my bedroom wall anymore (yes, the mid-90's were pretty dark days for Laker fans).

More recently, things were looking pretty gloomy last summer. The Lakers had just suffered their second straight first-round exit by the order of the Phoenix Suns. Kobe Bryant, forever the moody superstar, blasted the team's front office for poor trades, draft picks and personnel decisions. He then publicly demanded to be traded, but changed his mind a few days later after a conversation with Phil Jackson, the Laker's head coach and "Zen Master." As trade rumors swirled, everyone in Laker-land was pointing fingers in an attempt to explain why the once-powerful franchise had fallen into disarray ever since Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami after the 2003-2004 season. Laker fans were bracing for another lackluster season at best, and at worst, the loss of their most talented player. No one expected the team to improve at all in 07-08, much less get all the way back to the Finals.

Nine months later, fate has birthed a scenario that even the most optimistic of Laker fans did not anticipate. On America's opposite coast, the Boston Celtics have gone from miserable cellar dwellers to championship contenders by adding superstars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to go along with Paul Pierce to form the new "Big Three." An ESPN commercial humorously explores other names for this trio including The Parquet Posse (a reference to the parquet floor on Boston's home court), The Three Basketeers, Barrage A Trois, and The Boston Three Party. With the 3 stars sharing the load, the Celtics have improved from a 24-58 record last season to a league-best 66-16 this year, the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.

The last time the Lakers won the NBA title was in 2002, the same year that one of my sisters graduated from High School. My other sister graduated from High School three days ago which could be a good sign considering the Lakers begin their NBA Finals duel with the Boston Celtics tomorrow night. David Stern, the NBA's longtime commissioner (read 'CEO') could not have asked for a more appealing product than a Lakers vs. Celtics matchup in the Finals, a showdown that promises to renew the storied rivalry that dates back to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80's as well as Jerry West and Bill Russell in the 60's.

The hype for the 2008 NBA Finals will likely make it the most watched series in the 10 years since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls. ESPN has been re-playing nostalgic Lakers-Celtics games from the 80's all week long. Bryant is increasingly being compared to Jordan. Casual fans who haven't followed the NBA since Air Jordan's retirement are starting to catch the fever again. Even some of the NBA's detractors and basketball "purists" who once boycotted the league in protest of the highly commercialized, superstar driven, one-on-one oriented, hip hop image of the Association are finding that they can't help but pay attention to the Finals this year.

But it's more than just the superstars who are generating interest. It's also the tradition, the rivalry, the nostalgia and... good old fashioned teamwork. Both teams have gritty veterans, role players, 3-point specialists and lock-down defenders. Both clubs are actually playing excellent team basketball. The Celtics and Lakers are passing well, rebounding, making their free throws and playing solid defense. So what is the NBA coming to? Two teams that share the ball and play tough defense are also interesting and fun to watch? Yes, that was a swipe at the "good but boring" style of the Spurs and Pistons. It's been a special year for the NBA.

To be clear, I will always love college basketball. As I said in a blog post back in March, I still maintain that the NCAA tournament is my absolute favorite sporting event of the year. Nothing can match the teamwork, hustle and emotion of the college game. Duke and North Carolina have the best rivalry not just in college basketball, but in all of North American sports (I'm careful not to include the futbol/soccer, cricket and rugby rivalries found on other continents). Still, if you want to see the game of basketball played at its highest level, there's no match for the NBA with its great dynasties of Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs teams. So without further ado, here is my admittedly biased analysis of the 2008 NBA Finals in a nutshell.

What I'm looking forward to: The matchup of Kobe against Paul Pierce is going to be top-shelf entertainment. Both are terrific defenders, but they'll have to save their energy to take the big shots at the end of close games. It will be interesting to see how much they have to guard each other one-on-one. Either player can score 45 points if he's in 'the zone.' Another key matchup will be Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol, the Lakers' recently acquired 7-foot Spaniard. No one plays harder than KG, but the Big Ticket has yet to show a real killer instinct in the playoffs so far. The Lakers will need Gasol, who can also be too laid back at times, to play very aggressively in order to win the series.

Why the Celtics should win: The 3 Amigos are all hungry to win their first championship, especially Kevin Garnett, who was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year. If all three bring their A-game, they will win. The Celtics have gotten better as the playoffs have gone on. They were shaky in the first two rounds, but have peaked at the right time. In the only two games played against each other during the regular season, the Celtics won pretty convincingly over the Lakers. To be fair, both games were played before Los Angeles obtained Gasol, but neither game was very close. The Celtics also have home-court advantage, with the first 2 and last 2 games set to be played in Boston assuming the series goes the full 7 games. Boston has a 10-1 record at home in the playoffs this year and the Lakers will need to win at least one road game. If the Celtics win every home game, they win the series. It's as simple as that.

Why the Lakers should win: Everyone knows about Kobe Bryant. He's the league's reigning Most Valuable Player and by far the best at closing out games in the clutch. There are no weaknesses to his game and the comparisons to Jordan (which we've been hearing for the past 10 years) are actually starting to hold some water. If the Lakers pull off a series victory, it will be Kobe's 4th championship, just two less than Mr. Space Jam. At the ripe old age of 29, Bryant still has plenty of time for two more, especially since the rest of his team is so young. Paul Pierce and James Posey will play spirited defense against Kobe, so the biggest Laker advantages are their coaching experience (Phil Jackson has won 9 titles) and their deep bench of 5 reserves who can all play starter's minutes if needed. Derek Fisher usually plays well in big games and the Lakers underrated defense did a fine job dismantling the Spurs' exceptional trio of stars (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) in the Western Conference Finals.

Fearless Prediction: It will be a fantastic series with at least one overtime game. The Lakers will win one of the first two contests in Boston, but the Celtics will steal one from Los Angeles at the Staples Center. The series will head back to Boston with the Lakers up 3 games to 2. The NBA's two greatest franchises will then battle it out in a Game 6 for the ages. The score will be close the entire way, but L.A. will prevail thanks to some late-game heroics by a Laker not named Kobe. Will it be Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic? Only time will tell. When it's finally over 2 weeks from now, the Lakers will have their 15th championship, just one behind the Celtics' all-time total of 16. Buckle up and enjoy the show!

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