February 6, 2009

Lakers Beat the Celtics! (Only 8 Months Too Late)

Now that football season is over, it's time for the sports world's spotlight to shift to the greatest game of all: hoops. With March Madness less than 6 weeks away and the NBA schedule starting to heat up, it's my favorite time of year to be a sports fan. Over the next several months, I'm looking forward to the sweet sounds of sneakers squeaking, rims rattling, nets swishing and coaches screaming from the sidelines in their Armani suits.

Last night, 4.3 million viewers watched the Los Angeles Lakers 110-109 overtime thriller over the Boston Celtics, making it the most watched NBA regular season game on TNT since 1996. In case you've forgotten, that was when the Michael Jordan era was at its peak. Due in large part to the renewed Lakers-Celtics rivalry, the NBA is officially back as both a source of compelling entertainment as well as premier-level basketball. I was fortunate enough to catch the second half of the game, which was a basketball junkie's dream thanks to barrage of fourth quarter 3-pointers nailed by the cold-blooded Kobe Bryant, silencing the jeers of a hostile Boston crowd. While the team could have played a lot better (only 59% free throw shooting) and the razor-thin margin of victory was too close for comfort, a win is still a win. The significance? Combined with their 92-83 Christmas Day victory at Staples Center, L.A. sweeps the season series between the two teams which means they now hold the tiebreaker for home court advantage in case they happen meet up in the NBA Finals again (I have a funny feeling they will).

For Lakers fans like yours truly who were still bitter from the memory of last year's Finals meltdown against the Celtics, especially the merciless 39-point blowout in the series-clinching Game 6, the payback was sweet. There aren't too many things I'd rather do on a Thursday night than watch Kobe stick 3-point jumpers with Paul Pierce's hand in his face. It was particularly encouraging to witness outstanding performances from both Pau Gasol (24 points, 14 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (20 points including 2 clutch free throws with 16 seconds left), two players who were badly outplayed against Boston last year. Critics of the Lakers often accuse them of being "too soft" (a fair point), but last night, the purple and gold showed they have enough muscle to hold their own against their arch rivals from Beantown.

While last night's victory came 8 months too late to wipe away the missed opportunities of 2008, it's clear the Lakers are not taking anything for granted this time around. As icing on the cake, it was nice to see them end Boston's' 12-game winning streak, doing it without presence of 21-year-old phenom Andrew Bynum, who hopes to return from a knee injury right before the playoffs begin in April. At the beginning of this season, the Celtics were cruising through their schedule as questions swirled about whether L.A. had the physical or mental toughness to de-throne the defending champions. Those questions are no longer being asked.

Without a hint of fan bias, I can proudly declare the Lakers are the team to beat.

For now, anyway.

No comments: