With the Celtics holding a 3-1 lead on Orlando and the Lakers up 2-1 in their series with Phoenix, it wouldn’t be premature to at least start thinking about what the series would mean to both the NBA and the two storied rivals.
Since then, we’ve seen the Spurs and Lakers win four titles against four different opponents.
The Pistons made it to consecutive Finals, but won one against the Lakers while losing the other to the Spurs.
The Nets made it to consecutive Finals in 2002-03, but lost both times to the Lakers and Spurs, respectively.
I know that if the Lakers and Celtics were to play each other in the Finals, it wouldn’t be a rematch of last season’s—but it would be a rematch of the 2008 Finals.
The facts that they are the last two teams to win an NBA title and there is genuine bad blood between the two franchises makes this more intriguing than the Bulls/Jazz series was in 1998.
Both teams have something meaningful to prove should they—as expected—meet again.
For starters, the defending champion Lakers are still angry about their “six-game sweep” from two years ago, while the Celtics would love to prove to the world—and especially to the Lakers—that had they been at full-strength last season, they’d be shooting for a third straight title right now.
There are 10 Lakers on the current roster who were on the team that lost by 39 points in the deciding Game Six two years ago.
Eight Celtics still remain from their title team—including all five starters.
The Celtics have won 17 championships—only two more than the Lakers' 15. Another title for the Celtics would all but guarantee the Lakers couldn’t catch them as they are currently constructed. Another title for the Lakers would put them within just one of the Celtics.
Right now, the Lakers and Celtics are like friends who had a falling out. But, instead of de-friending each other on Facebook, they’d prefer to keep an eye on each other’s whereabouts without their mutual friends knowing.
Since neither wants to be seen as the catty one who dropped the other, they remain “Facebook friends” even though they aren’t friends anymore. Neither voluntarily speaks about the other but it’s obvious they’re lying when they tell us they haven’t been paying attention to what the other one is up to. That is, until the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum admitted to ESPN Los Angeles’ Ramona Shelburne that the Lakers planned on watching the Boston/Orlando series together at a Phoenix-area restaurant.
There are just enough differences and similarities from the last time the two teams met to create even more interest than when they met two years ago—specifically the addition of two of the NBA’s most eccentric personalities in Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace.
It wasn’t that long ago when you couldn’t find a list of the worst free agent signings from last summer that didn’t have one, if not both, names on it.
Artest hasn’t received nearly the criticism that Wallace has, but Wallace wasn’t replacing a championship hero the way Artest replaced Trevor Ariza.
But both Artest and Wallace have proved during this postseason why their teams added them to their respective rosters.
Through the first two-plus rounds of the playoffs, Artest has already proved his worth by quarterbacking the defense. There are things that Artest has done during these playoffs that don’t get picked up by TV cameras.
For example, when one of his teammates takes a shot, Artest is already backpedaling to the defensive end. As his teammates join him, he points to where each of them should go. In doing so, his teammates don’t have to backpedal and can keep up with the man they’re guarding—almost like eyes on the back of their heads.
Against a fastbreaking team like the Phoenix Suns, it’s been invaluable.
Artest’s true value will be in the next round should the Lakers play the Celtics. Artest’s job will be to defend Paul Pierce—the MVP of the 2008 Finals. The Lakers had no answer for Pierce back then. They tried Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton, and Trevor Ariza (who had just returned from a broken foot) and they still couldn’t prevent Pierce from averaging 22 points per game in the six-game series.
The presence of Artest could allow Kobe to defend Rajon Rondo and allow Derek Fisher to chase Ray Allen around screens for 48 minutes. Kobe spent some time guarding Rondo in the 2008 series and did so successfully. So much so that Doc Rivers inserted Sam Cassell into the lineup of Game Two to spell Rondo and Cassell responded by scoring eight points in 13 minutes while being guarded by the much smaller Fisher.
But the 2010 version of Rajon Rondo is twice the player of his 2008 counterpart. Rondo 2.0 will do everything he can to get Kobe into foul trouble should they match up again.
As for Wallace, he’s been criticized this season for his conditioning (or lack thereof), his reckless 3-point shooting (28 percent), and his reluctance to play defense.
But the Wallace we’ve seen in the postseason, specifically in the Celtics series with Orlando, has been a completely different player.
In every game during this postseason in which he’s taken more than one 3-pointer, he’s connected on at least two. Dating back to Game Two of the Cleveland series, Wallace has made 11-of-21 3-point attempts (52 percent).
Wallace has also done a great job of guarding Dwight Howard by frustrating and fouling him and making him earn his points at the free throw line.
A potential Finals matchup between the Celtics and Lakers can be just as easily previewed by who isn’t around as by who is around.
Gone are Trevor Ariza, Chris Mihm and Ronny Turiaf—replaced by Artest (moving Odom to the bench), a healthy Andrew Bynum (who missed the 2008 Finals), and Shannon Brown.
Gone from the Celtics title team are James Posey, P.J. Brown, Leon Powe, Eddie House, and Cassell—replaced by Wallace, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Michael Finley and a healthy Tony Allen (who battled an Achilles injury through most of the 2008 Finals).
The biggest on-court differences between both teams might have to do with the play of Pau Gasol and Rajon Rondo. Gasol has done his best this season and last of shedding his reputation of being soft. He’s also done a great job of voicing his displeasure with the team’s offense when Kobe Bryant veers too far from the game plan.
As for Rondo, he’s undoubtedly been the most impressive player in the 2010 playoffs. Celtics GM Danny Ainge inked Rondo to a five-year, $55 million extension that kicks in starting next season. Had Rondo not signed the extension he would have been a restricted free agent heading into this summer. Is there any doubt, seeing as how Rondo has played this season, that he would have received multiple max offers from the plethora of teams with cap space?
And Ainge would have had no choice but to match the offers.
The other big difference this time around would be home-court advantage. This time the Lakers would be on the bookend sides of a seven-game series.
Since the NBA went to the 2-3-2 Finals format back in 1985 the home team has won 19 of the 25 Finals series.
The six teams to win titles without home-court advantage: the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 and 1998 Chicago Bulls, the 1995 Houston Rockets, the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat.
The Celtics tied for the second-best road record in the league this year (26-15) and have won four of their six road games so far in these playoffs.
The Lakers tied with three other teams for the second-best home record in the league (34-7) and have won all seven of their home games in the postseason so far.
The Lakers have won three of the last four meetings with the Celtics and have yet to lose a game in Boston since that horrendous 131-92 loss on June 17, 2008.
Both teams won on the other’s home-court this season but Bryant missed the Celtics 87-86 victory back on Feb. 18 with an ankle injury.
The highest-watched NBA Finals of the last 12 years was the Bulls/Jazz series in 1998. That series drew 29 million viewers—about 3.5 million more than the number who watched the two teams meet in the Finals the season before. The next highest on the list would be the 19 million people who watched the Lakers dispose of the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in 2001. When the Lakers and Celtics battled each other in 2008, the series drew close to 15 million viewers. The ratings last season when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in five games were about 10 percent lower.
So what can we expect should the two teams meet again?
I’m no expert, but I’m guessing the series could end up about halfway between the 29 million in 1998 and the 15 million who watched in 2008—putting the NBA Finals back in the same area code of success the NBA experienced when Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their second three-peat.
The Celtics’ performance in the 2008 Finals made everyone forget about how pedestrian the team looked heading into the Finals. While the Lakers had cruised through the first three rounds by defeating the Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs in only 15 games, the Celtics—who had cruised to a 66-16 record in the regular season—had struggled to defeat the Hawks, Cavs and Pistons in 20 games—going the full seven games in the first two rounds.
As a result, many of the “experts” who had picked the Celtics to win the title at the beginning of the playoffs had changed their tune before the start of the Finals. The Celtics went from being heavy favorites to being underdogs even though they had home-court advantage against the Lakers. To say the Celtics weren’t fully aware that people were picking the Lakers would be a gross understatement.
Nine of ESPN’s 10 experts predicted the Lakers would win the series. Marc Stein and Henry Abbott picked the Lakers to win in five games. J.A. Adande, Chad Ford and John Hollinger had them winning it in six games. Jalen Rose and Chris Broussard had them winning the series in seven games.
The lone ESPN basketball analyst/writer who picked the Celtics was Tim Legler—who picked them to win the series in seven games.
It would be hard not to think the Celtics would be heavy favorites this time around considering how they’ve destroyed the competition en route to their 21st NBA Finals appearance.
That doesn’t mean that the Lakers haven’t been impressive. They just haven’t been as impressive. The Lakers are the top-seed in the Western Conference. They’re only doing what they were expected to do.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have defeated (or are about to defeat) the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference (without home-court advantage) after finishing the regular season with just a 50-32 record—including a 27-27 finish over their last 54 games.
I wouldn’t be dumb enough to make a prediction before it’s official that these two teams will be playing in the NBA Finals. The only prediction I’ll make is that I think the series would go the full seven games.
As a basketball fan, could you ask for anything more than the NBA’s version of the Super Bowl featuring it’s two biggest rivals?
Andrew Ungvari is co-lead blogger for basketball website SirCharlesInCharge.com.
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