It was destined to happen. The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, finally on the cusp of tying their long-time rival. The storied franchise of the Boston Celtics, intent on avenging the loss last year.
This was to be settled in June on the grandest stage. It was the tiebreaker series, as each team won a championship at their nemesis’ expense. It was the matchup the NBA wanted, a series to settle it all for this generation. Nothing was going to get in the way.
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers thought they could settle the score. A third NBA Finals series would give one team a 2-1 head-to-head edge. More importantly, either the Lakers would tie the Celtics for all-time titles with 17 or Boston would climb to 18, giving the Celts a little more breathing room.
Outside forces didn’t affect the teams as much as internal obstacles. The playoffs are into the second round and both teams are eliminated. The Lakers were embarrassed by the Dallas Mavericks in a sweep (while Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum embarrassed the franchise with late flagrant fouls). Boston was put away by Miami in five games.
The two most celebrated franchises in the NBA came up dramatically short of their planned destination as well thought out blueprints didn’t produce the desired results.
Los Angeles won two straight NBA Championships on the strength of Kobe Bryant and unmatched size from Pau Gasol, Bynum and Odom. There was no need to change a winning formula, just enhance it. A couple of roster changes should had been enough.
While the new faces haven’t played up to expectations, the hunger that was instrumental to the two titles evaporated. Twice against the Mavericks the Lakers entered the fourth quarter with the lead, only to blow it. Complacency set it.
Even head coach Phil Jackson wasn’t himself. Philosophical Phil became Jocular Jackson, quick to snap a barb toward his team publicly.
Was Jackson’s desire into this? He was coaxed out of retirement by the fans, players, and organization for one final attempt at a three-peat after winning his 11th championship as a head coach last June.
Like Brett Favre, who was dragged from his Mississippi home for a final season with the Minnesota Vikings, Phil was coaching for them and not himself. No wonder Jackson said he was relieved after being swept.
To celebrate his final season, Jackson wore a different championship ring to every game. This ring tradition was more like a countdown for Jackson and the Lakers. Jackson didn’t get the chance to wear his 11th ring.
For the Celtics, they knew they had to change if they were going to beat the Lakers in a Finals rematch. Lack of depth with length did Boston in and executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge was determined to not leave the Celts short.
Investing in aging big men with a history of injuries was a bad move. As the injuries mounted throughout the team, Ainge made a shocking trade-deadline deal that sent center Kendrick Perkins, the defensive anchor for two Finals runs and one championship, to Oklahoma City.
It’s easy to blame the second round exit on the decisions made by Ainge, but the Celtics were doomed to come up short regardless. If Boston remained virtually unchanged, they still would had been eliminated. It was just a question of when.
So where are these teams headed?
Down. The run for these teams is over as both rosters are expected to undergo dramatic changes. Moving forward means taking a step back, and there’s no telling how long it will take for the Celtics and Lakers to return to being legitimate contenders.
The rivalry will add another chapter to their history next season, but the stakes won’t be high. They probably won’t meet in the Finals in 2012. A series with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line between the teams probably won’t happen for a while. The greatest rivalry in the NBA will hibernate until they pick up the pieces from the 2010-2011 season and rebuild.
When they meet again with the championship on the line, it will be well worth the wait.
Read more by Randolph Charlotin at his New England Patriots blog at www.randolphc.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.