Let's get this out of the way right of the bat: I am a Lakers fan. Have been one since I started watching basketball as a kid. That means I hate the Celtics with a passion.
When Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, the only reason I did not unleash any swear words was because there were none in my vocabulary. During the lean post-Bird era, I kept a watchful eye on the Celtics, believing they might rise from the grave like Stephen King's Carrie.
Last season, my fears finally materialized, when McHale of all people gifted the Celtics with Kevin Garnett, one of the players I wanted most on the Lakers roster. Preceding that blockbuster trade, of course, was the acquisition of probably the best pure shooter in the game, Ray Allen.
Juxtaposed against the rebirth of the Celtics was the emergence of the post-Shaq Lakers, who, for the first time since Shaq Diesel left town, looked like legitimate contenders. Andrew (Who?) Bynum (the guy who was the obstacle in the Jason Kidd trade) was starting to come into his own, ending the torturous Chris Mihm-Kwame Brown era.
The old rivalries were coming back again; the old hatred was rekindled. KG was no longer "intense" and "driven" but "arrogant" and "classless." Allen was no longer a great shooter but expiring goods. Paul Pierce remained, as always, a perennial loser with a perpetual shell-shocked look.
The way the Finals panned out was my worst nightmare; the Celtics decimated the Lakers. Absolutely decimated the Lakers. Kendrick Perkins (you have no idea how much I hated him) may be a brute, but he is an effective one. Rajon Rondo, whom I laughed at for being skinnier than a FEMALE gymnast, made Derek Fisher contemplate early retirement.
KG and Allen...well, they lost nothing going to the Celtics; they were the same players I admired since before they changed addresses. Pierce was superb even though, in conversation with my buddies, I emphasized on the fake wheelchair, but privately, yes, I have to give him his props.
The Finals left a bitter taste in my mouth that I refuse to wipe out with Gatorade.
Yet, in spite of all that, I respect the 2007-08 Celtics, albeit grudgingly. Heck, as heretical as this sounds, I wished the Lakers were more like them. The toughness. The ferocity. The competitiveness. The lack of—dare I say the four-letter word?—soft-ness.
I wished we had shooters like Allen, Eddie House, and James Posey instead of Vladimir "hot-or-cold" Radmanovic, the spluttering Machine, and Luke "I am shooting because I've got no one to pass to" Walton.
I wished our interior defense were more Garnett-Perkins-Leon Powe like rather than, yes, soft. I wished we had a hard-as-nails perimeter defender. I wished we had a speed demon like Rajon Rondo. The 2007-08 Celtics are the prototypical title contender. When healthy, I still believe they have the most complete starting five.
In a perverse way, the brutal manhandling from the Celtics helped the Lakers and indeed the rest of the league. Defense is no longer an afterthought. "Defense wins championships" is no longer a mantra for clubs that play "ugly" basketball.
Bynum learned that his role would be more Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain. Trevor Ariza was molding into a Bruce Bowen type of player. Even Pau Gasol started spending time in the weight room to toughen up. "Don't call us soft" might as well be the Lakers' rallying cry. Credit that to the Boston Celtics.
This year, fresh from watching the Lakers' Game One victory over Orlando in the NBA Finals, I can't help but miss those darned Green Goblins. Now I am not slighting the Magic since they are the worthy winners of the Eastern Conference, but facing them just does not evoke the same spectrum of emotions as facing the Celtics.
The new stories revolve around Kobe and Phil Jackson's redemption, Superman's maturity, the shadow of Shaq, and so on. It is just that not much is spoken of their rivalry, unlike facing the Celtics.
As much as I hate to admit it, Celtic pride is well and alive. Even when injuries forced Doc Rivers to give significant minutes Brian Scalabrine and make a star out of Glen Davis, the Celtics never gave up.
The Chicago Bulls, with their athleticism and Ben Gordon shooting for a pay raise, almost upset the hobbled Celtics, but Celtic pride and the somewhat questionable heroics of Rondo brought them through. Perkins tugged on to the cape of Superman and prevented easy looks for the lurking Magic shooters.
In the end, without the Garnett and Powe, the Magic proved too much for the Celtics to handle, but no one can fault them for giving up.
As long as there is no truth to the rumor that Allen and Rondo will be traded for Amar'e Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa, the Celtics will be back next season. You can count on it.
As long as they have their core intact, they will be contenders. Like Freddy Krueger, they will return. After the air guitar antics, the Cavaliers better watch out. Celtic pride will come back to haunt you. This is no chump team.
As a Lakers fan, I look forward to the return of the Boston Celtics next season, so, if nothing else, we can beat you guys down and return the favor of last season.