Alright, enough with the Conference Finals. Enough with exaggeration and panic and fans and media alike going crazy. Time for something REALLY compelling.
No match-up in basketball - heck, no match-up in SPORTS - is more compelling, more exciting, more bloodcurdling than Lakers-Celtics...or Celtics-Lakers, to be fair to both sides of the coin. No two teams have ever met so often to determine the champions of their sport.
Not Dodgers-Yankees. Not Cowboys-Steelers. Not even close.
With 32 leagues championships and 50 (that's right) Finals appearances between the two before this year, it only makes sense that the Lakers and Celtics would meet once again. Before the summer solstice rolls around, the combined total of Larry O'Brien trophies for these two teams will be 33. The big question, though, is who will take that title home?
Some favor the Celtics, who ultimately embarrassed the Lakers in the Finals two years ago for their first NBA Championship since the glory days of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. Some favor the Lakers, who, since said trouncing, have won a championship, added the defensively tenacious Ron Artest, and grown into a tougher and more resilient unit as a whole.
That being said, let's take a look at what's changed since the 2008 Finals match-up between LA and Boston and see how those changes could affect the outcome of this year's edition:
The most obvious change that's taken place over the last two years, for both teams, is the growth in experience. The two years since the 2008 Finals have seen each team confront new and different challenges with a variety of results. Most significantly, this year's version of the Lakers now has the championship pedigree to match that of the Celtics, after Kobe Bryant led his squad to the 2009 NBA Championship over the Orlando Magic in five games.
On the other hand, it's not as though the C's have been sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs the entire time. Boston nearly made a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year and, if not for the absence of Kevin Garnett due to injury, it might be looking at a potential three-peat this year. Such experiences have certainly strengthened Boston as a whole, making them that much more of a threat now that KG is back.
Each of these two basketball juggernauts has made significant personnel changes since they last met in the championship round. No longer can Boston rely on Eddie House to hit daggers and James Posey to stick to his opponents like glue off the bench. No longer can LA watch native son Trevor Ariza do both of those things from his spot in the starting lineup.
These roles will now be played by entirely different actors. The Celtics have added Rasheed Wallace, the fiery and well-seasoned ex-Blazer and Piston, to their reserves, along with his three-point shooting, low post defense, and championship experience. Though far less heralded than 'Sheed, Nate Robinson brings with him plenty of spark, as evidenced by his performance in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals, wherein he practically scorched the nets with his hot shooting.
For the Lakers, the de facto replacement of Ariza with Ron Artest has been combed over time and again in the sports media. Though Ron-Ron may not be "sharpshooter" that Ariza allegedly was, he carries with him the kind of size, strength, tenacity, and know-how that should enable him to do what neither Trevor Ariza nor a fake injury could last time around - stop Paul Pierce.
Same Players, Different Mindsets
For the most part, the Lakers and Celtics return with the same core group of players. However, there are some notable changes among those returning for this go-round. Since 2008, the Celtics have morphed from a three-headed monster into the Fantastic Four, with Rajon Rondo developing into an All-Star and All-NBA-caliber point guard alongside the veteran stalwarts of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. Unlike last time, when Boston depended on the Big Three to get it done and were happy with whatever Rondo could give them, the Celtics now rely on Rajon to make plays for himself and distribute the ball effectively to his superstar teammates, which he has proven capable of doing, especially in this year's playoffs.
Such would seem like a pure advantage for the Celtics, if not for changes to the Lakers' key components as well. Last time, Boston dominated LA's frontline with a blend of size and physicality that Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom struggled to match. This time, the Lakers have Andrew Bynum who, though once again hampered by a bad knee, will at the very least provide the Purple and Gold with another big body to throw at KG and Kendrick Perkins. Add to this the improved toughness and overall prime-of-his-career play of Pau Gasol, the Phoenix-like (pun intended?) resurrection of Derek Fisher's shooting stroke, and the payback mindset behind Kobe's unmatched determination and competitiveness, and the Lakers have a few tricks up their own sleeve as well.
Overall, it's difficult to say definitively who now holds the edge in this age-old rivalry. Sure, the Lakers have improved, but so have the Celtics. As a Lakers' fan, I will be rooting harder than ever for Kobe and the gang against the much-despised Paul Pierce and his band of goons. However, I expect an entertaining and intriguing series, as always, between these two historically dominant franchises.
And the Lakers in six.