Rebirth Of A Rivalry

Darius Soriano —  June 12, 2010

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Somewhere between Ron Artest jostling with Paul Pierce only minutes into Game 1 of the Finals and Big Baby howling at a delirious TD Banknorth Garden in Game 4, it hit me: this era’s version of Lakers vs. Celtics is finally, officially a bona fide rivalry. A simple comparison of past and present makes the difference clear.

Second-rate Rivalries
So much of the hype leading up to the 2008 Finals and to a lesser extent, these NBA Finals too, has revolved around the unmatched history between these two teams. Magic vs. Larry. The glamour of L.A. vs. the hard-nosed nature of Bean Town. Slick forum blue and gold vs. that hideous shade of green. We know all the major players by now. We know the stakes. We’ve watched for countless years as networks have tried to force rivalries down our throats with cheesy choir-inspired music, flashing images and the bold-worded promise that everything changes now. And then, more often than not, the Lakers prevail and it’s on to the next great up-and-coming rival.
The fact that the series is even at two after four games helps, but that alone is far from enough to create a lasting rivalry. During the Kobe era Lakers, the team has certainly had its fair share of bad blood with a number of teams. We all remember the Chris Webber and Mike Bibby-led Sacramento Kings and the shot heard ‘round the world in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Kings were like a more experienced, veteran savvy version of this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder – full of energy and lacking the fear you would expect when a young team is playing against the preeminent franchise in the league. There was undoubtedly a whole lot of nasty in Lakers vs. Kings – Phil Jackson’s “cow town” comment, Rick Fox and Doug Christie’s tumble during a pre-season game, Vlade Divac’s “lucky shot” remark and of course, cowbells. At the end of the day though, as much as most fans of the forum blue and gold still feel disdain toward the league’s remaining former Kings players, they were never quite able to knock the Lakers off of their throne.

The same can be said for the Lakers’ other prominent pseudo-rivals over the past 10 years; close, but no cigar. The Steve Nash-led Suns have been a thorn in Kobe and Co.’s side for years now, but like Phoenix’s ever-changing roster, the level of animosity that breeds an “I hate your mother” caliber rivalry has been too inconsistent. Plus, when a solid 20% of your home arena is rooting for the road team, as is often the case when L.A. plays in the desert, I’m not sure that really screams rivalry either. The Nuggets began to make a case as the Lakers’ next great adversary last season, but their quick flame-out in this year’s playoffs proves that they’re nothing more than a poor man’s version of the Kings – young, talented, full of attitude, but ultimately not ready to take the reins just yet.

In reality, the Spurs are the only team who has truly given the Lakers an extended run for their money in the past decade. Not to dismiss the rivalry as mere playground fodder, but for me, Lakers vs. Spurs was always more about the two teams’ solid fundamentals and outstanding coaching than a true, fire in the belly, do-or-die style rivalry. San Antonio respected the Lakers and aside from a few misguided Manu Ginobli elbows, L.A. returned the sentiment.

Why Lakers vs. Celtics 2.0 is Special
Like the Yankees in the MLB, the Lakers – and their fans – rely on the type of rare competitive juice that only comes from competing against an arch nemesis. In both cases, those teams happen to reside in Boston. As much as fans of the pinstripes love to hate the Red Sox, they know that no other team will inspire the same level of emotion or possess the same ability to create the “special” sports moments that we all crave. I think the Lakers and Celtics work the same way; sure, it was fun to watch the Green slip into the NBA abyss for a good portion of the past decade, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like beating your number one foe on the world’s biggest stage.

In 2008, that’s exactly what Boston did – defeat L.A. Celtics fans clamored for the Big Three to BEAT L.A. the entire series, but they went a step further by embarrassing us in the greatest comeback in Finals history in Game 4, before massacring the Lakers in a deciding Game 6. Look no further than the Black Mamba’s death stare for proof that L.A. isn’t still seething in anger. When you’re playing against a true rival, sometimes revenge isn’t enough. When a player like Paul Pierce proclaims the series isn’t coming back to L.A., you want to use your on-courts weapons to knock the smirk right off his face.

With so many players on both sides already in or entering “legacy time,” the stakes are even higher. Will Kobe still be considered the greatest Laker ever if he isn’t able to knock of his team’s long-time rival? To a lesser extent, Pau Gasol finds himself in a similar predicament – show up big in the final games of this series and he’s on the fast track to having his name retired by the Lakers someday. Boston’s Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen also face defining moments in their careers. While all three already boast Hall of Fame credentials, they’re out to prove that their 2008 instant title wasn’t a one-and-done. If KG’s injury before last year’s playoffs doesn’t happen and they go on to win this year, you can at least make a case that Boston would be on their way to a three-peat.

I think the most important attribute that makes this version of Lakers vs. Celtics a special rivalry is the familiarity and relative consistency of both teams’ rosters since their last Finals matchup. Though a few of the supporting players have changed in two years, the core nuclei for both teams remain intact. These two teams both know what it takes to get to the NBA’s promised land. On the court, they know how to guard each other; they know what pisses the other off most. They’re both under each other’s skins from the coaching staffs on down. So far in this series, both the Lakers and Celtics have responded to adversity. This is a familiar battle for these two teams and neither suffers from short-term memory loss.

Though steeped in history, this current rivalry isn’t so much about the Lakers and Celtics of yesteryear; this is about two evenly matched teams creating an imprint in a popular culture landscape dominated by the iPod and the Kardashians. Peoplecare about what happens in this series and if you don’t believe me, just check out the overnight ratings for Game 4, which earned the highest score since the 2004 Finals. While the 2008 Finals marked the latest incarnation for fans that grew up watching Lakers vs. Celtics, it merely served as a brief introduction for a new generation of Lakers fans. Two years later, and this rivalry is real as ever for everyone involved, and not just because the history books say so. The Kobe-led Lakers and the Big Three-led Celtics have all of the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to create another epic chapter in this storied rivalry.

-Jeff Skibiski

Darius Soriano

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25 responses to Rebirth Of A Rivalry

  1. Did anyone notice how good the Lakers offense looked last game when they ran the ball through Ron Artest? It was basically the only times the team got open shots. There are several reasons for that. Artest is better on the ball than off the ball, he and Gasol are the most unselfish Lakers when attacking with the ball (that is huge against a Celtics team that likes to focus on the ball), it allows the rest of the team (Gasol/Odom/Bynum/Kobe) to play off the ball which is something they are great at, it spreads the floor nicely with Kobe on the outside instead of Artest, and it takes advantage of Pierce who is the Celtics worst one on one defender. Artest was getting to the basket and scoring at will and passing out of doubles for lay ups and threes. I think it will be something the Lakers go to early on the loosen the Celtic defense that tightens on Kobe so often. It also frees Kobe up from having to attack against the teeth of that Celtic defense. And oh yea…. go USA!!!!!

  2. great writeup.

  3. As a member of the new generation of Lakers fans, I can’t wait for the next game. I’m nervous about the state of Bynum’s knee, excited to see what Kobe and Fisher will do, hoping fervently that Ron will blanket and shut up Paul Pierce for good…

    Is it tomorrow yet?

  4. My dream scenario for game 5 is for Kobe to drop 65 with the last two or three of his points at the buzzer for the win. That would be epic and awesome

  5. the other Stephen June 12, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    y’all are very fortunate to watch the finals. this year, i’ll be stuck in an office in china at noon scrolling through box scores. send me a t-shirt, please. :)

  6. My dream scenario is a Laker victory…I don’t care how, or by how many…just WIN.

  7. Couple of thoughts. LO is who he is. He dosen’t do well aganist phyical players. Lo in his heart and mind is a point guard in a PF body. We can’t change that.

    For those that want more Luke. Please!. Remember 2008 finals? You got poor defense, mixed with a dash of no offense and spiced with no rebounding. That is not the answer.

    I am ok with more Sasha because at least there is the threat of a made basket.

    Our bench just like LO, it is what it is and if we are to win it won’t be due to their play. We win or lose with our starters.

  8. Same as Mimsy. I think for those of us that didn’t live through the 80s, it was hard to properly understand the buildup to 2008. We respected the history and wanted to feel it, but you couldn’t really feel the hatred. We didn’t live through McHale’s clothesline live, or the pain of that first defeat in the Finals when Magic was dubbed Tragic Johnson.

    Now, we understand. After the pain of 2008, the absolutely disgusting antics of this team on the floor, we feel that hatred. There’s respect for a great defensive outfit, but mostly disgust and anger. I’m no fun to watch these Finals games with, because I just start cussing up a storm. And it’s all due to the Celtics.

  9. Ah, i have a freakn GRADUATION tomorrow. Laker nation, I will be freaking out as I sit there anxiously and refresh my phone every 2 seconds!!

  10. Snoopy I feel you. My wife won’t let me watch at home due to my 5 year old hearing my rants.

    Running out of cigar stores to watch game.

    i am a sad case of Boston hate.

  11. 1, I think we watched different games, because the Ron Artest I saw had one good offensive play where he took Paul Pierce off the dribble when Pierce overcommitted to Ron’s three point shot and that was it. Otherwise I just saw a bunch of poorly run possessions and lots of dribbling.

  12. 11 @ zephid i believe aaron is being sarcastic

  13. This may be a little OT, but one thing I always wonder about is where the rest of the NBA fans fall in line with the rivalry between us and Boston. Personally, I like to side with territory — if ever the Lakers were not contending for a championship, I would root for the ones in our division; and if not then, then at least root for the West. It’s kind of like rooting for the your ancestral country when you’re from an immigrant family (I’m American-born Chinese), I think, where in the past I would root for China when US wasn’t competing. This of course was when I was a naive kid thinking the best thing about being Chinese was kung fu, now I tend to root against them.

    On the flip side, I don’t think I know anyone who has really bandwagoned onto the Laker side of the rivalry. Everyone I know whose team has been eliminated from the playoffs, whether by LA or not, is simply rooting against us. It makes me feel kind of sad, because it’s not how I think of things.

    How would you guys root, if it was someone going against Boston or, like in 2006, Dallas v. Miami?

  14. 1,11, 12 —

    Yeah, watching Artest dribble randomly around in circles makes me hold my breath – I always just KNOW something horrible is about to happen.

  15. Re: Artest, he should take a page from Worm’s playbook, and I don’t mean he should start in with wearing makeup and feather boas.

    Since Ron has fogotten how to shoot, apparently, why not concentrate on defense, rebounding, and put backs? The latter only when it’s an offensive rebound. That last directive should be obvious, but with Artest you never know.

  16. Snoopy2006,
    Think about us old-far*s. We’ve been following the Lakers since the early 60’s.

    Just think how much we hate the Cs.

  17. Young or old, newb or vet, if you are a lakers. You respect them as a worthy opponent, but you ultimately want to see them go down, especially at our hands.

    One thing that’s interesting to note as a carryover from the 80’s: those Celtics were solid overall but dirty defensively and Magic’s showtime was finesse and razzle dazzle. And now we have another respectable overall yet thugly defensive Celtics team vs our graceful and finesse-oriented Lakers squad.

    Coincidence or just an institutional thing on both sides?

  18. Artest has just looked lost on offense. Whenever he gets the ball, he stops and the whole rhythm of the offense is broken. E.g. when Kobe ran out past the 3pt line calling for the ball to keep swinging around the perimeter and Ron didn’t get it to him, then kept faking passes to farmar, to the post, etc. etc. and other times when Ron gets the ball, thinks about shooting, thinks some more, runs down the shot clock and forces a jumper. And let’s not forget his ridiculous left-handed patting-the-ball-down-like-a-child dribbling session at the end of the game the other day.

    I love Ron Ron, but he needs to get his act together. Like, now.

  19. @BrianHQ
    I live in “the west”, and the people around me root for teams from the region where they grew up. So if the grew up in the Eastern Conference, they root for those teams. Oh, and they root for the Celtics because they are “the underdog”.

  20. I’m wearing my FBG “Real Men Don’t Wear Green” T-Shirt all day today. Tonight the leps go down hard!

  21. A lot of folks in the SF Bay Area root against the Lakers I think partly because of a perceived “rivalry” in general with SoCal. And, I guess they keep hoping the Warriors will wake up some day.

    I’ve lived in the Bay Area 20 years, and do like it, but on ocassion people up here will find it necessary to inform me they don’t like L.A. (the City in general or the Lakers in particular). Like I give a rip what they think!

  22. Anyone over the Celtics. ANYONE.

  23. Zephid,
    You should re watch the last game as I did. When Artest was given the ball to create his own offense in prime spots he was amazingly effective. It only happened 5 times… but each time he either scored on a lay up or created an open lay up or three point shot for teammates.

  24. I meant to do this before the game, but lest it stand anyway as a response to this:

    “A lot of folks in the SF Bay Area root against the Lakers I think partly because of a perceived “rivalry” in general with SoCal. And, I guess they keep hoping the Warriors will wake up some day.”

    The bay area is an interesting case. There are a lot of sports fans who don’t really like LA/SoCal in other sports and transfer it over (Giants-Dodgers, A’s-Angels, Raiders-Chargers, Sharks-Ducks/Kings, all college rivalries). Many even picked up the Kings when they were good and the Dubs were in the pits. Some, like many elsewhere, just take issue with Kobe. But there are a lot of fans who appreciate good teams/players and have enough LA connections that they root for the Lakers behind the Warriors, or just root for LA outright. Being a pure Warriors fan is always a very difficult experience.

    It’s just a mess really. The area can’t even decide if Oakland and SF fans actually see themselves as rivals in any real sense.