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.
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.