Records: Lakers 24-16 (4th in West), Celtics 21-18 (7th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (14th in NBA), Celtics 100.3 (25th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.4 (10th in NBA), Celtics 99.0 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett
Injuries: Lakers: none; Celtics: Jermaine O’Neal (out), Chris Wilcox (out), Mickael Pietrus (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: It seems every season there’s always an element of drama surrounding the Lakers and this year is no different. After the loss to Detroit, there were media reports of distrust of the offense being run and a hinting that the players would prefer to go back to what’s familiar (in other words, the triangle). After the loss to Washington, there were reports of the head coach retracting criticism towards certain players’ shot selection after a film review showed that those shots weren’t so bad after all. Now, after the win against Minnesota, a fresh report has the team meeting to talk about what they should and shouldn’t be saying to the press and to keep issues in house.
To all of this I say, welcome to the circus that is always a part of the Laker story. Like most fans, I’d prefer this stuff not be out there at all but the fact that it is doesn’t concern me as much as what the team is going to do when actually on the court. They need to execute better and they’re at the point in the season where there are no longer too many questions (if any) about what’s expected of them on the court. The schemes should no longer be new and that means it’s time to do what’s asked and run the sets the best they can. This team has already proven that when the y buy in and play the way the coaches want, they’re capable of being a very good team. When they don’t, they can lose to anyone and with those types of losses comes discord. It was the same under Phil Jackson.
At this point, the Lakers simply need to take whatever they’re feeling – anger, frustration, etc – and channel it on the court to playing better basketball.
The Celtics Coming in: The C’s have won 6 of 7 and are starting to find a bit of a better groove on offense. They’re coming off a 22 point thrashing of the Blazers where they put up 104 points, their 4th time in 6 games (all wins) that they’d scored over the century mark. Surpassing this threshold may not seem like a big deal but for a team that still plays stifling defense, it certainly matters. That uptick in offense is that extra boost that affords them an extra cushion that’s sorely needed, allowing them to avoid grinding out every game and relying only on getting stops as the key to a win.
Like the Lakers, though, despite the recent wins this Celtics team is one that’s in transition. Danny Ainge is openly taking calls on his best players with nearly every key member of their core seemingly available. Rumors of Ray Allen, Rondo, and even Pierce being shopped have all been floated to the media and while no deal is likely, it speaks to their falling out of elite status that a trade of any of those guys is even being discussed.
Keys to game: I could go on and on about what it takes to win this game but I’m not going to. These teams are very familiar with each other and while there are certain things that should be watched closely today – Boston’s lack of big man depth, the Lakers’ rotations, the pace of the game, how the Lakers’ guards deal with the pressure created by the C’s 2nd unit- I instead focus on the fact that there won’t be too many more of these games between these two teams. In fact, this may be the last one.
As mentioned earlier, Danny Ainge may blow up the C’s within the next week. Mitch Kupchak may take a similar approach with the Lakers. And if that happens, on either side, it will be the end of the remade rivalry that started in the 2007-08 season when the C’s acquired KG and Ray Allen and the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol. In the four seasons from that one to this, these teams have played in the Finals twice and faced off a total of 22 times (including the game this season). Each team claimed a championship at the expense of the other and each time they’ve faced off, regular season or playoffs, there’s been a feeling of importance surrounding the games. Bad blood has resulted with an intensity and electricity taking over the building whenever it’s Lakers vs. Celtics.
That will all be over soon. Even if no trades happen by the March 15th deadline this seaon, the Celtics likely won’t have Allen and Garnett next year as their contracts expire and the C’s are likely to go in a new direction. And while we don’t know what will happen with Gasol (or Bynum for that matter) the Lakers may also look quite different by the start of next season. So, enjoy this game for what it is: the last time these two teams with these two cores will face off in a game. That, in and of itself, gives this game some meaning. Add in both sides jockeying for playoff positioning in what’s becoming a tight race for both franchises to make one more post season run and this game matters for practical reasons too.
So, enjoy this game. Back in the early NBA this rivalry was the one that mattered most. In the 1980’s it became true again. And including this year, the same can be said for the past 5 seasons. With a new CBA and the rising of young teams like the Thunder, Bulls, and Heat, who knows when both teams will be at or near the top at the same time again? Who knows when the ingredients to renew the rivalry will come together? So, for old times sake, let’s watch these two teams get it on. I expect that same electric environment and hard fought contest to ensue. And I’ll be enjoying every second of it.
Where you can watch: 12:30PM start time on ABC. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.