Archives For Finals 2010

Looking For Answers

Darius Soriano —  June 14, 2010

There’s an eerie familiarity to what’s currently happening in the NBA Finals.  Much like the 2008 match up between the Lakers and the Celtics, the Lakers look a bit befuddled on offense while their defense is coming up short at inopportune times.  Meanwhile, Boston’s defense is as smothering as ever and their offense is finding the cracks in the Lakers defensive schemes to score just enough points to keep the Lakers at arms length over the course of a game.  Things are not looking good for the Lakers and it’s now time for them to play their best game or suffer another Finals defeat at the hand of the Celtics.

Everywhere I look, people are searching for answers.  They want to know what adjustments can be made.  They want to know what secret play can be run.  They’re looking for that tweak to the Lakers’ schemes that will turn the series back in favor of the Lakers.  Well, everyone can stop looking – those things don’t exist. 

The Lakers are not going to change what they do.  They’re a Triangle team on offense and funnel you to the paint (to contest with their bigs) team on defense .  That’s what they’ve been all season and expecting them to come up with some sort of X’s and O’s elixir at this point in the season – when at the brink of elimination or on the verge of forcing a deciding game 7 – is not the way that basketball works.  At this point in the season, you go back to the fundamentals of your game and you do them better.

There is your answer.

The Lakers must get back to playing their brand of basketball; they must get back to the style that got them this far in the playoffs where they won 2 of the first 3 games of the Finals.

That means going back to the post and working the ball inside out.  This is easier said than done because of the way that the Celtics are muscling Gasol from the low block.  My answer to that is to fight harder for position and be patient when making post entries.  Work better passing angles and allow Gasol to get open.  And then after making the catch, Pau needs to play his game by attacking the rim when players crowd him and shooting his face up jumper when the defense plays off him.

The Lakers must also get back to cutting and screening off the ball after initial passes are made.  Too often in the past two games the Lakers have been jogging in their movements.  There has not been enough urgency in the Lakers movement off the ball and it’s led to the stagnant sets we’ve all witnessed in the past few games.  This has led to Kobe needing to have the ball in his hand entirely too often for the Lakers to end up with an even halfway decent look.  If the Lakers move better off the ball and create the separation need to make catches so they can either shoot or move the ball on again, the crispness to this offense will return.  This will help Kobe and Pau who all to often have been asked to create one on (more than) one and take to the teeth of a waiting Celtic defense.  If players are moving better off the ball, those help defenders are then occupied by the men they’re guarding or caught in a position of helping with not enough time to recover.

Defensively, the Lakers need to get back to pressuring the ball more.  The only Celtic that’s really feeling any sort of pressure when he’s handling the ball is Ray Allen.  The Lakers are chasing, bumping, and running at Ray every single time he even sees a sliver of daylight.  I can understand not using this approach on Rondo, but everyone else needs a defender glued to him.  That extra pressure will force turnovers and generate some open court opportunities.  Who here thinks Tony Allen is comfortable facing heavy ball pressure?  And if Artest is going to be guarding Pierce, he needs to stop respecting his first step as much, trust his help, and force Pierce to blow by him.  There can be no more uncontested shots and every player should be put in a position where they are looking to give the ball up because the pressure is so severe.

But in the end, everything must be done smarter and with that extra bit of effort.  Despite what some folks have said, the Lakers are playing hard.  What they have not been is effective.  And if they hope to become effective, they must continue to work hard but give that little bit more of themselves both physically and mentally.  This series is not over.  And if the Lakers hope to be able to say the same thing on Wednesday morning, they’ll have to understand that they only thing they can do is look in the mirror and bring everything they’ve got. 

So, this is a call to arms.  All hands on deck as the season lies in the balance.  There are no more excuses and no more games to fall back on.  And you know what? I’m confident that this team will get it done.  In the darkest moments, this team has responded.  They are the defending champion with a core of players that knows what it takes to get the job done.  In every instance over the past two seasons, this team has met these challenges with the victory that’s needed.  Tomorrow night is another one of those moments and I see them bringing their best.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant puts up a shot as he is double-teamed by Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce (34) and Kendrick Perkins (42) in the third quarter during Game 5 of the 2010 NBA Finals basketball series in Boston, Massachusetts June 13, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

THE BLOGS

From Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: There’s nothing particularly explosive about Paul Pierce’s offensive game. He’s more resourceful than dynamic, more craftsman than artist, a scorer who relies on space more than velocity. In Game 5 on Sunday night, Pierce applied his trade with precision.  In the first half, he relied on a steady diet of high screens to draw mismatches against the Lakers’ big men, then launch his step-back jumper. In the second half, Pierce found opportunities in isolation against Ron Artest.

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: Walking into the locker room after a crucial Game 5 loss, Kobe Bryant could be heard going on an expletive-filled tirade at his team. His comment later to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski was telling. “We’ve regressed since Game 1,” Bryant confessed to Yahoo! Sports. “Our defense belongs on milk cartons in the last two games.” A few minutes after Bryant’s venting to his team, Phil Jackson was in front of the media with a different demeanor. He was trying to be positive.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: If you’re a Laker, you have but one request for the flight back to Los Angeles tomorrow morning: a seat other than the one next to Kobe Bryant. You don’t want to sit by him, you don’t want to look at him, you frankly shouldn’t be breathing the same air. Just find yourself a spot in the luggage hold, and stay out of his sight. The Mamba’s anger has been on a low simmer all playoffs long, and after tonight’s calamity, an 86 to 92 Game Five loss to the Boston Celtics, we can officially put Kobe on core-meltdown alert. He did what he could to keep the Lakers alive in this one, ripping off 38 points, but from his supporting cast exactly no one came even close to matching his effort or production. Brink, meet the Lakers. Lakers, brink.

From Brian Kamenetzki, Land O’ Lakers: Kobe Bryant is a tough man to keep down. Even in 2008, when Boston made his task so difficult even Sisyphus himself would have looked at him and thought, “Man, that’s hard,” Bryant still went off for a 36 point, 12-for-20 effort in Game 3. Through four games of this year’s Finals, Bryant has hardly been invisible, but also not the otherworldly figure we saw through the first three rounds of the postseason. Coming out of the half in Game 5, with his team down six, he was apparently ready for his closeup.

From Mike Trudell, Basket Blog: The Lakers battled the Celtics throughout a Game 5 in Boston that defined the fight-for-every-inch cliche, but couldn’t make enough shots, or get enough stops, to prevent a 92-86 loss that sent the Purple and Gold back to Los Angeles down 3-2 in the NBA Finals.L.A. managed to stay within six points at the half despite being out shot by 33 percent (66 to 33), but things began to get away in the third even as Kobe Bryant went on a phenomenal individual run to score his team’s first 19 points.

From Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie: All season long, while the offense went up and down, the defense stayed about the same. Consistently great defense, mind you. The Los Angeles Lakers regressed significantly on the offensive end in 2009-10, falling to 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency after coming in third the year before, but the team’s defense stayed at just about a top three clip all season until a mini-swoon to end the regular season dropped them from fourth, up from sixth last year. Though it wasn’t pointed out as much, this was their bedrock. The thing to rely on when the ball movement stopped, and even Kobe Bryant couldn’t keep things close.

THE PAPERS

From Kevin Ding, Orange County Register: Maybe the Lakers rally at home to win this NBA championship, maybe not. Either way, there will come a time next spring when they’re sitting in a foreign locker room and their stomachs are churning a bit with the pressure of having to win a pivotal road playoff game. And at that moment, Kobe Bryant can rightly turn to his shaggy-headed Lakers co-star and say: “You owe me something, Spaniard. Now show me something.”

From Jeff Miller, Orange County Register: In their biggest game yet, they sure didn’t look like defending NBA champions. Or, more significantly, the NBA’s next champions. The Lakers instead looked like a team sputtering on fumes – out of position on some plays, out of gas on others. It was strange, disarming and disappointing. The Lakers who aren’t Kobe Bryant picked an unfortunate time to no-show, losing Sunday, 92-86, and now a defeat away from finishing No. 2 behind the annoying Celtics yet again.

From Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times: Paul Pierce raised his right index finger and yelled out “One more, baby!” as he walked off the court, surrounded by a mob of TV cameras as adoring Boston Celtics fans cheered wildly. No, this wasn’t the way the Lakers wanted to return to Los Angeles, overpowered and outmuscled by a more physical team in a 92-86 loss in Game 5 that had them standing near the cliff of elimination in the NBA Finals. The game was more of a gap than the scoreboard offered, the Lakers never leading after 37-36 and nobody other than Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol scoring in double figures for them, the latter barely doing it with an underwhelming 12-point effort.

From Vincent Bonsignore, Los Angeles Daily News: By the time Kobe Bryant reached the podium in the interview room Sunday at TD Garden, the Lakers’ 92-86 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA Finals was already a distant memory to him. “I’ve forgotten all about it,” he insisted. The Lakers returning home down three games to two to the Celtics hardly seemed a concern, the world champions needing to win the next two games to claim this series and their second title in row mere details. The entire city of Los Angeles might be going crazy with worry, anxiously bracing for the worst as the Lakers return home to try and stave off the hated Celtics. But Bryant seemed cool, calm and collected, not even a hint of concern or apprehension.

THE MAJORS

From Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Every time Boston coach Doc Rivers talked about it — and usually he was the one raising the topic, early and often over the past week and a half — he did so with an odd sense of calm. Eventually, Rivers would remind almost anyone who would listen, Kobe Bryant was going to hang “a big number” on his team in a 2010 NBA Finals game. And the Celtics would have to try to win in spite of it. It sounded less like a promise or a challenge to his players, frankly, and more like the way one faces other inevitable, unenviable and grim tasks in life. Such as tax audits, trips to the periodontist or home videos of the neighbors’ vacation to Chattanooga. And then it happened: the Black Mamba struck.

From J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: he summation of the Lakers’ Game 5 in Boston came from the postgame news conference moderator, who announced that Phil Jackson would speak first, then Doc Rivers, a yet-to-be-determined number of Celtics players, and finally: “It looks like L.A. will only be Kobe in here.” It made perfect sense, since it was only Kobe out there on the court. At one point Kobe Bryant had scored half of the Lakers’ points: 29 of 58. He finished with 38 in the Lakers’ 92-86 loss. Bryant also led them with four assists and had the team’s lone blocked shot. No other Laker did anything of value. Andrew Bynum played more than 31 minutes and reported no issues with his injured right knee, but grabbed only one rebound. Ron Artest couldn’t keep Paul Pierce from unleashing a 27-point night, while Artest missed seven of his nine field goal attempts and two free throws with 43.3 seconds remaining that extinguished the Lakers’ last hope for victory. The Celtics have made him the primary outlet for when Bryant is doubled, and Artest hasn’t made them pay consistently.

From Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: On a night when the Boston Celtics looked to be 20 points better — heck, maybe even more — than the Los Angeles Lakers, the lead was down to a precarious five points with 39 seconds left when the signature play of Game 5 of the NBA Finals unfolded. Kevin Garnett was inbounding from the sideline in the backcourt, there were 20 seconds left on the shot clock, and the Lakers were pressing man-to-man all over the court as Garnett was handed the ball. Suddenly, Paul Pierce sprinted from the foul line closest to Garnett and headed for the frontcourt, and Garnett fired a high-arching lead pass toward where Pierce was heading. Pierce and Derek Fisher jumped simultaneously, and the taller of the two caught the ball. Pierce quickly spun toward the Celtics’ basket as he was falling out of bounds, rifling a bullet pass toward Rajon Rondo as he made a beeline to the basket.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shoots over Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen in the third quarter during Game 5 of the 2010 NBA Finals basketball series in Boston, Massachusetts, June 13, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Last night’s loss was tough to stomach. The Celtics didn’t just win, but they controlled the tempo, they dictated the Lakers offense and had their most impressive offensive performance of these Finals, shooting 56 percent from the field including 66 percent in the first half – but it never seemed as if the game was out of reach until the final buzzer rang. On the flip side, the Lakers never were in sync offensively, it was one of their worst defensive performances this post season and they weren’t able to make any of the big plays the Celtics were able to make down the stretch, but still, a comeback didn’t seem improbable until the game was actually over.

The Lakers came out early and were aggressive attacking the rim. The ball went to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum early and often, the theme for the Lakers this post season. Bynum was much more active than he was in Game 4 and combined with Derek Fisher to score the Lakers first 15 points of the game with ‘Drew scoring six of the 15. And that’s exactly what the Lakers wanted early – good contributions from guys not named Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to open up things for their stars later in the game.

The problem is, things really didn’t open up for anyone later in the game as the Celtics defense was stingy all night. We got to spend the first half watching the Boston defense put a clinic on how to stop a star with team defense and it started with Ray Allen. Allen did a great job of just being in a position to get a hand up on all of Kobe’s jumpers. The Celtics did what they could to funnel Kobe to where help would be and forcing other guys to make shots. Early in the game, I sent Darius a text saying that the Lakers success is going to depend on whether or not role players were going to be able to knock down the wide open looks they were going to be given – in Game 5, they didn’t knock down those shots.

Ron Artest was the recipient of a lot of those Kobe passes out of double teams and ended up shooting two for nine. Derek Fisher contributed zero points after scoring nine of the first 15 for the Lakers – he also shot two for nine. Jordan Farmar? 0 for four. The Celtics have decided that they’re just going to pack the paint and force Kobe to make contested jumpers or take their chances with the Lakers other parameter guys, and it’s working. Not only does this bring down the efficiency of the Lakers parameter players, but it reduces the overall efficiency of the offense. By packing the paint, they’ve made it much easier to defend Pau Gasol, who has seen his productivity decrease significantly since averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds in the first two games of this series. In Game 5, he had a line of 12 and 12, a far cry from his 23 and 14 performance in Game 1. The Celtics have a great defensive scheme, and the Lakers have made it easy on them by not moving the ball and not dribbling with purpose. They’ve taken way too many outside jumpers, which have led to better scoring opportunities for the Celtics.

However, it would be irresponsible to just blame this loss on the Lakers collective lack of offensive efficiency. They were just terrible defensively. Paul Pierce went to work on the Lakers early, and the Celtics found something that the Lakers had trouble defending. Instead of trying to free up Paul Pierce in screen and roll situations, they simply put him in iso situations and allowed him to go to work. I haven’t seen so many 1-4 low sets for one offensive player in a very long time. Pierce scored affectively against Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton. He was able to hit big-shot-after-big-shot, even some extremely tough ones with a defender draped all over him, and when he was double-teamed, he made the right plays – and when he didn’t make the play, other guys stepped up. Kendrick Perkins had a nice tip over Gasol. Rajon Rondo had a HUGE tip in over Kobe and LO.

It was those kind of plays that made all of the difference in this game. Tony Allen had that block on Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce made that great pass to an alert Rajon Rondo on that crucial inbounds play. Down the stretch for the Lakers, the watch rebounds go off of their hands out of bounds, they missed free throws and didn’t grab loose balls. The Celtics made all of the hustle plays down the stretch after Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo put them in a position to win it.

I will say that Kobe did have an ultra explosive third quarter. He scored 17 of his 19 points in the first six minutes of the quarter. There was a point where he had scored 23 straight for the Lakers and had 10 of the Lakers 20 field goals. Kobe literally kept the Lakers within reach hitting some of the toughest jump shots you’re going to see a man make, but it just wasn’t enough. Kobe dropping 38 would have gotten the Lakers a victory against the Suns, Jazz or Thunder, but not against a Boston team that is going to make the little plays that win championships.

The series shifts back to Los Angeles for Games 6 and 7, and if the Lakers are going to pull this thing out, they’re going to have to tighten up their defense and move the ball offensively. It’s not something that cannot be done, but those are the kind of things that make champions. Tuesday we’re going to find out if this Lakers team has the resolve to bounce back from being down in a playoff series. I know that they have all of the tools to get it done, it’s just a matter of focus and execution.

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Paul Pierce was wrong.

Either late tonight or early tomorrow morning, both the Lakers and the Celtics will be returning to Los Angeles to continue competing in the NBA Finals.  But it will be the results of tonight’s game that put one of these teams in prime position to win the championship.  The winner of tonight’s game 5 will only need one more vicotory to claim the 2010 NBA title.  I’ve thought for a little while now that the first team to 3 wins will take this series.  And after seeing how these Finals have become a back and forth affair where no team can really get a foothold by winning more than one game in a row, I believe this even more.  Believe me, I’d much rather be in the Lakers position with 2 games waiting in my home arena, but having to win 2 consecutive games to take this series is going to be difficult for either team regardless of location.  So if game 4 was a must win for the Celtics, I see this as a must win for both teams. Neither group wants to be one loss away from elimination.

And to earn this win, the question (again) is who will step up and play at that high level and give the performance that their team can hang their hat on?  Kelly Dwyer is looking for Kobe Bryant to be that player and to a large extent I agree.  I’ve talked a great deal about how the Lakers can try to crack the code of Boston’s defense; how they can run actions within the Triangle to get Pau good shots.  How if they screen hard and cut hard they’ll not only get good looks in the post but other players moving off the ball will find the creases in the defense to get the makeable shots that every offense craves.  But, Dwyer is also correct that this Celtics’ defense is a tremendous outfit that is taking nearly every first – not to mention second and sometimes third – option away.  And when that’s the case, you need that tremendous effort from the nearly unguardable player to get points.

And in this series, that player is Kobe.  Kobe will need his jumper tonight.  He’ll need that excellent first step.  He’ll need to draw fouls, get to the foul line, and take the momentum of the game in his hands and control it the way a samurai wields his sword.  I’m not looking for Kobe to be the hero and play one on five.  I’m looking for Kobe to control the game – there is a difference.  He was able to achieve this against Utah and Phoenix by going into the post and making an unbelievable number of contested jumpers.  Tonight, he may need to do the same to keep it so the Lakers never do trail in this series.  I want to see him attack early and not depend on reading the defense at every turn to get a shot.  I want to see him get the Celtics on their heels by using all facets of his tremendous skill set.  Kobe knows the stakes, I think he’s ready to give one of those performances that make him the Kobe that we’ve followed his entire career.

But Kobe will also need help.  Help that a good-to-go Andrew Bynum can hopefully provide.  We all saw how having Bynum not able to play his normal share of minutes affected game 4.  The C’s scored inside at will and owned the rebounding battle by grabbing 16 offensive rebounds.  So having ‘Drew back will be major boost.  Phil’s looking for 24 minutes from Bynum and if that can be provided, I think the Lakers will be able to effectively stagnate the C’s defense in the manner they have for most of this series.

The other player I’m looking to is Lamar Odom.  He’s been a whipping boy around these parts for some time and his performance in this series has only raised the decibel level from those that rail against his inconsistencies.  However, we also all know that Odom can be a difference maker.  Odom knows this fact as well.  But if LO is going to have the impact on this game that we know is possible, he’s going to have to get back to doing “Lamar” types of things.  That means rebounding on the defensive end and pushing the ball back at Boston (like he did on a play in game 4 where he grabbed a rebound, pushed the ball, kicked ahead to Pau, then got the ball back and finished with an and one).  It also means getting back to being active on the defensive end by hustling around the court, trapping ball handlers, and then recovering back to the defensive glass to rebound.  Odom can not be a spectator for any of the minutes he spends between the lines tonight; he must be the player that is assertive and grabbing at the action with his long left arm.  LO is capable of changing the tenor of a game and there would be no better night than tonight to make that happen.

The Celtics are also going to have their say in how this game plays out.  They’re going to try and build on their success of game 4 and take their first series lead tonight.  They’ll surely look to get Ray Allen back on track while also looking to get a sustained performance from Paul Pierce (who had a very good 1st quarter of game 4 with a dwindling impact over the rest of the game).  Another key for the C’s will be getting Rondo going again after not doing much of consequence after his triple-double in game 2.  He is the conduit for their most successful brand of basketball and it’s no wonder that the C’s have performed no where near their peak with Rondo not performing up to the standard that he’d set for most of these playoffs.  And we can’t forget that they’ll try to accomplish of this while continuing to play their stifling defense.

There are obviously more keys than the ones that I’ve mentioned – rebounding, playing with poise, making the little plays that generate momentum for your side or taking it away from your opponent – but in the end, these teams are so familiar with each other that one of the aforementioned factors will likely tilt this game in either the Lakers or Celtics’ favor.

And so here we are.  The NBA Finals have been reduced to a best of three series and tonight’s game is a major opportunity to gain the advantage that was not possible before this point.  As I mentioned, tonight’s winner will be on the precipice of claiming a championship by getting to 3 wins.  The stakes have never been higher.  Tonight we see which team has what it takes to go back to LA with the series lead that will likely be the difference in the ultimate outcome of the Finals.  Phil Jackson has been mentally prepping his team to be the team that achieves just that.  Let’s see if they can go get it.  Game on.

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