One team was probably looking ahead. One team was looking dead….after playing a tight back-to-back (starting in Portland) across the country after a long home stand.
It is not what you would expect from two teams heading into a big showdown. Or maybe it is.
The Boston Celtics, last year’s NBA runner up and the team with the second best record in the league this season at 35-11 lost to the mediocre (21-24) Phoenix Suns. In fact, they got pummeled by them, scoring but 71 points. That was by far their lowest output of the season.
Along the way they lost coach Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett to double technicals, and Glen Davis to injury. The only other time they were held to less than 80 points this season was against the Bulls (79 points) and the Bulls actually play good defense.
The Lakers, going for 3 straight championships this year and this next attempt will be as huge as any the league has seen…ever, lost to the fearsome and now 11-33 Sacramento Kings. The Lakers were losing by 20 at one point and made it a game but faltered in the end. The unfocused, unmotivated Kings focused and motivated themselves enough to pull out a win in Staples Center.
The Lakers are experiencing a bit of what the Celtics endured last year when they just did not get up for games they counted as largely meaningless. While the Lakers have wobbled a bit and are a human 33-14, they haven’t gone into a long term funk like the wavy Green Cs did last season when they went 27-27 after Christmas. But they have had a 3 game and a 4 game losing streak and 8 of their 14 losses this season were against teams that were under.500 at the time. Oh these long 82 game seasons.
The Celtics are running up a stellar record this season and have a 3 game lead over both the Bulls and the Heat for Eastern Conference home court advantage. Only the Spurs have a better record in the NBA. They are an atmospheric 39-7 right now. The Celtics beat the Spurs (105-103) in their only meeting this season and they did it without Kevin Garnett. Oh yeah, the Lakers haven’t played the Spurs yet either.
The tendency of Kobe to not trust his teammates and take over games, much as he did the finals last season, rears its ugly head from to time as it did in the Kings game Friday night. Bryant scored 38 points. But he took 27 shots combined with 12 foul shot attempts to do it. The second highest shot attempts were from Shannon Brown and Pau Gasol with 11 attempts each. Hardly what you would call team ball. Kobe almost lost the championship in game 7 that same way.
The Celtics have played musical chairs at center all season with the healthiest big man getting the nod each night. That looks to stabilize with the return of Kendrick Perkins. Kendrick has been back for 3 games now and will only get better as the season progresses. Delonte West is still out and isn’t expected to return until late February. He will stabilize the back court off the bench.
So, what does this game mean?
Players will down play it. The media will play it up. It will definitely mean something as each team measures itself against the other. They both have excellent chances of getting back to the finals this season.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo will want to cement their own legacies as some of the very best to ever play the game by winning multiple championships together. Shaq will want to keep ahead of Kobe in total career championships. Doc Rivers would love to beat his nemesis, Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson will want to go out winning 3 straight titles and ahead of Red Auerbach.
As far as franchises go, the Lakers are one title away from tying Boston for the most titles in league history at 17. That means as much as anything to the fans of each city and each team. The Celtics, for a host of reasons, have slowly let the Lakers climb up to be at this critical point.
I don’t know how much that means to today’s players, but it means a whole lot to each team’s fans.
What adds to that is the Celtics feel they let last year’s title slip away. They were up 3 games to 2 and lost it all to these same Lakers. Kendrick Perkins went down early in game 6 and the Celtics still has a 10 point lead in the third quarter of game 7. Their dreams went up in smoke shortly after on a Ron Artest 3 pointer, no less.
The meaning of home court in a 7th game was driven home by Doc Rivers long after it was all over.
That Doc Rivers came back and this Celtic team stayed together is based solely on the goal of returning to the Finals and getting that second title. That Phil Jackson came back is about his own legacy and now he has added motivation for a team that needs it. Jackson has announced that he will retire after this year, win or lose. Win one last time before the changing of the guard.
Teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, or Orlando Magic can very well spoil any rematches for the Celtics. The San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks or possible Denver Nuggets or Oklahoma City Thunder can do the same to the Lakers. The road back won’t be an easy one.
The ratings will be up on this long standing and recently re-kindled rivalry. Neither team is assured of getting back to the finals. In some respects, that makes this game more… and less important. Either way, these are two of the best teams the league has to offer. They won’t have trouble getting up for this one.
Garnett, Pierce, Artest, Bryant, Odom and others will all talk junk during the game. Neither team will be able to psyche the other out. They are both too good for that. It will come down to how well they each play the game…and that really is the way it should be.
They may have both stumbled into this game and that hardly sets it up as it should be. But don’t be fooled.
Tune in to watch two of the most talented, best coached, and most competitive teams with the deepest rivalry in the league do battle. You just can’t get a better game than that.