Lakers, Celtics rekindle rivalry, but true test is still months away
The Lakers and Celtics meet for the first time since their 2010 Finals duel
With history as a guide, the regular season has had little bearing on Finals
Other topics: Building an arena, Mickael Pietrus' love of Michael Jordan
Jerry West remains the most important of all Lakers, even if he is no longer on the payroll. His credibility enables him to kick them awake by saying something no one else would imagine, including his recent accusation that the Lakers were too old to defend, they wouldn't be contenders for much longer and they would have a hard time dealing with the Celtics.
After winning the last two championships, the Lakers have been casting about for inspiration all season. West gave it to them -- prove me wrong, he was saying -- and he did so as the Celtics were on their way to Los Angeles for the first rematch since Game 7 last June.
It's hard to define the importance of regular-season meetings among title contenders. "Once they get between the lines, the outcome of that game makes all the difference in the world to those players," an NBA advance scout said this week, looking ahead to Boston's visit to L.A. on Sunday afternoon. "But two nights later, if the Lakers are playing Minnesota or whoever, they're realizing that game means as much in the standings as the game against the Celtics."
The Lakers and Celtics have met in the Finals five times since 1984, and the outcomes of their regular-season meetings haven't always been helpful:
2009-10: Split regular-season series, L.A. won Finals 4-3
2007-08: Boston swept 2-0, Boston won Finals 4-2
1986-87: L.A. swept 2-0, L.A. won Finals 4-2
1984-85: Split series, L.A. won Finals 4-2
1983-84: L.A. swept 2-0, Boston won Finals 4-3
In the NBA's most important rivalry, each team is most concerned by its own prospects. The Celtics are beginning to work center Kendrick Perkins back into their rotation after losing him to a major knee injury in Game 6 in L.A. They've earned the East's best record despite injuries that have sidelined a half-dozen members of their rotation for at least nine games each. Their focus has been remarkable even as coach Doc Rivers complains of "slippage" in their execution because he has been making do with a different mixture week after week.
"We do a lot of skeleton stuff over and over again, which is extremely boring and monotonous," Rivers said after practice Monday. "We've done more skeleton work than we've ever done but we do it at full speed, game-like, because we don't have enough guys to go up against each other. I'll say this: Our veterans -- Ray [Allen], Paul [Pierce], Kevin [Garnett], [Rajon] Rondo -- have been terrific in understanding the situation we're in. Like today, we had a good practice because of them and their focus. They knew we weren't going to be here long, but they got through stuff."
Has Lakers coach Phil Jackson had as much cooperation? The Lakers were never going to be as energized after earning so much positive reinforcement over the last two postseasons. The Celtics have been hungry all year following the distress of their Games 6-7 collapse in L.A., while the ever-confident Lakers have been wondering when and how to begin ramping up for yet another title run.
Everything comes easily for the Lakers. They've given minimal effort, by their own standards -- they're 0-3 against the Spurs, Heat and Mavericks -- and yet they've delivered the league's third-best record. Despite West's objections, through Thursday they ranked No. 3 in field-goal defense (43.7 percent), one spot ahead of Boston (43.8 percent). While they have a lot of high-mileage players, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher are the only contributing Lakers who are past their prime ages, and Bryant is still averaging 24.9 points as he looks forward to launching another postseason run.
"I think Phil actually likes this," a pro personnel scout said of the Lakers' malaise (if in fact a team that has won 10 of its last 12 can be accused of melancholy). "It builds some adversity into their season. It gives him something to talk about and it gives them something to fight against."
The big difference in the rivalry is the appearance of Shaquille O'Neal in the enemy green of the Celtics, which will be a jarring image for some Laker fans. Allen has been terrific all year after being limited during the Finals by a deep thigh bruise inflicted by Ron Artest. But I'll be most interested in the matchup at power forward after seeing Garnett be outrebounded 18-3 in Game 7 by Pau Gasol. Garnett has since recovered from 2009 knee surgery and is averaging 8.9 rebounds while reclaiming his defensive leadership of the Celtics. Can Boston compete in the paint and on the boards this time? The result Sunday will be interesting, but it will be nothing close to a final (of Finals) answer.