THE CELTICS and the Lakers have been wedded in NBA lore for the better part of five decades, and last Thursday in Boston they behaved like stubborn spouses who have grown to resemble each other, for better or worse. The challengers from Los Angeles tried to beat the champions at their own game of bullying and yapping, while the Celtics responded by whining—as L.A. had done throughout last year's Finals—about the physical style and inconsistent refereeing. On and on their argument went, both sides jawing at each other, until the Lakers squeezed out a 110--109 victory in overtime. � The Lakers and the Celtics are clearly the league's rivalry of choice—the audience of 4.3 million was TNT's largest for a regular-season game since Michael Jordan's Bulls met Magic Johnson's Lakers in February 1996—and each remains the front-runner in its conference. But both sides will have to fight harder than ever if fans are to see a rematch in June. The teams' competition has grown stiffer, their vulnerabilities have been exposed, and there is no sense of destiny this time around. "Last year we led from wire to wire," says Boston guard Ray Allen. "Now it's not that easy."
That's true on both coasts. The Lakers were looking like runaway favorites in the West before Jan. 31, when center Andrew Bynum, an emerging star who had averaged 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over his last five full games, tore his right MCL in a collision with Kobe Bryant. General manager Mitch Kupchak doubts he'll make a trade to replace Bynum, which means the Lakers will head to the playoffs with basically the same interior defense that invited Boston to attack the basket last year, when Bynum was also out with a knee injury. Although the Celtics have avoided such high-impact trauma, their return to the Finals may be the more endangered: Their bench has remained thin since the summer departures of James Posey and P.J. Brown, who provided crucial fourth-quarter defense and shooting throughout last postseason. "They're not as versatile as they were," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of the Celtics. "The margin for error is less than it was last year, which means they've got to be a little more perfect."
Popovich's point explains the Celtics' Jekyll and Hyde season. At times they've been unbeatable, assembling runs of 19 and 12 wins (both snapped by the Lakers, ominously). Outside of those streaks, Boston was 11--11 at week's end while coping with the ups and downs of a bench that demands greater production from guard Tony Allen and forwards Glen (Big Baby) Davis and Brian Scalabrine. Team G.M. Danny Ainge argues that the Celtics are developing a different formula to retain their title. "People are assuming that you've got to have the same team," he says. "I don't see any drop-off from any of our best players, and all of our younger players are by far better than they were last year."
That's one way of looking at it. It's true that their starting five is stronger, thanks to the continued development of point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins, as well as Allen, who was shooting a career-best 49.6% through Sunday after struggling to fit in last year. Another cause for optimism is that a couple of Eastern Conference contenders have gone into retreat. The Pistons look weaker, thanks to the November trade for Allen Iverson, and the Magic's loss of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson, likely for the season, to a torn labrum on Feb. 2 has ruined its dream of stealing the No. 1 seed in the East.
But then there's Cleveland. The Cavaliers, who almost upset Boston in Game 7 of the conference semifinals last spring, are a graver threat than ever. LeBron James has improved his jump shot to become the presumptive MVP, yet his minutes are down to a career-low 37.7 per game because of the frontcourt size, backcourt shooting and deep bench surrounding him. A half-dozen Cavs have Finals experience, thanks to their precocious run two years ago, and they've competed all season with Boston to be No. 1 defensively. Says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "They remind me of the [mid-1990s] Knicks when I was there, with Patrick Ewing—their one star—and some good players, but really just a mentally tough, physical basketball team."
And Cleveland may yet improve in a major way, with assets like Wally Szczerbiak's expiring $13.8 million contract to dangle for another skilled big man at the Feb. 19 trading deadline (page 38). G.M. Danny Ferry was leading a reporter into his office for an interview last Friday when he pivoted like LeBron with a midcourt steal. "Let's go to the conference room," said Ferry, remembering that his whiteboards were filled with prospective moves.
IN THE NBA's midseason equivalent of a Final Four, the league's top teams met Sunday in back-to-back nationally-televised games. In the Spurs' 105--99 comeback win at Boston, each of the Celtics subs had a plus-minus of --8 points or worse. Then the Lakers went into Cleveland and finished off their season sweep of the Eastern leaders with a 101--91 win. Power forward Lamar Odom, who had been elevated to the starting lineup in Bynum's absence, took command while Bryant was dehydrated by a stomach bug that necessitated IVs at halftime and after the game. Still, it was Kobe who nailed down Cleveland's first home loss of the season with a high rainbow turnaround over James when the Cavs had closed to within four points in the final three minutes.
The game capped an altogether remarkable week for Bryant in his leadership of the Lakers. He gave his young teammates no time to dwell on Bynum's absence, erupting for a Madison Square Garden--record 61 points in a 107--102 defeat of the Knicks on Feb. 2. (Two nights later James had his own Garden party with 52 points, 11 assists and either 10 or nine rebounds, depending on whether one trusts the official scorer on-site or the NBA stats police who later erased LeBron's triple double.) Then in a 22-hour span Bryant followed up his 36-point performance in a 115--107 victory at Toronto by driving the Lakers to their fifth straight win, in Boston.
Although his 26 points against the Celtics came on 29 shots, Bryant smoked a trio of fourth-quarter threes over Paul Pierce that had the rousing power of Tiger Woods going birdie-birdie-birdie on a Sunday back nine. During late timeouts Bryant, a towel across his shoulders, stood like a fighter refusing the stool, shifting his weight from foot to foot and maintaining his game face as his teammates gathered around him one by one. "I've been edgy ever since Drew went down," explained Bryant as he walked out of the visitors' locker room with a season sweep of Boston. "With everybody writing us off, saying we don't have a chance, I've just been edgy."
He'll need to maintain that edge against the rejuvenated Spurs—viable contenders now that Manu Gin�bili has recovered from the left-ankle injury that ruined San Antonio last postseason—and the other 50-win teams that Bryant refers to as "murderers' row" in the West. As hard as they'll have to work defensively to fill the 7-foot, 285-pound hole created by Bynum's absence, the Lakers showed that the experience of last year's Finals has provided youngsters like point guard Jordan Farmar and swingman Sasha Vujacic with the backbone to stand up against the intimidating Celtics. Forward-turned-center Pau Gasol has responded to the demands of being Kobe's top option by having an All-Star year. L.A.'s acquisition last Saturday of prospects Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown from the Charlotte Bobcats was made from a position of strength; the team could afford to unload 6'10" Vladimir Radmanovic, a sometimes-starter last year, because defensive stopper Trevor Ariza has proved to be an upgrade at small forward.