THE 2008 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES was contested between ancient rivals but new teams. The Boston Celtics manifested the Big Bang Theory of team formation, having suddenly reached elite status last summer with the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. (All right, that's two Big Bangs.) The Los Angeles Lakers began the year with mostly the same personnel it had last season but needed a mental overhaul, not to mention its own major move—the midseason acquisition of Pau Gasol.
Neither franchise was a sure bet to make the Finals, not with experienced rivals like the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons lying in wait, teams that had been together much longer than these two. But on they marched—the Celtics stressing defense, the Lakers relying on offense—toward a championship series that most fans wanted, if only so they could pull out the grainy photos of Bill Russell, Jerry West, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In that regard, then, the Finals were doomed at some level to disappoint.
But they didn't. Injuries were overcome, monumental comebacks were made, unlikely heroes were forged, and old stereotypes were undone. And when this six-game series was over, Boston's 17th championship was earned by three players who supposedly couldn't win the big one; a coach who supposedly couldn't draw an X or an O on a tic-tac-toe board; and a general manager who supposedly couldn't pick a winner out of a police lineup.
June 5, TD Banknorth Garden, Boston
CELTICS 98, LAKERS 88
There had been so much talk about history in the 11th championship revival of the NBA's most storied rivalry that one half-expected Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and Larry Bird to trot out for pregame warmups and give a friendly wave to Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson at the other end. But, no, as game time approached on the parquet, the legends were all in mufti ( Russell and John Havlicek for the Celtics, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic for the Lakers), and the only on-court connection that resonated with the past was the WALTON on the jersey of the L.A.'s Luke. He had been a youngster of seven when his father, Bill, played in the 1987 Finals for the Celtics against the Lakers, the last time, as everyone had heard endlessly by tip-off, that Boston had battled for a championship.
The Celtics began the game, as is their wont, in aggressive fashion. Kobe Bryant's shots were off the mark, repeatedly going in and out because he sometimes shoots it with a line-drive arc, and he was even outplayed over one short stretch by Sam Cassell, the Celtics' always-chattering backup point guard. Still, the Lakers regrouped and led 51-46 at halftime, the tide having seemingly turned back in the favor of favored L.A.
Celtics forward Paul Pierce unfavored it early in the third, hitting three consecutive shots, drawing a free throw and a rare four-point play on the second one with a masterly pump fake. But midway through the third quarter Pierce crumpled to the floor in pain after teammate Kendrick Perkins fell into him, collapsing Pierce's right knee. Teammates Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine carried him through a tunnel under the stands, where he was put in a wheelchair and rolled into the locker room, and 18,000 Banknorth loyalists thought, We wait 21 years to get back to the Finals, and our captain goes down?
But not out. Improbably, Pierce skipped back onto the floor about three minutes later and went instantly to the scorers' table. There was a moment of confusion about whether he was even allowed to play, but coach Doc Rivers got the word that it was O.K. So back he went. Lakers coach Phil Jackson called a timeout to defuse the drama of the moment—no one would have more fun with the Pierce injury than Jackson—but neither he nor his team could do anything about the inspirational lift provided by the Celtics' captain. More to the point, neither could they stop the two dramatic three-pointers Pierce hit in the third period as the Celtics grabbed a lead they never lost.
"I just wanted to get back out there," Pierce said after the game. Added Kevin Garnett, who despite a fourth-quarter shooting slump (at one point he missed nine shots in a row) played a superb all-around game with 24 points (a team high and two more than Pierce) and 13 rebounds, "He rejuvenated us."
June 8, TD Banknorth Garden, Boston
CELTICS 108, LAKERS 102