Not long after winning the basketball championship last week, the Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson visited his daughter’s apartment complex. There, improbably, he bumped into Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtics star.
The Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 finals but had failed to make it back for the rematch. Phil Jackson had a request.
“I said, ‘Get it back. We want to meet you in the finals,’ ” Phil Jackson said, recalling his moment with Paul Pierce.
Wishes were fulfilled this past weekend, when the Celtics finished off the Orlando Magic and the Lakers closed out the Phoenix Suns. The NBA's most storied rivalry will resume once more, for the 11th time since the Lakers moved West.
The finals will be colored in green and white, purple and gold, and several shades of redemption. The Lakers want payback, after getting pummeled by the Celtics two years ago. The Celtics are seeking validation, after having their title defense short-circuited by injuries last year.
“It’s a great challenge for us, to see how much we’ve improved, how much we’ve gotten better, to be able to go up against this team in a playoff series,” Lakers' star player Kobe Bryant said Saturday night, after the Lakers closed out a six-game victory over the Suns.
The Boston Celtics are seeking an 18th championship to add to their record total. The Lakers are seeking their 15th title, their 11th in Los Angeles, and their fifth since 2000.
If the LA Lakers win the championship, it will also be Jackson’s 11th, further separating him from the Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach (nine).
Kobe Bryant would earn his fifth ring — breaking a tie with Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal, among the biggest stars of the post-Michael Jordan era. He would be one shy of tying Jordan, the league’s modern standard-bearer. And he would further separate himself from LeBron James, who has won the last two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards but has yet to distinguish himself in the postseason.
The Lakers were missing two critical players then, center Andrew Bynum and forward Trevor Ariza, who were injured. Andrew Bynum will play this time, although he is limited by a knee injury while Trevor Ariza has departed, replaced by Ron Artest, one of the fiercest defenders in the league.
The Celtics’ starting five from 2008 remains intact, although the power sources have shifted over time. Rajon Rondo was a willing role player two years ago but is now a star, on par with the Big Three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The Lakers remember only anguish, and an arena filled with the scent of cigar smoke, a tribute to Auerbach.
“There’s nothing worse than losing in a finals,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s about as low as you can get after riding a high, getting through three series, going into the fourth one. I had hoped I’d never experience it, but I’ve done it twice now. So I know it’s a real difficult summer after that.”
The finals begin Thursday in Los Angeles.