The Los Angeles Lakers are going back to the NBA Finals for the third straight year and a record 31st time as an organization. And I will get to that plenty, but first I want to congratulate the Phoenix Suns on a very well-fought Western Conference Finals.
Heading into the 2009-10 NBA season most people, myself included figured the west was the Lakers, the Denver Nuggets and then everybody else. But then the Suns started the year 14-3 and the world took notice. Until they followed that up with a 12-18 record heading into late January. But the Suns finished strong, going 28-7 From January 28th, to head into the playoffs with a 54-28 record and the three seed in the Western Conference.
They took down the upstart and injured Portland Trailblazers in six games to set up a rematch they’ve wanted for a long time. The San Antonio Spurs. And the Suns got that sweet taste of revenge in the form of a 4-0 beat-down. Which brought them to the door-step of the NBA Finals.
But in their way were the defending champs, who had revenge on their mind as well. Kobe Bryant remembered the first-round losses in 2006 and 2007. And his game showed it. In the Western Conference Finals, Bryant averaged 34 points and 8 assists in a six-game victory over the Suns.
So to the Suns, I say great season, but it had to come to an end. The Los Angeles Lakers have dreams of their 16th NBA title, Kobe Bryant has visions of his fifth and Phil Jackson is working on number 11.
But there’s a familiar foe standing in their way. A foe going for their 18th NBA championship. The leprechaun-green and ghostly-white of the Boston Celtics. A team that is kryptonite to the Los Angeles Lakers. Ask Wilt Chamberlain, ask Jerry West, heck, ask Kobe and Pau from 2008.
You know those 10 titles in 11 years that the Celtics won back in the 50’s and 60’s? SEVEN of them were at the expense of the Lakers. In fact, nine of the Celtics NBA-record 17 Championships have been over the Purple and Gold.
Including two years ago. A Finals that sticks in every Laker-fan’s memory bank like a sore-thumb. All the talk before the Finals that the Lakers were unstoppable. They would run circles around the Celtics and win this in six. Well what happened? The Celtics punched the Lakers in the mouth and never looked back as they won their 17th title in game six on their home floor in embarrassing fashion.
They out-muscled, out-hustled and just out-played the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, exhausted from having to guard Paul Pierce, was overwhelmed by the Boston defense. Pau Gasol was bullied by Kevin Garnett. And the Laker bench could not keep up with the Celtics reserves.
But this is not 2008. And this is not the same Laker team. That team had not won a title. This team has. That team was soft. This 2010 team, with the addition of Ron Artest, is definitely not soft. Pau has learned toughness from Kobe. Andrew Bynum, though not 100 percent, is definitely more of a factor than in 2008… when he was on the bench in street-clothes.
So, in this 12th meeting between the best two franchises the NBA has to offer, how do I see it coming out? Glad you asked.
I see Gold and Purple-rain in the weather forecast and I’ll tell you why. The addition of Ron Artest is about to pay off huge dividends. It hasn’t really shown much up until now, but it will.
Because Artest, one of the best defenders in the NBA, is going to be on Paul Pierce instead of Kobe Bryant. Which frees Kobe defensively to guard Rajon Rondo, who is young and quick, but is still an easier cover than Pierce. And it will free Kobe offensively, because he won’t be exhausted from having to guard Pierce on the other end.
And since Artest is still an offensive threat (25 points in game-six’s clincher over the Suns), the Lakers will have more points on the board as well. Pau will not be bullied this time around and neither will Lamar Odom. Bynum will be on the floor to cancel out Kendrick Perkins. And I see the benches (minus Odom) basically being a wash.
So with all that said, I’m going with the Lakers in six. They’ve won their last five playoff series on the road, but with the Celtics playing so strong right now, I don’t see this ending in Beantown in just five games. I see a great battle between the two best franchises.
I see Kobe Bryant realizing his greatness, and how much that fifth title means to his legacy. It would tie him with Magic Johnson, THE greatest Laker, and it would be over their most-hated rivals. It would put him one behind Michael Jordan, his biggest comparison.
And it would set up yet another chance for a three-peat next season for Kobe and Phil Jackson.
Of course Boston could mess all that up by reminding L.A. why they won the title in 2008. With heart and muscle.
But I feel the Lakers are tougher this time around. They are definitely more battle-tested this time around. And in this Lakers/Celtics rivalry turnabout is fair-play. Like in the 80’s when Bird’s Celtics defeated Magic’s Lakers in 1984. What happened in 1985? Magic got his revenge. And then the Lakers did it again in 1987. So the Celtics used old-fashioned true-grit to win in 2008. But it’s 2010.
And I’m betting Kobe and the Lakers learned their lesson.