at Staples Center, Los Angeles, 3:30 p.m. | ABC, WEEI (850 AM)
GAME PREVIEW (via AP)
The NBA Finals seemed to go on forever last summer, stretching through seven games over two weeks until the exhausted Los Angeles Lakers finally edged the injury-depleted Boston Celtics with their last gasp in the final quarter.
After seven months to recover, the rivals finally are ready to go at each other again.
When they meet Sunday on the same Staples Center court where the Lakers won their 16th title and denied the Celtics their 18th, their epic shared history always looms in the background. They've won more than half of the NBA's total championships and met in 12 NBA finals, including two of the past three.
The franchises' generational animosity has been rekindled, as anybody could tell last June. Just don't expect them to acknowledge it in late January.
"Playing them doesn't really bring up anything extra," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said with a shrug.
Boston added another spicy element to the rivalry in the offseason by signing Shaquille O'Neal, who won three titles and the NBA finals MVP awards in Los Angeles. Yet the Celtics' 38-year-old backup center is hardly the biggest concern for the Lakers -- not with both teams struggling to stay consistent during the grind leading up to the All-Star break.
Both are coming off embarrassing losses Friday night. The Lakers played horribly at home against lowly Sacramento, while Garnett and Celtics coach Doc Rivers were ejected while Boston scored a season-low 71 points in Phoenix. Garnett escaped suspension for hitting Phoenix's Channing Frye in the groin area, with the NBA saying it isn't looking into the matter but is still reviewing Rivers' actions.
The Celtics, who flew into Los Angeles late Saturday, still lead the Eastern Conference at 35-11, while the Lakers are comfortably in second place in the West at 33-14, well behind overall NBA leader San Antonio.
The Lakers went through a 2 1/2-hour practice at their training complex in El Segundo on Saturday, but not due to extra preparation for the Celtics. They usually spend the first part of practice correcting the mistakes of their last game, and that portion was extra-long after Friday's 100-95 loss to the 11-win Kings, likely the most embarrassing night of the Lakers' season.
"We've had some tough losses that kind of jump out at you, but it's just about being more consistent," Bryant said. "(We're) right where we need to be."
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FORSBERG'S THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Centers of attention: It really doesn't matter which center the Celtics choose to trot out with the starting unit Sunday as both Shaquille O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins will trigger an emotional response in Los Angeles. If it's Perkins, it will be the first time that a familiar staring 5 has been back on the court together for tip-off since Game 6 of the Finals when Perkins tore up his right knee. If it's O'Neal, who won three titles with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers at the start of this century, it'll at least rile up Lakers fans. Either way, Perkins and O'Neal will be key far beyond the jump ball ...
Rebound relationship: While it was the Lakers' dominance on the glass in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals that's best remembered for why Los Angeles emerged with the Larry O'Brien trophy, it's worth nothing that the team that won the rebound battle won every game during last season's Finals. The Celtics' big men, including Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis (if his hamstring allows), will have a little added motivation to show that, with a (somewhat) healthy frontline, Boston can hang with the Lakers' frontcourt this time around. Yes, Perkins is only in his third game back, Shaq has a sore right hip, and Davis tweaked a hamstring Friday night, so Boston has some built-in excuses if they struggle. But it would seem mentally deflating if the Celtics revamped their frontcourt this offseason, then went out and still got dominated on the glass against the very team that shaped how Boston was built this offseason.
Rondo & his Swag vs. Kobe & the Sag: Barring a wrinkle, the Lakers are going to put Kobe Bryant on Rajon Rondo and challenge Boston's 24-year-old point guard to beat them with his jump shot. Rondo has improved his elbow jumper, shooting a career-best 46 percent from the mid-range (16-to-23 feet) this season in increased attempts (2.9 per game, up from 2.3 attempts at 33 percent last season). Can Rondo seize the opportunity and make Sunday's game his playground? Or, coming off struggles in back-to-back games, does Rondo continue to labor and leave Boston's offense scraping for points again. It's hard to imagine Rondo being held down for a prolonged stretch.