Saturday, May 29, 2010 Updated: May 30, 11:40 AM ET
'The Celtics are in the way'
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
PHOENIX -- The Lakers have won three of every four playoff games during their run to the NBA Finals by polishing their skills, executing X's and O's and sticking to a game plan.
They sprinted back to stop the Thunder's transition offense and sharpened their shot selection in Round 1. They plugged up the pick-and-roll and took control of the 3-point line against the Jazz in Round 2. And they did a bit of all of those things against the Suns (and figured out how to attack a zone defense in the process) in the Western Conference finals, wrapping up the series with a 111-103 win in Game 6 on Saturday.
The Lakers have won with Phil Jackson at the helm, orchestrating a group of players led by Kobe Bryant.
Andrew Bynum won't be on the sideline this year. Bynum and Pau Gasol must own the low post to have a shot at beating Boston.
They've followed a script that all but guaranteed a return trip to the promised land, a third straight Finals appearance.
Now, with their hated rivals, the Boston Celtics, looming in a Finals series that begins on Thursday, it is time for the Lakers to veer from the page.
It won't be enough to play great physical basketball, hands and minds in harmony. It won't be enough to play great technical basketball, executing the triangle to perfection. To win the 16th championship in the franchise's storied history, the Lakers will have to play with fierce hearts and stubborn memories.
"The challenge is to win the championship," Bryant said after scoring 24 of his game-high 37 points in the second half Saturday. "The Celtics are in the way."
These are the same Celtics who showed the Lakers the way in the 2008 NBA Finals. By mopping the floor with L.A. and beating them by 39 points in Game 6, the most embarrassing and excruciating loss in the history of the purple-and-gold, the Boston bunch demonstrated how togetherness and simply trying harder than the guy standing across from you trump talent every time.
"Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us," Bryant said. "You know, it taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal in that series."
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Neither team was a defending champion the last time they met in the Finals, but the Celtics figured out what it takes faster than the Lakers did. They understood they must protect their home floor, winning all three games played at the TD Garden in 2008. They had the mental toughness to steal Game 4 in L.A. after trailing by 24 points in the second quarter, poking and prodding the Lakers into submission. And they controlled the finale from the get-go, grabbing the game by the throat and not letting go until Gino was dancing and the victory cigars were smoking.
The Celtics dominated through defense but also through will and desire.
"It was painful," said Pau Gasol, who is still trying to shed the "soft" label stuck to him after that series, when Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe treated him like a 7-foot rag doll. "It was a feeling that I want to keep in my mind for every single minute that I'm out there playing against them."
Said Jackson, "It will be a matchup of bigs."
Brown and Powe have left, but Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis have popped up in their places. And you know that Sheed is ready to take the shine off the ring that Gasol won against Orlando last year. He won't be impressed by L.A. After all, the Lakers' 2009 title came against a Magic team that has folded in each of its past two elimination games (losing by 13 points to L.A. last year in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and by 12 to Boston in Game 6 of the 2010 Eastern Conference finals on Friday).
The Lakers will have to match Boston's intensity.
Lamar Odom will have to remember how he grew up imitating Garnett and how he still looks up to him. Odom should want to honor Garnett by shoving everything he's learned in his face and intimidating rather than imitating, the way a samurai shows his worth by defeating his sensei.
And Andrew Bynum must remember how helpless he felt watching from the sideline in 2008 as he rehabbed his left knee in New York City. He should use that memory to fight through any twinge of pain that pops up in the torn meniscus of his right knee in the series to come.
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"We all remember what happened," Bynum said. "That's going to be our fuel and motivating factor, sitting in their locker room, having to take that bus ride with their fans knocking on the bus and throwing rocks and all that. We want to have that [motivation]."
And Ron Artest needs to remember how out-of-the-loop he felt entering the Lakers' visiting locker room in Boston after Game 6 in 2008, finding his friend, Odom, and idol, Bryant, after they were abused by Paul Pierce. He should realize he can put a stop to Pierce this time and be responsible for healing the wound from that day, a wound that Odom, Bryant and Derek Fisher carry with them to this day.
"We have Ron that came in to play defense," Jackson said. "This is his chance to shine. We had a tough matchup with Pierce the last time we played them in the playoffs. This is a guy that we know can defend and enjoys the defensive end of the court. So we anticipate that is a matchup that will be of interest."
And Fisher ought to remember how Rajon Rondo got the best of him in 2008, capping off the series with a near-quadruple-double in the clincher. He should find it in himself to somehow put Rondo's name on the list of point guards he has taken down so far in these playoffs (a list that includes Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Steve Nash).
The Lakers should do more than relish this series with Boston. It should be something they feel they need to win. In beating Phoenix, they took revenge on the team that ended their seasons in 2006 and '07. No doubt it felt sweet. But to avenge a loss in the NBA Finals, to avenge a loss to the rival Celtics, would mean so much more.
"I ran into Paul Pierce in a complex where my daughter lives in L.A. I said, 'Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals,'" Jackson recalled after the game Thursday. "So, here it is, almost a year later. We have this opportunity, both of us, to renew this rivalry."
It is a rivalry that needs no scouting report, no complex schemes or gimmick defenses. Extra bells and whistles are unnecessary.
"We're going to this series where the level of intensity and physicality is going to be at an all-time high," Bryant said.
And the only way for the Lakers to reach those heights is to reach into the depths of their hearts and their memories.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.