- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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In happier times, which for the Los Angeles Lakers means earlier this week before their disappointing road losses to the lowly Pistons and Wizards and yet another round of Pau Gasol trade rumors, the affable Spaniard was able to appreciate the light comedy in the timing of his team's game against the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon.
Gasol and Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo have been the talk of the NBA heading into the trade deadline on March 15. Each day brings another rumor. Each false alarm makes their skin a little thicker.
"Seems like we are kind of in the same position," Gasol joked earlier this week. "We're not offering him but we're listening. We're not actively pursuing deals for him, but we're listening. Seems like that, right?"
There is, of course, nothing funny about the emotional toll the persistent trade rumors have taken on both men. NBA players make a lot of money to put up with disruptive situations, but they are still human.
Still, it's not all that surprising Gasol and Rondo have had to deal with the constant speculation this season because they both play on teams standing on the precipice of a rebuild.
The Celtics are a bit closer to the edge of their championship window than the Lakers. Their core of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is a few years older, making their room to maneuver a little tighter.
In some ways, they already started what will undoubtedly be a painful transition with their fiscally responsible but chemistry-altering trade of center Kendrick Perkins last season.
But the similarities of the Lakers and Celtics' shared plights are hard to miss.
"Their big three may be coming closer to an end than our trio [Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Gasol]," Lakers forward Matt Barnes said. "But historically with legendary franchises like that, they're always going to get somebody to rebuild and carry that torch.
The Celtics' willingness to shop and/or listen to offers for Rondo suggests they don't see him as that guy. He may however, be the guy the team uses to get that guy.
Gasol is in a similar spot with the Lakers. Sources with knowledge of the team's thinking indicate that the Lakers are willing to listen to offers for him, but they are only interested in dealing him if they get All-Star talent in return, especially at the point guard position.
All of this will hang in the ether Sunday when the two teams meet for the final time this season at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Some of this, unfortunately, will obscure the poignancy of what could be the final head-to-head battle in what's been a thrilling incantation of this classic rivalry.
Garnett and Allen will be free agents after the season, if they aren't traded sooner. Pierce is under contract for two more years, though his name has popped up in trade talks as well. Bryant and Bynum probably aren't going anywhere, but Gasol could be gone by Thursday.
In other words, one way or another, the next regular-season game between the teams will likely look a lot different than it has the past four years.
Could there be a rubber match in the NBA Finals this June (the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 Finals; the Lakers exacted revenge by beating Boston in the 2010 Finals)? Anything is possible. But even Bynum acknowledged, "We've both got a long way to go before we can consider ourselves championship contenders."
The Celtics come into the game with a 21-18 record, their worst 39-game start since the start of the Allen-Garnett-Pierce era in 2007-08.
The Lakers sit at 24-16 with a stellar 17-2 record at home but are coming off a terrible three-game road trip in which they blew double-digit leads to the Pistons and Wizards while questions about the team's confidence in new coach Mike Brown bubbled to the surface.
Outwardly at least, the game has lost some of the luster it's had in recent years. But for the players involved, it's still something to look forward to and savor.
"We're going at their head. We're going at the Celtics' rack. Yo, we're going at the Celtics' rack. At their head," Bynum shouted across the Lakers' locker room Friday night following a 105-102 win over the Timberwolves. "We don't like them boys."
Told of his young teammate's comments, Bryant laughed a little, then said: "It's true," Bryant said. "We're going to go at them, they're going to go at us. That's just how it is."
For a player who appreciates the history of the game like Bryant, these games, this rivalry with the Celtics have always been special. The likely end of it after Sunday's game had him sounding almost sentimental.
"Garnett and I have a good time playing against each other," he said. "We're really like the last ones left from that generation [Garnett was chosen fifth overall in 1995; Bryant was the 13th pick of the 1996 draft. Both were chosen straight out of high school].
"There's a couple other guys, but not many. So we take a lot of pride in that."
Fisher, Allen and Jermaine O'Neal were also chosen in the 1996 draft. Pierce, 34, was the 10th pick of the 1998 draft.
While this is probably the last time they'll all battle each other as part of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, Fisher has been around this game long enough to know that some special things happen between Boston and L.A.
"Still, in the back of my mind, because of who they are and having championship DNA, you can never really expect to not see them when it counts the most," he said. "They've played well on certain nights and we have to expect them to play well on Sunday. It'll probably be a Finals-type atmosphere and it's something that we're looking forward to."
Time will tell whether this is the end. Whatever the case, it's been fun.
"To grow up being a Lakers fan and idolizing Magic [Johnson] and what those teams accomplished in the 1980s, those were my most impressionable years as a teenager," Fisher said. "It's almost surreal to think that now I'm on a Lakers team that's battling the Celtics in the Finals for two, three years. Kids that are 9, 10, 11 years old watching us, that 10 or 20 years down the road they're going to be looking back on our battles. It's humbling but it's what makes this business fun for us."
Lakers and Celtics meet, and each hopes for one more title run.