Time running out on a great rivalry
How many classics do the Lakers and Celtics have left as currently constructed?
BOSTON -- There are 1,230 games in a full NBA regular season (and 990 in this truncated, 66-game lockout-effected affair). In a full season, their two games only account for 0.16 percent of the schedule, yet somehow the Lakers-Celtics clashes end up being better than 99 percent of the other games.
Thursday night was no different, with the Los Angeles Lakers coming away with a much-needed 88-87 overtime win on the road against the Boston Celtics.
"It's always a brawl whenever we fight," Kobe Bryant said.
Notice he used the word "fight" instead of "play" to describe what happens when the green and gold line up against one another.
"It's ugly," Bryant said. "It's physical."
It's beautiful, too. Perfect matches tend to be that way.
And it just might be fleeting.
In the past four seasons, the current editions of the Lakers and Celtics have renewed the rivalry between the two franchises that account for more championships, more playoff appearances, more overall wins than any other team in the league outside of their duo.
However, their shared time at the top with their rosters as currently constructed could be gone tomorrow. Bryant is 33, Derek Fisher is 37, Metta World Peace is 32 and Pau Gasol is 31 for the Lakers. Ray Allen is 36, Paul Pierce is 34, Kevin Garnett is 35 and Jermaine O'Neal is 33 for the Celtics.
There's a chance both teams retool immediately, Boston centering their future around the 25-year-old Rajon Rondo and Los Angeles handing over the keys to the franchise to first-time All-Star Andrew Bynum, who is just 24.
There will be a little extra something special to the game whenever the teams play in the next incarnation of the rivalry, but it will be hard to replicate how this version of the two teams are meant for each other.
Just pick an angle:
• The fact that Garnett and Bryant were the two most important players ever to enter the league straight out of high school -- Garnett because he opened the door that had been pretty much closed since Moses Malone used it, Bryant because he followed as the first non-big man to do it, setting the table for LeBron James to do it seven years later? Check.
• The fact that the sides can mutually appreciate one another as being the last standing from their generation -- Garnett coming in in 1995 and Bryant, Fisher, Allen and O'Neal all coming in in '96? Check.
• The fact that it features two of the greatest offensive players of their era on each side as well as two of the greatest defensive players split on each team, too -- the fifth all-time scorer in Bryant and the No. 1 all-time 3-point shooter in Allen; and then the 2003-04 Defensive Player of the Year in World Peace and the '07-08 DPOY in Garnett? Check.
• The fact that they've met twice in the NBA Finals since the Lakers added Gasol and the Celtics acquired Garnett -- playing 13 games with one team beating the other only four times by 10 points or more, the rest decided by single digits? Check.
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"I've enjoyed competing against them," Bryant said. "I like all of them, personally. Being on the court, the personal stuff falls out the window. But, it's been fun."
It spoke volumes about Bryant's level of respect for the Celtics when he offered a hand to both Garnett and World Peace to help pick them up when they were both on the floor fighting for a loose ball in the first quarter. But that doesn't mean he wasn't going to offer an elbow or two to Rondo in the second half.
"We know each other so well," Bryant said. "That unit that we had on the floor, their unit, we've played against each other so many times. We know what's coming before it happens."
Bryant's grandparents used to mail VHS tapes of the Lakers-Celtics Finals series in the 1980s to Bryant when he was a child growing up in Italy. He studied them dutifully, teaching himself that that's what it meant to be an NBA basketball player.
"It's been great. It's been a dream come true, growing up and watching it," Bryant said. "Here I am part of it. It's great."
Unfortunately, we'll all have to wake up from that dream eventually and it could be a long time before both teams' rosters are built to not only bring so much out of one another, but also serve as the standard for greatness for the rest of the league.
"It's a throwback in the sense that we're old school. Ray is old school. Paul is old school. Kevin is old school. So is Rajon," Bryant said. "How we prepare for the game, how much the game means to us, we can see the emotion that they pour into it and how much they put into the game."
The retro rivalry is still en vogue. It will never go out of style, but right now both teams' accessories make the outfit match just right. Enjoy it before it's just Heat-Bulls and Clippers-Thunder lining the shelves.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.