- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

Alas, it’s all set. NBA Finals. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics. Talk about a dream matchup. NBA commissioner David Stern must be pinching himself right about now. Could it get any better than this? Not a chance.

There’s a tingling buzz about the finals, and Game 1 is still five days away. In these finals the die-hard and fair-weather fans with both be treated.

Part of it is beloved nostalgia. These finals will showcase the two most storied franchises in league history playing for the 11th time.

Another element is the improbable. Based on where each team stood a year ago, no one would’ve picked the Celtics or Lakers to ascend to the NBA’s biggest stage this season.

Boston won just 24 games last season and seemed doomed to continue wallowing in despair when the pingpong ball bounced the wrong way and the Celtics missed out on Greg Oden in the lottery.

The Lakers, on the other hand, had just fallen short in the playoffs a third straight year and a frustrated Kobe Bryant told the world he wanted out of Los Angeles.

But both team’s general managers worked some spectacular magic.

In Boston, Danny Ainge made a draft-day trade for Ray Allen and later in the summer shipped out three-fourths of his team to bring in Kevin Garnett. He then fit in the pieces around hold-over Paul Pierce and his new fellow All-Stars Allen and Garnett.

On the opposite coast, Mitch Kupchak resisted Kobe’s trade demands and instead brought back point guard Derek Fisher, with whom Bryant won three championships as a member of Shaquille O’Neal’s entourage. Then in February, Kupchak pulled off a deal, shipping bust Kwame Brown to Memphis for Pau Gasol.

And look at them now. The Celtics posted the best regular-season record in the league from start to finish, weathered futility on the road in their first two playoff series and got past the Pistons in six. The Lakers overcame discourse and the season-ending loss of center Andrew Bynum to finish atop the Western Conference standings. They cruised past Denver in the opening round, silenced the Jazz in the second and then made the defending champion Spurs look old and inept.

The names are familiar. Lakers, Celtics. Kobe, Phil, Fisher. KG, Pierce, Allen. But this is an entirely new experience.

Bryant won his first three rings as a sidekick. This is his team now. This year he morphed into a wiser, more trusting and more patient leader. As the faces of their respective franchises in the past, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have each spent at least a decade trying in vain to even advance past the conference finals. Now as a triumvirate, they have sacrificed egos while aiming to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that hasn’t reached the finals in 21 years.

The storybook ride will come to a disheartening end for one of the teams, and it appears that the Lakers are more equipped to win a title than the Celtics.

Boston has its new “Big Three,” but there is a dropoff after that. Their cast proved to be more efficient than was thought when the playoffs began, but the Boston bench doesn’t stand up to that of Los Angeles.

The Lakers have the best player in the game and a more seasoned bench. The battle-tested cast of reserves are a product of Phil Jackson for the most part sticking with his minute management and rotation during the postseason regardless of the situation. Throughout the playoffs, the Zen Master pulled his starters at the same point in games whether his team was up by 10 or down by 18.

Those backups are used to playing in pressure situations and in three different games during the Spurs series helped spark scoring runs that changed the game and ultimately led to wins.

Boston has shown that the going can be difficult if each member of the Big Three isn’t firing on all cylinders. Allen struggled for much of the playoffs before finally re-discovering his shot in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. With little instant offense off the bench, the Celtics needed seven games to beat both Atlanta and Cleveland.

But how will it play out in the next two weeks? That’s the beauty of it. No one really knows. But regardless of the outcome, it should be a thing of beauty. Star power, dramatic story lines, entertaining styles of play and history. Stay tuned.

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