- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

The building Celtics-Lakers fervor is understandable, even if it is somewhat at odds with the mostly understated personnel of the two teams.

The rivalry, dormant since these two franchises last met in the NBA Finals in 1987, is the best the NBA has to offer to the public.

The two franchises have a shared history and 30 championship banners, 16 belonging to the Celtics.

The playoff lore of the Celtics and Lakers is stuffed with indelible anecdotes, perhaps none more memorable than Don Nelson’s foul-line jumper that used the rim before slipping through the cylinder in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1969. It was a shot that left Jack Kent Cooke’s celebratory balloons pinned to the rafters.

This version of the rivalry is diluted from expansion and promises to be short-lived. The birth certificates that show Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as 32 and Paul Pierce as 30 would suggest that this is their only opportunity to claim a championship.

Even their march to the NBA Finals was fraught with challenges and anxiety: two seven-game series and a six-game test that possibly would have gone down differently if Chauncey Billups had not been slowed by a strained hamstring.

Both the Celtics and Lakers are modest replicas of the Celtics-Lakers championship standard.

Just one player, Kobe Bryant, is destined to be a legend. When these franchises last met in June, there were six legends on the floor: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish of the Celtics and Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy of the Lakers. Each was selected one of the NBA’s top 50 players in 1996.

Other than Bryant, who might rate that distinction from these two teams? A case could be made for Garnett, although his playoff portfolio was painfully light until this postseason run. That dynamic led to the omission of Dominique Wilkins on the top-50 list.

The Lakers appear to be the deeper and more complete team this go-around, just as they were in 1987, when McHale was reduced to merely good instead of great because of a broken foot.

A question supporters of the Celtics can ask to this day is: Does Johnson make the hook shot over McHale in the final seconds of Game 4 if McHale is healthy and able to generate more lift from his lower limbs? Another question that haunts the team’s fans to this day: What would have the late Len Bias meant to the 1987 team and to the franchise over the next decade?

Johnson, of course, essentially decided the series with that shot, with the Lakers winning in six games.

And that marked the incremental descent of the Celtics. McHale was never the same player after breaking his foot, and Bird had only one more stellar season in him before injuries started to strip him of his dominance.

Except for a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002, the Celtics have been largely irrelevant the last 15 years. The Lakers, too, stumbled in the post-Shaquille O’Neal era.

At this time last year, no one could have envisioned these two franchises advancing to the NBA Finals. The Celtics were coming off a 24-win season and the disappointment of losing a chance to secure Greg Oden in the lottery. Bryant was unhappy with management and the stagnancy of the Lakers.

That was before Danny Ainge and Mitch Kupchak engineered four-star trades that put both franchises in the championship mix.

So now David Stern and ABC have a big-market matchup that conjures some of the game’s biggest names of the past: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek.

As the marketing executives of the NBA would have it, Phil Jackson is in pursuit of a record that channels Red Auerbach, the architect of the Celtics teams of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

If the Lakers prevail, Jackson will have 10 championships, one more than Auerbach.

That prospect alone is enough to stoke the fires of enmity between the two cities.

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