NEW YORK (AP) - Once a good possibility, an NBA finals rematch sure seems in jeopardy now.
Yes, both have been through this before. The Lakers limped into the postseason last year, the Celtics hardly looked like a contender for the final two-thirds of the season, yet they ended up meeting for the title for the 12th time.
Things feel different now.
“They’ve lost some bad games,” Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said in a phone interview. “Everything starts over 0-0 (in the playoffs), but they’ve been psychologically wounded since they traded Kendrick Perkins.”
Boston fell into third place in the Eastern Conference when it was pounded 100-77 at Miami on Sunday, then basically conceded the race for the No. 2 seed when it rested all four of its All-Stars in a 95-94 overtime loss at Washington on Monday.
That locked the Celtics into a first-round matchup with the New York Knicks, who have surged into the No. 6 seed. TNT’s Steve Kerr once saw that as simply the first stop in Boston’s return to the finals, but now considers it the most interesting first-round pairing in either conference.
Barkley wrote off Boston last year as it stumbled to a 27-27 finish and refuses to do so again because of his belief in Doc Rivers’ coaching. Yet Kerr, seeing Perkins gone and unsure if Shaquille O'Neal can be counted on, said he’s “not sure they can flip the switch this year.”
“It seems to me that ever since the Perkins trade, they’ve lost their soul,” Kerr said. “They’ve lost their identity and I think that team was really affected emotionally by that trade. And even though they played well early in the season without him when he was injured, I think knowing that Perkins would be back along with having Shaq playing pretty well at the time, I think that was a comforting time for them.
“Now that he’s gone, especially with the way that they’ve built that team the last couple of years and sustained their confidence through Doc’s comments that we’re undefeated when we’re fully healthy, the celebrated ubuntu philosophy, it’s like they sort of threw that out the window and I don’t see the belief in their eyes right now.”
In ubuntu, Kerr was referring to the team’s motto, an African concept that translates roughly to “I am because we are.”
The regular season ends Wednesday and the playoffs don’t start until Saturday, so there’s time for the Celtics to refocus. Los Angeles has its own questions to answer. The Lakers snapped a five-game losing streak, their longest in four years, with a victory over San Antonio on Tuesday night, but center Andrew Bynum hyperextended his right knee in the game.
Los Angeles’ superb low-post defender will have an MRI on Wednesday while the Lakers wrap up the regular season at Sacramento.
“There’s always concern,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who acknowledged Bynum could be out for at least a few games. “We’ve seen him go down a couple of times that have been debilitating, so there’s a concern. It was kind of a freaky play, but they usually are, and that’s what basketball is.”