EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. (AP) - The NBA finals seemed to go on forever last summer, stretching through seven games over two weeks until the exhausted Los Angeles Lakers finally edged the injury-depleted Boston Celtics with their last gasp in the final quarter.
After seven months to recover, the rivals finally are ready to go at each other again.
When they meet Sunday on the same Staples Center court where the Lakers won their 16th title and denied the Celtics their 18th, their epic shared history always looms in the background. They’ve won more than half of the NBA’s total championships and met in 12 NBA finals, including two of the past three.
The franchises’ generational animosity has been rekindled, as anybody could tell last June. Just don’t expect them to acknowledge it in late January.
Yet the unfriendliness of this rivalry manifests itself in weird, subtle ways: According to a widespread Internet rumor backed up by photos from the manufacturer, Kevin Garnett is expected to wear a special pair of green, suede-covered shoes with “152-120” embroidered on the tongue.
Boston added another spicy element to the rivalry in the offseason by signing Shaquille O'Neal, who won three titles and the NBA finals MVP awards in Los Angeles. Yet the Celtics‘ 38-year-old backup center is hardly the biggest concern for the Lakers _ not with both teams struggling to stay consistent during the grind leading up to the All-Star break.
Both are coming off embarrassing losses Friday night. The Lakers played horribly at home against lowly Sacramento, while Garnett and Celtics coach Doc Rivers were ejected while Boston scored a season-low 71 points in Phoenix. Garnett escaped suspension for hitting Phoenix’s Channing Frye in the groin area, with the NBA saying it isn’t looking into the matter but is still reviewing Rivers’ actions.
The Celtics, who flew into Los Angeles late Saturday, still lead the Eastern Conference at 35-11, while the Lakers are comfortably in second place in the West at 33-14, well behind overall NBA leader San Antonio.
The Lakers went through a 2 1/2-hour practice at their training complex in El Segundo on Saturday, but not due to extra preparation for the Celtics. They usually spend the first part of practice correcting the mistakes of their last game, and that portion was extra-long after Friday’s 100-95 loss to the 11-win Kings, likely the most embarrassing night of the Lakers‘ season.
“We’ve had some tough losses that kind of jump out at you, but it’s just about being more consistent,” Bryant said. “(We’re) right where we need to be.”
While the Celtics have showed more consistency than the Lakers this season, Los Angeles hasn’t risen to the level of its high-profile showcases. Most notably, the Lakers flopped in a 96-80 Christmas loss to Miami, with Bryant lamenting, “It’s like these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us.”
The Lakers responded in their biggest game of last season, although they still realize they were fortunate to hang on for an 83-79 victory in Game 7, rallying from a 13-point deficit in the second half. It’s tough to look back fondly on such an ugly victory, even if it’s one of the biggest wins in Lakers history.
“It was a tough one, sure, having to come back the way we did and taking it from them the way we did,” said Bryant, who infamously went 6 for 24 in Game 7.