His shot at redemption?
Bryant felt empty after ’08 Finals
The same NBA Finals that left Kobe Bryant feeling incomplete left Paul Pierce feeling invincible.
In 2008, the Lakers’ Bryant reached the Finals for the first time since his soap-opera split with Shaquille O’Neal, but he ran into a Celtics team with too many weapons, including Pierce, who was named Most Valuable Player of the series.
Tasting victory in his first trip to the Finals, Pierce oozed confidence in the offseason, telling reporters in Spain that he was the best player in the world, not Bryant, typically the choice whenever the argument came up.
Bryant got his sans-Shaq ring, beating the Magic last year, but part of him wanted to get it against the Celtics, and the idea lingered late into that season. But a knee injury cut Kevin Garnett’s season short and smothered any thoughts of a return trip to the Finals by the Celtics.
Now, the table is set again for the two most decorated franchises in NBA history.
What seemed like a history lesson two years ago, with the teams 21 years removed from their last Finals meeting, now has the recent history that makes the current rivalry more real.
The Lakers still remember the 24-point Game 4 lead that vanished before their eyes, swinging the series as the Celtics went back to Boston and clinched the title in blowout fashion in Game 6.
“There’s nothing worse than losing in a Finals,’’ Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s about as low as you can get after riding a high, getting through three series, going into the fourth one and the Finals. I had hoped I’d never experience it, but I’ve done it twice now, so I know it’s a real difficult summer after that.’’
At their core, the Celtics are still the same team, with the same starting five from their championship season, bolstered by the addition of Rasheed Wallace off the bench. Rajon Rondo has transformed from a role-playing point guard to a playmaking All-Star. Tony Allen and Glen Davis, both at the end of the bench during the championship run, are now catalysts as substitutes.
Bryant is still the end-all-be-all in Los Angeles, but after winning the title the Lakers got him an enforcer in Ron Artest, an annoyingly persistent defender who spares Bryant the responsibility of chasing the opponent’s best player all night.
This will be the 12th Finals meeting between the teams, nine of the Celtics’ 17 titles coming against the Lakers.
“This is a whole new situation,’’ Jackson said. “We have some of the members of our team, five new members of the team, but some of these guys remember how it felt to lose.’’
The Lakers, who finished seven games better than the Celtics (57-25) could have four games on their floor, where they put together one of the best home records in the league (34-7).
The Celtics’ regular-season road success (26-15) has carried over into the postseason, with Boston having won five of eight away games.
“We have the focus, we have veterans, and I think when you play on the road that’s what you’ve got to have,’’ said Pierce. “Most young teams get intimidated by the road and that’s why they can’t win. But you have a team that’s very confident, very poised, and has all the characteristics that you need to win on the road.
The 2006 Heat were the most recent team to win a championship without home court, beating the Mavericks in six games, clinching the series with Dwyane Wade’s 36-point performance in Dallas.
Despite their success on the road, the Celtics have clinched all three series this postseason at the Garden.
“This has been the toughest road in the playoffs that I’ve ever played in just knowing that I had to go on the road all these series,’’ Pierce said. “Then, one more series on the road. So it really shows a lot about this team. The mental toughness that it’s taken to do what we’re doing.’’
Part of the reason was because of so many Celtics-Lakers Finals, leading the teams to make taxing cross-country flights.
“Although he’s not here to defend himself and deny it,’’ Stern said in ’08, “I tell you that Red said to me back in ’84, ‘This is too much. Play, travel, play, travel, play, travel,’ In subsequent years, he said it was terrible that we changed it to 2-3-2, but a young commissioner was motivated by the father of us all.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.