From coast to coast, drive remains the same
WALTHAM — They ran into each other at a crosswalk near Paul Pierce’s complex in Los Angeles not long after the Lakers won the title last season. The Celtics’ season had been over for weeks, and Pierce was home washing away the taste of a second-round exit.
“I was walking my dog,’’ Pierce said.
Phil Jackson was visiting his daughter.
“He was in a convertible,’’ Pierce recalled.
Jackson had just won his 10th championship, his fourth in Los Angeles, guiding the Lakers past an Orlando Magic team nearly no one pegged to reach the Finals. They victory gave the Lakers their 15th title as a franchise, but looking at Pierce, the man who picked LA apart the year before, Jackson couldn’t help but ask for a rematch.
“Get it back,’’ Jackson said. “We want to meet you in the Finals.’’
“I just said, ‘Congratulations. See you in the Finals next year,’ ’’ Pierce said.
Next year is now, and as they prepare to meet in the Finals for the 12th time in NBA history, the Celtics and Lakers have a chance to fill each others’ voids. The Lakers would have loved another clash with the Celtics a year ago. Some believe the Celtics would have made it happen had it not been for Kevin Garnett’s season-ending knee injury.
“It’s driven all of us,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “We didn’t have that opportunity last year. The Lakers won, but we didn’t have that opportunity. Honestly, we weren’t playing that great anyway when we were not injured. But now we’re a little different than that team. The starting five is the same, but we have a different bench, we have different guys and so do they.’’
For Pierce, who grew up watching the Lakers, the matchup is only right.
“I want to go there and try to win a championship in my hometown again,’’ Pierce said. “Just the rivalry period. Just the motivation of being in the championship. So many things motivate you for being in the Finals. I can just pretty much put all the things in a hat and pick one.’’
Although the Lakers are the defending champions, the Celtics feel as if they were champions who had their title vacated.
“I jokingly told someone the champ’s going to win,’’ Rivers said.
It was hard to fight the urge not to look ahead during the conference finals, when the Lakers jumped to a two-games-to-none lead on the Suns in the West and the Celtics put Orlando in a three-game hole in the East.
“We didn’t know [it would be Los Angeles] at that time with Phoenix still in the series, but we assumed that like everyone else did,’’ Rivers said.
They are now the latest incarnation of a rivalry that’s stretched the course of the NBA timeline. The faces of Kobe Bryant, Pierce, Garnett, Pau Gasol, Rivers and Jackson are as identifiable with the rivalry as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. It’s history with a pulse.
“Celtics and Lakers mean more to each guy because of the history,’’ Rivers said. “Even the young guys know the history. So, you feel like when you’re a Celtic you want to defend the Celtics and when you’re a Laker you want to defend the Lakers.’’
More than half of the Celtics’ 17 banners have come at the Lakers’ expense. The Lakers have lost to the Celtics in the Finals nine times, the last of which came in 2008.
“I think any time you lose in a championship game it’s hard to forget,’’ Pierce said. “You’re talking about the biggest stage. It hurts more. You almost would rather lose earlier than in a championship game, when you came so close. So I know it’s probably something that sticks in their mind.
“They’re a championship franchise just like ourselves. They only play for championships, and they only hang championship banners. It definitely hurts any year you can’t win one. Not only for the Lakers but for the Celtics.’’
The one reminder, though, as the teams prepare to write another chapter, is that history won’t help either team.
“One of the things I told our guys, once the game starts, it’s about playing basketball,’’ Rivers said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be the team that has the best focus, that follows their game plan the best, that has the best resolve. Those are the things that are going to win this series. The history stuff, that’ll happen. All the other stuff is going to be done on the floor.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.