The same Finals that left Kobe Bryant feeling incomplete left Paul Pierce feeling invincible. In 2008, Bryant reached the Finals for the first time since his soap-opera split with Shaquille O’Neal, but ran into a Celtics team with too many weapons, including Paul Pierce, the MVP 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 among the choices whenever the argument comes up.
Bryant would get his sans-Shaq ring, beating the Orlando Magic last year, but part of him wanted to get it against the Celtics, and the idea lingered with him even as late as this February when he said that he wanted to take the title from the defending champions. That same season, the Celtics would have their invincibility shaken when a knee injury cut Kevin Garnett’s season short and also smothered any thoughts of a return trip to Finals.
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 two teams 21 years removed from their last Finals meeting, now has the recent history that makes the rivalry more real.
The Lakers still remember the 24-point
Game 5 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 play-making all-star. Tony Allen and Glen Davis, both at the end of the bench during the championship run, are now catalysts off the bench.
Bryant is still the end-all-be-all in Los Angeles, but after winning the title the Lakers gave him an enforcer in Ron Artest, an annoyingly persistent defender that spares Bryant the responsibility of chasing the opponent’s best player all night. This will be the 12th Finals meeting between the two teams, but it will be it's own battle.
“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.”
Jackson and Pierce crossed paths before the season and penciled each other in for June.
“After we came back in the playoffs last year, I ran into Paul Pierce in a complex where my daughter lives in L.A. I said, 'Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals.' So here it is almost a year later. We have this opportunity, both of us, to renew this rivalry.”