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Celtics-Lakers finally meet again

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 28, 2011 02:42 PM

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It's been more than seven months since the Celtics and Lakers staged a dramatic Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center. If you love basketball that's too long.

The rebounds and the championship banner went to the Lakers that sullen summer night. But Hollywood clamors for sequels, and while Sunday is not a replay of Game 7 it is far more important than your generic one of 82.

Call it postseason posturing. There is nothing the Celtics can do to change the past, but they can set the agenda for the future and extract a bit of revenge in the process.

Forget the Phoenix Suns, the Celtics' opponent tonight, and the Sacramento Kings, the Lakers' sacrificial lamb, those games are warm-up acts for Sunday. With all due respect to the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, these are the teams that make for the most compelling NBA Finals matchup.

We are extremely lucky that these teams are in position to write another chapter in their storied rivalry. Few thought that would be the case after Game 7. It looked like it was time to roll the credits on the Big Three/Doc Rivers era on Causeway Street.

Rivers, who got an ovation after he left the podium due to the presumption it was his final game as Celtics coach, said that night, "We're not going to be the same team next year."

But then Doc decided to return as Shamrock Shaman, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen followed suit, and the Celtics were back in business, with one very large addition in former Laker Shaquille O'Neal.

The acrimony between O'Neal and his former running mate, Kobe Bryant, has been well-documented. As has the Celtics' general disdain for Pau Gasol. But Boston doesn't need personal vendettas for motivation. Game 7 says it all. The Celtics led by 13 early in the second half and were still up three with 6:29 to go.

Rivers is fond of saying that the Celtics starting five has never lost a playoff series, and any player or coach who was in the tear-filled Celtics locker room after Game 7 will go to their grave believing the outcome would have been different with a healthy Kendrick Perkins.

It's easy to forget, but the Celtics returned to Los Angeles in control of the series, needing only to win once in SoCal to raise Banner No. 18. But Perkins tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6. Gasol (nine offensive rebounds) played volleyball in Game 7 and the Lakers won it despite a putrid performance -- 32.5 percent shooting from the field and 67.6 percent from the foul line -- thanks to 53 rebounds.

Perkins is back sooner than expected from surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee, and had a near double-double last night in Portland (10 points, 9 rebounds) in his second game back. You can bet he plans to make his presence felt to Gasol and Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who has also returned from off-season right knee surgery that sidelined him for the first 24 games.

The lesson the Celtics learned from their loss to the Lakers is that you can't expect to skate through the regular season, flip a switch in the playoffs and go home champions without home court. It's obvious that the Celtics' aging core is putting much more emphasis on the regular season this year, as reflected by their Eastern Conference-best 35-10 mark.

The Lakers appear to be taking a page out of the Celtics' book from last season, approaching the regular season with a laissez-faire, Left Coast attitude. At least that's the hope in Los Angeles, where there is some concern that the Lakers are not aging gracefully.

Laker legend and league icon, Jerry West, aka, The Logo, recently called out the Lakers for a defensive decline and said he didn't think they would be good much longer. It's never wise to go against Mr. Clutch, who is also one of the shrewdest NBA talent evaluators to ever walk the Earth.

Still, I think the Lakers' "problems" are more the result of a championship hangover (looking at you Ron Artest) and regular-season ennui than a sudden decline.

Kobe and his crew have a 33-13 mark and are six games behind the Spurs for the best record in the West, but they had a stretch from late December to Jan. 2 where they lost four of six, including defeats to inferior opponents Milwaukee and Memphis. They also had a four-game losing streak from Nov. 26 to Dec. 1.

Then there is the fact that the Lakers are a combined 1-4 against fellow championships contenders, going 1-1 against the Bulls and losing to Miami, San Antonio and Dallas. Expect to get the Lakers 'A' game on Sunday.

Of greater concern to the Celtics than any Los Angeles angst is figuring out how to rebound the basketball against the Lakers.

The Celtics 71 offensive rebounds were an all-time Finals low for a seven-game series. Not much has changed on the boards since June. The Lakers are the second-best rebounding team in the league (44.3 per game), while the Celtics rank dead last (38.4).

Of course it's tough to rebound shots you're making. We'll find out just how right West was about the Lakers defense, since Boston leads the NBA in field goal percentage at 50.3 percent. In the past 20 seasons, nine teams have managed to shoot 50 percent or better from the floor for a season.

There are so many storylines and subplots to the latest edition of Celtics vs. Lakers. It's the rare NBA regular season game that feels like something more. Luckily, after Sunday, the teams meet again in Boston on Feb. 10.

Something tells me that game won't be the last time these two teams see each other this season.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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