Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
This meeting might not live up to the hype of last month's get-together in LA.WALTHAM, Mass. -- If not for the oversized media contingent that descended upon Boston’s practice facility Wednesday, the Celtics might have been able to forget -- even if just temporarily -- that the Lakers were in town.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Celtics captain Paul Pierce puts up a jumper last month in Los Angeles.Forgive Boston if it’s simply not in the mood to pen the latest chapter in the greatest rivalry in basketball. Eleven days after an epic meeting in Los Angeles -- the first encounter since Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals -- the Celtics have encountered so much turbulence that a matchup against a rival with revenge on its mind is truly the last thing Boston needs right now.
Ravaged by injuries, struggling for consistency, and clinging to a suddenly tenuous half-game lead atop the Eastern Conference, Boston would have been just fine if it was, say, eight-win Cleveland visiting the Garden on Thursday.
Instead, it’s a Lakers squad that’s been in a bit of a panic mode since Boston’s late January victory. After arriving in town Wednesday, Los Angeles set out to squash trade rumors involving Carmelo Anthony and now it would like to squash the Celtics.
It might just do that. Due to recent injuries, Boston essentially has no depth at swingman or center, maybe the two most important positions when facing the Lakers. Captain Paul Pierce sat out practice Wednesday due to illness, the latest addition on an infirmary report that includes centers Shaquille O’Neal (inflamed Achilles), Jermaine O’Neal (sore left knee), and Semih Erden (right adductor strain), swingman Marquis Daniels (bruised spinal cord), and guard Delonte West (fractured right wrist).
That leaves Boston with an available roster featuring just 10 players, two of which are oft-unused rookies (Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody), who the Celtics had hoped just a short time ago would both be with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League.
Instead, Boston might just be leaning on those players to fill minutes as it tries to limp to the All-Star break, no easy task with the Lakers visiting Thursday and the Heat set to drop by on Sunday.
“It’ll show us that I’m glad we’re not in the NCAA tournament, where it’s single elimination,” joked Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I’d rather have a best-of-seven than [try to] beat each team once in a single game. We’re so banged up right now and you’ve got teams coming off of back-to-backs, or teams on long road trips. It’s so different [from the postseason], that’s why you can’t take a lot of out of regular-season games.”
To his credit, Rivers preached a similar mentality before the first Celtics-Lakers clash of the season, stressing to his team last month that that game meant no more than a tilt with the Sacramento Kings that followed two days later.
The Celtics ran the gamut of emotions walking back into the Staples Center that day and, dressing a fully healthy 12-man roster for one of the few times all season, Boston hit the floor eager to start the process of making amends for how its 2009-10 season ended.
Boston doesn’t have quite as much to prove Thursday. In fact, much of the pregame hoopla centers on a single player in Ray Allen and his quest to become the league’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals (a story line only enhanced by the fact that current record holder, Reggie Miller, will be a part of TNT’s broadcast booth for the game).
Yes, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry might actually be on the back-burner for one night.
“I don’t know what [Thursday’s game] means,” said Rivers. “I don’t think it means more that we play the Lakers and they’re one of the teams we feel we have to beat to win [an NBA title]. But other than that, that’s all it means. I don’t overdo regular-season games. I enjoy them when they have more meaning, but other than that, I don’t know the answer. I just know it’s Lakers-Celtics and that’s always a good thing.”
But is it? The Celtics fully acknowledge that, given their roster issues, they simply need to find a way to sneak out some wins before the All-Star break. The Lakers, on the other hand, have plenty of motivation.
Just ask Von Wafer.
“They’re going to be ready,” said Wafer, who could see increased time in the absence of Daniels. “They’re going to be ready to play because we just kicked their butts on national TV. They're going to come in here ready to play. We're going to have to be ready to play."
That’s easier said than done. The Celtics are uncertain what they’ll have at swingman (especially if Pierce doesn’t improve), while the frontcourt, even with Kendrick Perkins back the past seven games, remains depleted. Without the O’Neals and Erden, the Celtics are playing without the sort of depth that did them in during the final two games of last year’s Finals.
In nine of the last 10 meetings between the two teams overall, postseason included, the team that won the rebounding battle, won the game. Boston boasted a 43-30 edge last month in Los Angeles. This time around, the Celtics are practically rooting for Los Angeles to land Anthony if it meant giving up big-man Andrew Bynum (Think they can get it done by tip-off?)
As Glen Davis broke it down Wednesday: “You rebound, you win. And winning is important.”
Especially in this rivalry. Which is why the significance of Celtics-Lakers isn’t lost on Allen before his historic moment.
“We were watching film earlier [Wednesday] and I saw the ticker at the bottom of the screen talking about how many times we had made it to the Finals,” said Allen. “The most of any two teams that have met in any major sport. There's so much history behind it and I know people coming in from all over America to watch this game and they did that when we were out in LA a couple weeks ago, so, we definitely want to be on the top side of winning this game, but we've got to play our best basketball."
Instead, Boston might have to settle for smoke and mirrors, especially given all the injuries, including an uncertain future for Daniels, who got stretchered off the court in a scary scene Sunday against the Magic.
"It depends on what we can get away with," Rivers said while explaining Boston's options moving forward. "Honestly, we can go with two smalls with Ray at the 3. But it puts us in a terrible spot. It's funny, going into the year, that was an area of concern because we knew we were one injury away from being very thing. Unfortunately, it happened.”
And now the Celtics expect to have to get by in ways Rivers hadn’t even stooped to when his team was losing a franchise record 18 straight games during the 2006-07 campaign.
“I’ve been here seven years and you’ve seen me trap probably 10 times,” said Rivers. “We’re literally going to have to start trapping, which weakens your defense. I hate it, but we worked on it [Wednesday], and we’re going to work on it everyday until we get another [swingman].
“You look at Sunday[’s game vs. the Heat], when Paul [Pierce] goes out, someone’s going to have to guard LeBron [James]. We don’t have that someone. That means we’re going to have to start trapping.”
Yes, it’s not ideal. Just like the timing of this latest Lakers matchup. But the Celtics are going to have to find ways to get by.