With the 2008 NBA Finals rematch inching closer by the minute, everyone is wondering whether history two years removed will repeat itself or if the recent score will be evened out. Lamar Odom was asked during Monday's practice about the difference between the team defeated by the Celtics in 2008 --a purple and gold roster with its core still largely intact-- and the one defending a title this Thursday:
"We're a little bit more mature. Experienced. I would our mindset is a little bit different, for the better."
The third factor is where I think LO really hit the nail on the head.
The Lakers were in an entirely different place than the one occupied now. Obviously, there's experience and wisdom gained from winning the whole enchilada, but it goes beyond that. The year's mentality started considerably different. The 2008 season began with the goal first and foremost of retaining Kobe Bryant's services. Winning a title wasn't even low on anybody's "to do" list, much less high. The script, however, drastically changed when an unexpected whirlwind blew through Los Angeles.
Without warning, the Lakers morphed into a different team. Derek Fisher's presence paid instant dividends. Andrew Bynum made the seemingly overnight leap from "project" to "legit big man." The second unit was suddenly effective enough to garner a "bench mob" nickname and magazine articles. Pau Gasol arrived out of nowhere. Kobe transformed from "malcontent" to league MVP by virtue of the way he led a squad he once wanted no part of. A team some anticipated in October to miss the playoffs went through them like a hot knife and butter. In a nutshell, everything good that could have happened did (save Bynum's and Trevor Ariza's injuries), creating a vibe of pure joy.
By the time they reached the Finals, I don't think the Lakers were just "happy to be there" in a sports cliche sense. But in retrospect, they may have been a little too happy by the whole chain of event.
Make no mistake, the central reason the Lakers came up short was the Celtics being the better, healthier team. But I also think Boston was readier for the moment, having prepared for it from training camp forward. They had three superstars sacrificing their numbers and personal glory while running against the clock of a window slowly shutting. Role players like James Posey and P.J. Brown weren't just valuable. They projected a decided "we ain't ^$%# around" vibe. There's a certain edginess typically required to win a title. The Celtics had it in spades.
Kinda like the Lakers over the last two seasons.
You saw that edginess last season as the Lakers were so visibly and constantly fueled by their failed title shot and being labeled the league's reigning softies. It's been expressed in ways this season as well. Artest has played all year like every possession was his last. Odom is a little less giddy than seasons past. Gasol is little more tense. Fisher is a little more defiant. Bynum is gutting out a painful knee injury because he knows, even at a young age, how rare these opportunities can be.
Even something as (frankly) ridiculous as Kobe's jaw jut helps create the edginess. Let's be honest. The man's bottom teeth remained in their natural position during the 2008 playoff run. I'm convinced this facial development is a self-aware decision. But as much as I like to poke fun at the jut, I sincerely don't begrudge it, because I also believe the roots are based in a wholly organic and sincere place.
This team may be prone to maddening lapses of focus, but in my opinion, its intensity runs circles around the incarnation from two years ago. Like LO said, the mindset is different, in a good way.
Still, you don't want to let the stakes and settings overwhelm you too much, which is why Artest looks to treat his maiden foray into the Finals "just like a regular game." Of course, when regular season games are played like a jersey-clad bat out of hell, there's nothing to really crank up.
"I play hard, like it's a championship game my whole career," remarked the small forward.
When Ron joined the Lakers last July, it was with the unabashed goal of winning a ring. Dude mentioned this every possible chance. He's now four wins away from getting fitted for jewelry, but ironically less willing to even fathom the moment. "I'm not looking that far ahead," maintained Artest.
I asked if the championship possibility is almost too real now, sitting right in front of him as opposed to a goal off in the distance. He offered an interesting analogy:
"You set the goal. I guess it's like when you're cooking food, you buy the ingredients. You know what you want to make. I guess we're cooking right now. It's still cooking."
And finally, here's a cool clip of Ron talking about a team he and LO played for when he was 13 or 14. Riverside Church. As one might imagine, they were very good. Although not as good as another incarnation where, as Artest put it, "we had some more pieces to the puzzle."
Or as I like to call one such piece, "Elton Brand."