Finals preview: One for the ages
Maybe it wasn't shocking that "Hot Tub Time Machine" became a surprise hit, but did you ever imagine it would set the tone for an entire year? Just this month, Hollywood is releasing movies called "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid"; MTV is preparing a "Teen Wolf" series; Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair might wrestle soon; Bruce Springsteen is rumored to be playing another Super Bowl halftime show; Michael Jackson's concert special is available on pay-per-view; Eddie Murphy is hitting comedy clubs to test material for another stand-up tour; and the Celtics and Lakers are playing in another NBA Finals.
In other words, it's great to be back in the mid-'80s again. And if it leads to a studio asking Josh Holloway to bring back Sonny Crockett in a "Miami Vice" TV pilot, it will have all been worth it. For now, we'll have to settle for two weeks of Celtics-Lakers battles that could end up being remembered as one of the best Finals ever.
It's a dirty secret, but the Finals usually aren't very good. The last entertaining start-to-finish series of the past two decades? Pacers-Lakers in 2000. The best start-to-finish series? Suns-Bulls in 1993. Number of Finals since 1990 in which you said to yourself heading into Game 6, "I have absolutely no idea who will win this series"? Just three: 1994 (Knicks-Rockets), 1998 (Bulls-Jazz) and 2005 (Spurs-Pistons). The last phenomenal individual performance? Just one since Tim Duncan's near quadruple-double to close out the 2003 Finals (Dwyane Wade in 2006). The most evenly matched Finals between really good teams? Probably 1993 (unless you wanted to talk me into 2000). The Finals with the most amount of bad blood festering between the teams and between the fan bases before Game 1? Good Lord, we'd have to go back to 1988 (Pistons-Lakers) for that one.
Quick story: I went to the Dodgers game Monday night. Attending a Dodgers game is like climbing into a "Mad Men" episode -- old-school venue, gorgeous landscape, nice weather, stripped-down game presentation -- and I always expect the fans to be wearing fedoras, smoking Marlboro Reds and eating food with tons of bacon on it. It's an extremely supportive, loyal, mellow crowd. So to hear them suddenly start booing like a 1970s WWF crowd that just saw the Iron Sheik I mean, it's pretty jarring. That happened in two random moments in Monday's game. The offending culprits? Two different fans wearing green Celtics shirts and sitting near home plate; they made the mistake of simply walking up the aisle to get drinks.
Just the sight of these guys made Dodgers fans furious. Again, no small feat. That's when I realized how much has changed since 2008: It's not just that Boston embarrassed the Lakers in Game 4 (the 25-point comeback) or blew them out of the building in the deciding game (131-92) or that local product Paul Pierce climbed out of a wheelchair to save Game 1 (for some reason, that moment drives Lakers fans absolutely insane) or even that their hero Kobe struggled so mightily that they quickly agreed to pretend his entire stink bomb never happened (as they did after the 2004 Finals). We've had some time to let this rejuvenated rivalry breathe again.
Think about the whirlwind setup for 2008: Boston's nucleus was hastily whipped together the previous summer, and the Lakers came together only that February after the Pau Gasol hijacking. The Finals were like a microwave pizza we threw in for four minutes, then quickly chowed down. This one feels more like a prepared meal. The teams know each other now. There will be no strategic surprises along the lines of Phoenix's gimmicky zone. The fan bases worked up a healthy amount of mutual bad blood -- really, these are the only two Eastern/Western conference franchises that loathe each other to this degree -- and even the media have gotten involved, as we witnessed earlier this week when an L.A. Times columnist incredibly mocked Paul Pierce for nearly getting stabbed to death in 2000.
During the Athletics-Red Sox game Tuesday night, Boston's crowd chanted "BEAT L-A! BEAT L-A!" intermittently throughout the game; every time it happened, the TV cameras found two drunk guys wearing Celtics jerseys and belting out the chant like opera singers. The city is ready. Same for Los Angeles. It's just the 2008 champ and the 2009 champ playing for the 2010 title. Rubber match. If the Lakers win, it avenges 2008, gives L.A. the upper hand in basketball's longest rivalry and boosts Kobe historically to rarefied air (more on this in a second). If the Celtics win, Boston fans can play the "Your 2009 Title Is Now Meaningless," "We Own Kobe," "Our Starting Five Still Hasn't Lost A Series When Healthy" and "We're Still The Best NBA Franchise Ever" cards.
One other reason to love this series: It's basically the 2008 Finals all over again, only if you switched Ron Artest for Vlad Radmanovic, Nate Robinson for James Posey, Slightly Limping Andrew Bynum for Ronny Turiaf, Slightly Limping And Two Years Older Kevin Garnett for Kevin Garnett, and Quite Possibly The Best Point Guard Alive Rajon Rondo for Hit-Or-Miss Young Guy Rajon Rondo. Translation: major upgrade.
The crunch-time fives (Perkins, Garnett, Rondo, Pierce and Allen versus Gasol, Odom, Artest, Bryant and Fisher) are as loaded as for any Finals since 1993 (Barkley, Chambers, Majerle, Johnson and Ainge versus Jordan, Pippen, Grant, Paxson and Cartwright). The Celtics might have four Hall of Famers at varying points of their career; the Lakers have a top-10 all-timer, as well as the league's second-best big man (Gasol), most flexible forward (Odom) and best power perimeter defender (Artest). The ninth and 10th guys? Only one of the best low-post defenders in the league (Perkins) and someone who improbably has evolved into a mildly Horryian veteran who isn't afraid to take big shots (Fisher). There isn't a lemon out of the 10.
(Note: It's incredible that we're saying that about Fisher, who looked so washed-up in the regular season that I tried to get the nickname "Low Tide" going for him. Didn't take. Any Lakers fan who claims he knew Fisher would rally for the playoffs is lying. Same with the Celtics fans who said that about Rasheed "I Used The Regular Season To Begrudgingly Play Myself Into Reasonable Shape For The Playoffs, Season-Ticket Holders Be Damned" Wallace.)
I don't want to jinx it, but crap -- when you throw in the quality of Boston's bench, Bynum's X factor, the way L.A.'s backups play at home, the coaching staffs, the histories, the personalities, the contrast of styles, the fact that Sasha Vujacic has turned into such a villain that even his own fans openly hate him, the colors (the green and yellow always look great together) and the Russell-Bird-Magic-Kareem-Hondo-West-Baylor-Cousy shadow, it would be a major disappointment if this series didn't turn out to be memorable in some way.
• Game 1, 2008 Finals: Pierce comes back
• Game 2, 2008 Finals: Boston, rejuvenated
• Game 3, 2008 Finals: Lingering questions
• Game 4, 2008 Finals: Miracle comeback
• Game 5, 2008 Finals: Can Celts close it out?
• Game 6, 2008 Finals: The 17th banner
• June 2008: Myths of Celtics-Lakers rivalry
• Sept. 2004: 1984: The greatest year ever
• Feb. 2003: The greatest game ever
Back to the contrast of styles: These teams are bad for each other. The Celtics are better than anyone at defending scorers, frustrating them at the perimeter, disguising their looks and knocking them down on every potentially free basket. Just ask Wade, LeBron and especially Vince Carter, who had post-traumatic stress disorder by Game 3. (It's part personnel and part Tom Thibodeau, the team's Belichickian assistant who will finally get hired as a head coach this summer.) The Celtics are also going to make Kobe play defense this series. (Either he takes Rondo or chases Ray Allen around double screens and moving picks for two weeks which would be stupid, and a waste of his legs, which is why I think he'll be taking Rondo. Either way, he won't get to be a glorified DH the way he was against Utah and Phoenix. Also, you'll have point guards chasing around Allen. Win-win for Boston.) And they're going to try to beat up, intimidate and frustrate Gasol (which they did successfully in 2008).
On the flip side, the 2010 Lakers have Artest, who eats up herky-jerky high-post games and should prevent Pierce from going off the way he did in 2008. As a Celtics fan, I'm terrified of crunch time this series: Let's say Artest swallows up Pierce; let's say Rondo continues his trend of becoming passive in the last five minutes because he doesn't want to get fouled (the biggest hole in his game); and let's say Garnett's legs continue to look as tired as they looked in the Orlando series. Where are the Celtics getting points other than Allen? Every time I think about this series, I think about Boston's offense grinding down in the last five minutes. The other big advantage for the Lakers: home court. They're 28-3 in their past 31 home playoff games, and it's no secret that home cooking brings the best out of Kobe.
So that's the setup. I have no idea who will win and refuse to make a pick; I've been wrong about everything this playoffs, anyway. Let's talk about legacies. More than any recent Finals that I can remember, there's a historical bent to the various subplots and characters of this particular series. To wit
THE GARNETT-ERA CELTICS
If they win the title, they would
1. Join the 1978 Bullets (21-24 in their last 45 regular-season games) and 1995 Rockets (12-16 in their last 28) as one of the most improbable "where the hell did this come from?" NBA champs ever. The 2010 Celts went 26-24 in their last 50 regular-season games, were 3-7 in their last 10, and couldn't have looked more lifeless and discombobulated down the stretch. Believe me, I watched them all season. There were no signs of life. Fans were more depressed than whipped husbands walking out of a "Sex and the City 2" screening.
2. Become the all-time "Here's why you can never give up on a veteran team with a championship pedigree no matter how much they're sucking the life out of you" example. Please know that I have no regrets for ripping the Celtics in the regular season; they deserved every ounce of it. My father, a season-ticket holder since 1974, told me in April that it was one of the two worst regular seasons he ever paid for, along with the 1978-79 season (the one before Bird), just because he couldn't believe how many home games the team mailed in. Now that we're in the Finals? Dad says, "Yeah, paying for [all the mailed-in home games] was worth it. We're here, and that's all that matters. And it's clear now that we just needed to get healthy. Still, I don't know how that excuses Rasheed for needing six months to play himself into shape or hustle on a fast break." Good point. Regardless, I will never count out an old team again. You just never know.
3. Go down in history as the first team to wipe out the league's four best players in consecutive series (Wade, LeBron, Howard, then Kobe); a juggernaut that possibly could have three-peated had Garnett not injured his knee last season; and a two-time champ with four potential Hall of Famers (I know, Rondo has a loooooooooooooooooong way to go, but it's not an unreasonable statement), which, by the way, hasn't happened since the 1986 Celtics. So yeah.
THE GASOL-ERA LAKERS
Three straight Finals appearances (only six teams have done that since 1970); two straight titles (hasn't happened since 2002); and, really, they'd be the favorites for next season, as well unless LeBron goes to Chicago, brings Bosh with him and persuades Atlanta to sign-and-trade Joe Johnson for Luol Deng. (And only then.) And what if the Lakers won, then flipped Bynum to Toronto in a sign-and-trade for Bosh? Yikes.
Coaches who won two or more NBA titles: Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Rudy Tomjanovich, Chuck Daly, K.C. Jones, Red Holzman, Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, Alex Hannum, John Kundla. Did I ever think Doc could make this list when Rick Carlisle was coaching the pants off him in the 2005 playoffs, or when we were blowing 18 straight in 2007, or even when he was playing an 11-man rotation in Rounds 1 and 2 in 2008? No. To say the least. For the record, I think the Rivers/Thibodeau combo has been fantastic this spring: rotations, strategies, in-game timeouts, motivation, everything. I have no complaints. Never thought I would say that about a Doc Rivers-coached team.
If the Lakers win, 11 rings two more than Auerbach. And he might have a $100 million, five-year offer waiting for him from Mutant Russian Mark Cuban for all we know.
Limped around all season, looked washed-up, got his legs back for the playoffs, enjoyed a monster Cleveland series, then faded noticeably against Orlando. I have no idea what to expect from him in the Finals. None. But he hasn't gotten enough credit for reinventing himself in the playoffs as a complementary asset -- a little like Pippen on the 2000 Blazers, David Robinson on the 2003 Spurs or Karl Malone on the 2004 Lakers -- something I never thought his ego would allow. I had him ranked No. 21 in my NBA Hall of Fame Pyramid, with Barkley at No. 19 and Malone at No. 18. If he wins a second ring? I think he leapfrogs both of them.
His 2009 and 2010 playoff stats (39 games): 19.0 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 58 percent FG. Let's say the Lakers win a second title and he holds his own against the Garnett/Wallace/Perkins/Davis big man armada. We'd have to throw him in the Great Championship Sidekicks Discussion: Maybe not on the Frazier/Pippen/McHale/2000-02 Kobe level, but definitely on the Worthy/Ginobili level. His willingness to give up shots/touches for the sake of the team -- but thrive anyway -- separates him from everyone else. I'll pass on the obligatory Chris Wallace potshot. Only because we're at capacity.
Blessed by the great Bob Ryan as the best one-on-one scorer in Celtics history, and with reason: He has played some transcendent playoff games, with Game 6 of the Orlando series being the latest addition to the list. His past three postseasons: 57 games, 20-6-4, 44 percent shooting, and he slowed LeBron down just enough in two series. I had him ranked No. 54 in my book; if he can score consistently on Artest and lead Boston to a second title, I'd have to bump him to the 44-47 range. A big "if." And by the way, the collective venom of Lakers fans toward Pierce will be one of the single best subplots of this series. Just wait until he gets belted on a drive at the Staples, goes to the ground and takes an extra 2-3 seconds to get up.
So much going on here, including
1. His relationship with Kobe has become a mirror image of Jordan/Rodman in the mid-'90s: He's so deferential to Kobe, and so desperate to please him, that it's endearing and even a little comical. (I thought it was telling that, instead of sprinting toward his bench after his Game 5 buzzer-beater, Artest whirled around, found Kobe and jumped into his arms.) For everything bad Kobe ever brought to the Teammate Table (and there's been a ton of it), you can't discount the effect he has had on Artest, who lost some bulk, stopped caring about shots and became a defensive pit bull again.
2. If he shuts down Pierce, the Lakers win the title and he officially buries the Artest Melee. Well, unless you're a Pacers fan.
3. There isn't a Lakers fan who isn't abjectly terrified of (A) Artest taking a terrible shot at the worst possible time or (B) Artest melting down at the worst possible time. It's been an exhilarating ride for fans -- Artest never ceases to be interesting, and he has had some legitimately inspired moments, but if you've attended a big Lakers game this season, you'll notice a peculiar vibe any time he's dribbling, filling the lane on a fast break, toying with the idea of launching a 3 or arguing with an official -- it's a little like the vibe on the "MTV's 25 Lamest Videos" set right before Vanilla Ice sent everyone scattering with a baseball bat. And maybe we'll never reach the point that things are getting broken while Chris Kattan screams "No, Vanilla!" -- but the possibility exists.
4. I spent two hours with Artest in January when he was considering a reality show or documentary (ESPN was a potential suitor). He said a million things that fascinated me, but here was one of them: Last summer, he wanted to play with Cleveland, Detroit or the Lakers. Why? Because those three teams would have made for "the biggest story." (His words.) He reminded me of Mike Tyson and Allen Iverson in that he was painfully aware of how people perceived him. He understood the ramifications of the melee; he understood why it happened; and he felt as if he had had enough therapy, and done enough soul-searching, to make sure nothing like that would happen again.
At the same time, he enjoyed the notoriety and had no problem milking it for his own purposes. He wanted to play in Los Angeles because of Kobe, but also because that's where Hollywood is, and that's where the celebrities are, and really, he wanted to be a celebrity like them, just a famous guy on a famous team (and not The Guy Who Started The Melee). When he explained it, he didn't sound like a complete lunatic or an egomaniac. There was something innocent and, yes, sweet about his logic. You could say his goal as a Laker was to go from infamous to famous. And if the 2010 Lakers win the title, he will.
Leapfrogged Reggie Miller on my Hall of Fame Pyramid with yet another underrated/efficient/clutch playoffs highlighted by Game 5 of the Cavs series (six 3s), and Game 1 (25 points) and Game 6 (consecutive third-quarter 3s that effectively iced the game) of the Orlando series. Considering the Celtics did everything but put him on Craigslist in February, calling his play a "resurgence" would be an understatement. If you're measuring 2010 NBA players simply by who terrifies opposing fans most when he's lining up an open shot in a tight playoff game, Kobe is first and Ray Allen is second. At age 34. Relatively amazing. Throw in his rivalry with Kobe (they hate each other) and L.A.'s difficulty matching up with him and here's your long-shot Finals MVP bet (20-to-1).
One more clutch shot in a big moment from upgrading from "Homeless Man's Robert Horry" to "Very Poor Man's Robert Horry."
Put it this way: If the Celtics win the title and he's their best player, how can we not consider him to be the best point guard in the league? What's the point of having a season then?
I've already gushed enough about Rondo this spring, but there's one thing we haven't touched on in this space: his surging popularity in New England. Starting with the 2009 playoffs and carrying over to this regular season, when Rondo's electrifying play was the only reason to watch the Celtics, he quietly became the most popular player on an increasingly depressing team. Then they turned things around in the playoffs, Rondo went to another level in the Cleveland series, he clinched temporary icon status with the Cowens-like dive in Game 3, and his willingness to play in obvious pain (bad back, leg cramps) has made everyone who ever cared about this team immensely proud. He's a true Celtic. And potentially, one of the best we've ever had.
Now here's where it gets interesting. David Ortiz's star lost its luster in New England because of his declining play (although he's been scorching hot lately) and the alleged 2003 positive performance-enhancing drug test fiasco (unrecoverable to some degree). Tom Brady's star lost its luster -- just a little -- because more than a few locals feel as if marriage softened him, he has gone Hollywood, he has too much on his plate, he is too concerned about his image and he's not around Boston enough. (Note: All that crap will fade as soon as the Pats start 8-1 next season and he hits that Manning-Brees level again, but for now, that's where we are.) So there's a door open here, and if the Celtics win the title with Rondo leading the way, as crazy as this sounds, Rajon Rondo -- the 21st pick in the 2007 draft, the guy who couldn't make a 12-footer, the head case who was being shopped around before the June 2009 draft, the upstart young buck who was resented by the three veteran stars on this team until two months ago -- absolutely could grab the championship belt as The Athlete With The Highest Approval Rating In Boston. Even if it lasted only a few months, it would be a bigger upset than a Republican's taking Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. I don't know how we got here.
Allow me to play devil's advocate to the whole "Kobe's Never Been Better" argument: His past two series (admittedly fantastic: 33-6-7, 52 percent FG, 39 percent 3FG) happened against the ideal opponents for him. Neither Utah (an average defensive team) nor Phoenix (below-average) had shot-blockers, nor did either team have the frontcourt depth to knock him down every time he drove. Defensively, he didn't have to waste energy defending anyone, allowing him to reserve his legs for offense. In the Finals? He'll have to play both ends. He'll have to defend Rondo or Allen. And he will get knocked down.
Playing "angel's advocate" to the same argument: It was the finest stretch of all-around basketball we've seen from him in nine years -- since he and Shaq combined to eviscerate San Antonio and Sacramento in 2001 (Kobe: 34-8-6, 49.5 percent FG, eight straight wins) -- and the degree of difficulty of some of his buckets had to be seen to be believed. Hell, these were the same shots he bricked in the 2004 Finals, only this time, they were going in. Again and again. By the end of that Phoenix series, his confidence/swagger was a 9.8 on the MJ Scale. If he remains at that level and upends the 2010 Celtics, here's what happens to him historically:
• By any calculation, he passes Oscar and Jerry and becomes the third-best guard ever (trailing only Jordan and Magic).
• In my book, I had him ranked No. 15 as a Level Four guy. Last season's title moved him to Level Five; I thought he'd move into the top eight if the Lakers made the Finals again. Which they did. But if they win again? Now we have to talk about Duncan's No. 7 spot. And that argument comes down to this: (A) Can Kobe pass Duncan even though, from 1997 to 2007, there is no way in hell that San Antonio would have considered a Kobe-for-Duncan offer? (B) Would you rather have had the best power forward of all time or the third-best guard of all time? And (C) how can we reconcile Kobe's winning 35, 45 and 42 games in the prime of his career (2005-07) when Duncan managed 57-63 wins every season despite some similarly shaky supporting casts (2001 and 2002 in particular)? Sorry, I'm still taking Duncan. But if Kobe gets to six rings, enjoys one more MVP-caliber season and starts approaching some career landmarks (such as 35,000 points), I think the argument shifts.
• He still can't touch Magic, who could have played with Zac Efron as his shooting guard and still won 50-plus games. (Same for Bird, Jordan, Russell and Kareem, by the way). But going back to the longevity thing: Magic played only 12 seasons (not counting his ill-fated comeback in '96), whereas Kobe just banked his 14th and he's still going strong. Yeah, it's still not an argument, but you're also not getting laughed out of the room anymore.
• He will never be greater than Jordan. So drop that thought. Hell, even that 10-game stretch we just witnessed wouldn't have cracked Jordan's top-10 playoff hot streaks. But still he can beat Jordan on years. Let's say Kobe enjoys two more top-5 MVP seasons, then settles into a "Duncan 2009/2010" type phase for the next two, then he's washed up. The sheer volume of numbers will add up: rings, All-NBAs, All-Star appearances, points scored, games played -- it will be like nothing we've ever seen. At the very least, it will be a debate. And I will get angry and tell you to shut up, and that we need to stop comparing people to Jordan, but still, it's a debate. And there's going to come a point when someone can ask the question, "If you were starting a team and could have either guy for his entire career, would you rather take MJ from 1984 to 2003 (with the five missed years of games thrown in) or Kobe from 1997 to 2016 (with 0 missed years of games thrown in)?"
So those are the stakes for Kobe Bean Bryant. A fifth ring gets the ball rolling on every argument you just read. It's certainly been a startling transformation the past three years, when he remade his career in the late stages of his prime thanks to a fortuitous trade and a breathtaking amount of hard work. He's the toughest player in the league. He spends the most time on his game. He has the best footwork of anyone. He plays the hardest. He only cares about getting better and keeping what he already earned. He has learned to trust his teammates -- not totally, but enough. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed playing with Kobe Bryant, but I certainly will remember watching him.
And with all of that said he still hasn't beaten the Boston Celtics.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.