Past perfect, present tense
Anytime these ancient adversaries meet in the Finals it’s fun to dredge up the past and reminisce about days and plays gone by, from Don Nelson’s fortuitous bounce that kept the balloons in the Forum in 1969, to Kevin McHale’s clothesline of the bespectacled Kurt Rambis in 1984, to Magic Johnson’s mini-skyhook in 1987 (a vastly underrated piece of Hub sports heartache that remains positively Bucknerian for yours truly). However, the past isn’t really relevant to this series, and that includes the Finals two years ago.
There is the constant temptation to harken back to 2008, when the Celtics dispatched Kobe and Co., in six games to win Banner No. 17, on June 17 no less. The 2008 NBA Finals always will be a treasured Boston basketball memory. Our own restoration hardware.
The Celtics handed the Lakers an ignominious 131-92 defeat in Game 6. The confetti raining down on the TD Garden court, Doc Rivers beaming in his Gatorade-soaked shirt, and Kevin Garnett’s guttural and oddly commercial “Anything is possible!’’ declaration are unforgettable moments.
The NBA is notorious for time-bending continuation calls, but two years is a bit much even by the league’s generous standards. That’s why Thursday night at Staples Center isn’t a much anticipated and-one from the 2008 Finals. It’s Game 1 of a Finals series that features the last two NBA titlists starting at Square One.
Yes, these are the same two franchises that met in the 2008 NBA Finals, but they’re not the same two teams. Not even close.
A lot has changed. Rajon Rondo has become dynamic. Kevin Garnett’s knee has stripped him of his dominance. James Posey and Eddie House aren’t walking through that door and neither are Leon Powe and P.J. Brown. Rasheed Wallace was a despised Detroit Piston two years ago, now it’s all good that he’s in Green.
“Now, we’re a little different than that team, obviously,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “The starting five is the same, but we have a different bench, we have different guys and so do they. You know 2008 was 2008. I’m not going to live on that. I can tell you that. The Lakers are a much better basketball team, and I’m hoping we are too.’’
Facelifts are popular in LA, and the Lakers have undergone one since they lost to the Celtics. What Kobe Bryant didn’t have two years ago was a post-Shaq NBA title to his name, teammates he trusted, and the relief of knowing he doesn’t have to carry the offense on one end, then turn around and shadow the opposing team’s best player on the other.
The transcendent Bryant has all of that now and the wildest of wild cards in Ron Artest, who was in the stands at Game 6 two years ago.
“Ron is the perfect complement to Kobe,’’ said Paul Pierce, who figures to be defended by Ron-Ron. “The last time we played them in the Finals you saw Kobe going around guarding me, then going to Ray Allen to Rondo. He doesn’t have that pressure now. You got a guy in Ron Artest who can do that.’’
Artest alone ensures the Lakers won’t have their lunch money taken from them by the Celtics like two years ago. And this time LA will have the services of a 7-foot, bona fide center in Andrew Bynum, whose torn meniscus in his right knee pales in comparison to the dislocated left kneecap that rendered him hors de hoops in the ’08 Finals.
Almost as big is that LA won’t have a starting lineup that includes Vladimir Radmanovic or Lamar Odom at “power forward,’’ which was an oxymoron. Gasol plays there and Odom can come off the bench.
Comparing Rondo circa 2008 to the current version is like comparing the original monochromatic iPod to an iPad. The evolutionary advancement is obvious, and his improvement is the single biggest factor in the series.
Rondo averaged 10.2 points per game in the playoffs two years ago. It’s 16.7 this season. The Lakers had trouble preventing Phoenix’s backup point guard, Goran Dragic, from getting to the rim, so Rondo should have an E-ZPass Lane to the basket, even if Kobe deigns to guard him.
The key to this series might be KG and whether he can repeat his 2008 form. The final game of the ’08 Finals was perhaps the signature game of his career. He has undergone a renaissance this postseason, but it’s easy to forget just how good he was two years ago. Garnett has three double-doubles this postseason. Two years ago he averaged a double-double for the playoffs, posting 20.4 points and 10.5 rebounds.
Rivers is fond of saying his starting five has never lost a playoff series, but they wouldn’t have won a ring if it weren’t for the reserves. Posey’s defense was crucial in holding Kobe to 40.5 percent shooting from the floor. House stretched the floor and made huge threes.
Both super-subs were on the floor at Staples Center two years ago, when the Celtics stormed back from a 24-point deficit in Game 4; Rondo, nursing a bruised left ankle and ego, was not. It was also Posey and House who triggered the Game 6 rout, scoring 11 straight points between them in the second quarter to turn a 3-point Celtics’ lead into a 14-point advantage that ballooned to 23 by halftime.
Sheed, Tony Allen, Nate Robinson, and Glen Davis have a tough act to follow. So do the Celtics.
Just don’t call this a second act of ’08.