Thursday, June 03, 2010

Same Book...New Chapter

One of the great joys in life is re-reading one of your favorite books or re-watching one of your favorite movies. For example, a good friend of mine told me today that he just recently stumbled across a late night showing of "Hoosiers" and, despite the fact the clock wound well into the early morning hours, he couldn't stop watching. Why? Because "Hoosiers" is one of his favorite movies (and, if it isn't one of yours, you should probably move on to another site), and he couldn't tear himself away. That's the way it is with the great works of literature or cinema. You know exactly how the story ends, but the journey toward the ending is just too entertaining to pass up. In many ways, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is the same. When a Finals match up between the two storied franchises materializes, we know we won't be able to tear ourselves away from the television. The difference between the rivalry and those great books or movies, however, is that we don't know the ending of each chapter of the rivalry. This uncertainty, of course, only makes the anticipation for the journey toward the ending all the more enticing.

When I think Celtics-Lakers, no matter how long I live and how many incarnations of the drama I am lucky enough to witness, I will always think first of Magic and Bird. In some ways it is unfair to all the other great players that faced off in those three epic battles in the '84, '85, and '87 Finals, but the images that endure for me are those of Magic's and The Legend's great successes and equally devastating failures in those series. Even though the MJ era turned my love of basketball into a life long obsession, I can thank Magic and Larry (and to a lesser degree, Isaih) for that remarkable stretch between 1984 and 1990 in which I truly fell in love with the game.

Two years ago, 21 years after the last time these two franchises had faced off in the Finals, we were treated to a renewal of the rivalry. It would be hyperbole to call that series great, but it would be completely fair to call it memorable. From Paul Pierce's injury and return in Game 1 (sure, the wheel chair may have been excessive) to the Celtics' stunning Game 4 comeback and the ultimate Game 6 shellacking, the series was played with a staggering level of intensity that was worthy of the two franchises. But now, as we approach the tip off of the latest chapter in the rivalry, the anticipation is even greater than it was in 2008. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked. Here, in old school WAD style, are the seven reasons why I believe this is the most anticipated NBA Finals since MJ walked away in 1998 (yes, I know he came back a few years later, but I choose to pretend like that never happened):

1) The surprise factor. Raise your hand if after the Celtics closed the season 3-7 in their last 10 games you thought they would make the NBA Finals. Now, if you just raised your hand, please go look in a mirror. You see that person in the mirror? That person is lying. Nobody in their right mind thought this aging team that, over the past 18 months, desperately tried to trade one hall of famer (Ray Allen) and one guy that suddenly looks like he could be a hall of famer (Rajon Rondo) would make the Finals. The Hawks swept the season series with the Celtics for heaven's sake! It's simply unfathomable what they have done in plowing through D. Wade, Lebron, and Dwight Howard. If we've learned nothing else from this Celtics run, we've learned these three things: a) never count out a team with three first ballot hall of famers; b) Vince Carter is really fun to root against; and c) If this were college basketball, the Eastern Conference might have been a three bid league.

2) Rondo. Forget the numbers. Forget the fact that he can't hit a 15 foot jumper. Forget the fact that he looks like he might be the first alien to play in the NBA since Sam Cassell. Can you ever remember a guy going from All-Star to Super Star status as quickly and authoritatively as Rondo has in these playoffs? And, can you ever remember a guy going from somewhat forgettable to thoroughly mesmerizing on a basketball court this quickly? The only way you can't enjoy the surgence (I just made that word up) of Rondo is if you are a Kentucky fan that had to watch him labor under Tubby Smith. Not such a great job by you, Tubby.

3) Kobe. Not much to say here. If he beats a worthy opponent like the Celtics for his 5th Title and his 2nd non-Shaq title, there is no denying he is one of the greatest of all time. Hell, you probably can't deny it now, but at least you still have an argument. Listen, nobody hates the way Kobe has played the games at times more than me. Nobody is quicker than me to point out how he destroyed his team in '04 Finals, the '07 playoffs against Phoenix, or the '08 Finals. But, nobody is quicker than me to admit that there is NOBODY I would rather have with the ball in his hands with everything on the line than Kobe. That being said, fair or not, I believe this series will shape his legacy, for better or worse. If he wins, all the negative on the court stuff vanishes into thin air once and for all, and he takes his place in history just below MJ. But let's be clear. Unless he cures cancer or stops the oil spill in the Gulf, he will never rise higher...never.

4) Artest. There is no substitute for the ever present possibility of insanity. There was a reason every Mike Tyson fight was riveting. There is a reason you get a little excited every time you see Emmit Smith with a microphone in front of him. And, there is a reason it never gets old watching the clip of Kevin Garnett incomprehensibly screaming after winning the title in '08. People acting insanely on live television can be great fun, and with Artest in the mix it's not a question of if he will do something insane, it's when.

5) KG. Uhhh, see #4 above.

6) Phil Jackson. The greatest team sports coach of my lifetime with his future in limbo. If he wins, will he stay? If he loses, will he stay? If he moves his shoulders, will his whole body tumble over? So many questions. Seriously, the Phil Jackson story is one of the most intriguing subplots of this series. Personally, I'm praying that, win or lose, he is coaching the Nets next year. I would pay money for a new channel that only broadcast every conversation between him and the big Russian guy that now owns the Nets.

7) Lebron. Granted, the Lebron saga and the Free Agent Summit has nothing to do with the Finals, but I'm pretty sure anybody talking or writing about the NBA right now is required by law to mention it, so I'm just carrying out my legal obligation.

So, there are my seven reasons why I'm beyond excited about the '10 Finals. As for the actual games, unlike '08, I think it's a mis-match. I think Pau is too skilled inside for this version of KG, and he's too mobile on the outside for Perkins. I think Artest will grab, trip, punch, and disrupt Pierce into utter frustration. I think Phil will continue to whine and bitch to and about the refs to the point that you won't be able to look at Kobe without drawing a whistle. And, as for Kobe, this is the moment for which he has waited his entire life. As much as it pains me, I just don't see any way he doesn't put in a virtuoso performance and cement his legacy as the greatest Laker of all time. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go rip my finger nails off one by one.

Prediction: Lakers in 5 and Kobe wins the MVP.