Deconstructing the Lakers-Celtics Rivalry
The Lakers and Celtics aren't just the two most successful franchises in NBA history. They're also, for better or worse, the most strongly branded – and probably the most divisive.
That's why this rivalry burns like it does; it's familiar, inevitable, and in our minds, never really lets up. It certainly helps that the Celts represent Boston and the Lakers, LA. Teams have a funny way of taking on the personalities of their home cities, or at least finding it hard to shake the stereotypes associated with life in those towns.
Over the weekend, my uncle noted how strange it is that the Celtics always have gritty, disciplined teams and the Lakers, star-studded rosters that struggle for cohesion. It's a bit of an over-simplification; the Bob Cousy-Bill Russell squads are supremely underrated when it comes to flamboyance and self-expression, and the Showtime Lakers had harmony to spare. Yet that's the way these two teams have been interpreted since the sixties. In the eighties, the Celtics-Lakers feud took on racial overtones, much to the chagrin of the players involved.
This time around, though, things are less cut and dry than ever. In these Finals, the boundaries between Laker and Celtic blur to such a degree that they threaten to dissolve. Which is another way of saying that, no matter whom you're pulling for in these Finals, it can't be for the same old reasons.
For one, there's the story of this Boston team. What are the Big Three if not a bunch of stars recruited from outside (Pierce was effectively alienated at that point), as individuals, to win a championship? This wasn't meant to be, and for Garnett, Allen, Pierce, and Rondo, stardom isn't a function of team – as it was for the Pistons of several seasons ago. The Celtics are back in the Finals by the grace of great players given a chance to excel. No one thinks for a second that the system or tradition made this powerhouse. Garnett et al. brought it back to life.
Granted, this narrative was even fresher in 2008, but there was also a tailwind of selfless redemption to it all. Mission accomplished; now Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are still there, arguably playing better than in the season of unbutu. Allen especially has stepped up on offense, giving Boston three All-Star vets plus Rajon Rondo, by general consensus the team's best player these days.
Speaking of Rondo, when it comes to pure, fantastic playmaking that drives a team -- the very essence of Showtime -- the breakout guard is your man. Okay, so that tradition really starts with Cousy. Yet Magic is more fresh in everyone's memory, and really, when was the last time you heard a behind-the-back pass pointed to as a turning point in Celtics morale? It's also worth mentioning that Rondo, while he has learned the value of restraint, takes chances that would make a profligate Laker proud. They also likely shock some Celtics faithful, and the rigorous Kobe Bryant we've seen these last few weeks.
What of the fabled Celtics toughness? While Boston has both Garnett and Kendrick Perkins woofing in the low register, and Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom have all been accused at times of being soft or tentative, it's Los Angeles that boasts the toughest guys in the Finals. Without question, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher are the most stubborn, physical, and just plain intimidating dudes on either roster.
We all know the statement Ron Ron – the man, the legend – makes just by talking the court with a determined look in his eyes. It's about time we acknowledge that Fisher can be both a nice guy and a really nasty player. Rondo may torch him left and right, but he'll get in some bone-crunching hits before the series is decided.
And, at the risk of making a thousand Beantown minds explode, there's no one who approximates that Celtic bloodlust quite like Kobe Bean Bryant. If before, he seemed driven by a Jordan-like egotism (or an ego that wanted to be Jordan-like) and sense of indignation, now Kobe just wants to take care of business. He's no longer a showman, or high priest in the church of Clutch; nor is Kobe even rising to the occasion per se. This is pure search-and-destroy – pure Celtics. It's what made Bird Bird, and going back further, and the quality that Red Auerbach tried to instill in all iterations of his dynasty.
Finally, if you do have a passing interest in playing the race game, the Celtics have exactly one white player on their roster, and Brian Scalabrine hasn't exactly been a factor this postseason. The Lakers, on the other hand, have Pau Gasol in the middle. Granted, he's from most swarthy Spain and plays an elegant, touch-oriented game built on length and unorthodox vision. Still, if you're in this series for skin tone, Gasol, or Lakers goofball Sasha Vujacic, are your best bets. Dreamboat Luke Walton isn't getting minutes, and bench-warming Adam Morrison now looks like a refugee from Dune.
None of this is meant to presume that if you root for the Lakers, or are from Boston, you are such and such kind of person – or favor a certain kind of basketball. Few cities have the luxury of a rubber-stamping their team's style of play; generally, if it's a winner in your jersey, it's cause for celebration.
But the Lakers and Celtics are hardly ordinary franchises. For that matter, Los Angeles and Boston themselves are about as chauvinistic as American cities come (New York being a city-state, or something). They can afford the luxury of identity. With identity, though, comes history and all its messiness. There's no getting around the history that underlies the rivalry, and how much it has come to inform the way we take about these teams today.
Luckily, this might be the breaking point, when once and for all these clichés unravel and we're forced to start taking each season's squad on its own terms.