Over the NBA's history, no two teams have been more clearly linked than our beloved Los Angeles Lakers and tonight's opponent, the Boston Celtics. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense, since the two teams have far and away the two most cherished histories in the game. But, on the other hand, what has been truly stunning is not how consistently good these two franchises have been, but how consistently these two franchises have seemed to peak at the same time. It happened in the 50s and 60s, when the Lakers were routinely 2nd best to Boston's Bill Russell-led juggernaut. It happened again in the 80s, when Bird and Magic grappled for supremacy. And it's happened again ... since 2008, the Celtics and Lakers have once again been at or near the top of the heap. For 60+ years, the timelines of these franchises have been interwoven.
But we all know the storied history. It's what makes this match-up one of best rivalries in sports. It's what makes Celtics vs. Lakers so much fun, even if this particular game, in the midst of a packed regular season, means absolutely nothing when compared with the droves of games which have been played between these two teams at higher stakes. Instead, it is the other way in which these squads are partners in time that lends a bit of intrigue to tonight's contest. Both squads seem to be just past their prime, and have struggled so far this season to maintain their grip on the elite status they've enjoyed the past few seasons.
The C's and Lakers have enjoyed (or perhaps suffered) a mirror image of season so far. Boston is 14-10, 7th in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers are 14-11, 7th in the Western Conference. Boston ranks 2nd in weighted age in the league, the Lakers 3rd. For Boston, their age is wrapped entirely in their core, with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce all way past 30. For the Lakers, much of their age comes from the back end of their roster, guys like Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace. Kobe Bryant has plenty of years on him, too. But it doesn't matter how you slice it. Both teams are past their prime, and both teams have struggled a bit with the helter-skelter nature of this year's lockout season.
Of the two teams, the Celtics have played much better basketball of late, or at least have had much better results. Boston's start to the season was deplorable. At one point, their 4-8 record was of winning % that might have had folks thinking high lottery pick instead of high playoff seed. But the C's have won 9 of their last 10 games to re-establish that they are certainly going to make the playoffs, and having proved just two years ago that you'd be foolish to underestimate them in the 2nd season, one has to imagine the Celtics are right where they want to be in terms of getting maximum performance from minimum effort in this compact season. The Lakers, on the other hand, started out pretty decently behind Kobe Bryant's 40 point scoring streak, but have never been able to build any kind of momentum on the season. They are 5-7 in their last 12 games, alternatively having difficulty scoring the basketball or have trouble stopping their opponent from doing so.
It remains unclear whether Boston (or LA for that matter) will be able to successfully deploy the rope-a-dope strategy that saw Boston make the NBA finals as a 4 seed just two seasons ago, or whether both of these squads are just as middling as they have appeared so far this season. What is not unclear is that neither front office is particularly satisfied with their roster as presently constructed, as evidenced by the fact that apparently the front offices were considering an exchange of star power, with the Lakers possibly sending Pau Gasol to the Celtics and the Celtics handing Rajon Rondo to the Lakers. In this scribe's honest opinion, it's a terrible trade for both teams, taking away the only guy on the Celtics who can really generate offense at this point, and putting him on a team in which his biggest weaknesses (inability to shoot, needs an effective roll man) will be thrust into the spotlight because the team doesn't have the right pieces to fit around him.
In any case, tonight is a chance to forget the likely possibility that neither of these teams, in their current incarnations, are likely to reign supreme over the league this season. Roll back the clocks, don your favorite retro gear, and pretend like this game means something. The opponent will make the illusion easy to imagine.