For years now, since after the 2008 NBA Finals, there has been no more familiar opponent for the Los Angeles Lakers than the Boston Celtics. Not because of how often the two teams have seen each other; the 23 times they've squared off since 2008 is quite a bit, but any Western Conference team the Lakers have seen in the playoffs in the last five years has seen the Lakers more. No, what makes facing Boston such a familiar experience is that the two teams seem to be in lockstep, both as franchises and in the current era. The history is easy to see, because the Lakers and Celtics are far and away the two teams in the NBA who have the most of it, and that history has constantly intertwined. But it is the arc of both teams' modern eras that is the most interesting.
When Boston traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnet in the same summer, and the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol later that same year, these two historic franchises entered into a basketball waltz and have remained in lockstep ever since. The dance led them to two NBA Finals meetings in three years, but more than that, it seems like the Lakers and Celtics have spent much of the last five years both succeeding and failing in the exact same ways at the exact same time. Neither team looked dominant in 2010, but both teams pulled together at just the right time to make a finals run. Both teams seemed primed to pull the same trick in 2011, but instead both teams were meekly pushed aside in 2nd round blowouts.
This past summer, the paths seemed ready to diverge. Both teams faced important decisions about their future direction. One, without any viable alternatives, decided to stand pat with a team that appeared to be in decline The other, through trades both obvious and shocking, revamped their roster on the fly and appeared to be better than ever. However, despite the two vastly different approaches, the exact same results ensued. A season of struggle, the lingering question of whether now is the appropriate time to blow it up. Both teams have spent much of the season below .500. Neither team has lived up to the mountain of expectations that are par for the course for the two most successful franchises in the league.
Now, as the teams meet for the first time, the similarities continue. Boston has won 5 straight games, which also happens to be how many games they have been without the services of their talismanic point guard Rajon Rondo, who's season (and then some) was cut short by an ACL tear. The Lakers have won 5 of 6 games, losing Dwight Howard in the middle of their run. Now, they've lost Pau Gasol for (essentially) the rest of the regular season. Both teams have a certain momentum right now, the kind brought on by victories, no matter the circumstances. But, those circumstances guarantee that, while neither team will admit it, both teams would be stupid not to investigate the possibility of making moves for the future instead of the present.
But for now, the two teams soldier on, once again in lock step, pushing towards the back end of their respective playoff races. The Lakers have a bigger mountain to climb, but they also have the possibility of full health by season's end. For the Celtics, that ship has sailed. Still, all that's left for either team is to keep plugging away in their war on attrition. In that war, they are comrades, not opponents. The opponent is the regular season, an 82 game monster that takes its toll on everyone, except that the toll is arbitrary, random, and not at all equally distributed. These two teams have already been hit hard by the war, harder than most. It is therefore a fitting time for them to do battle with each other.