Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics Preview: A reprieve from tanking

Elsa

Tonight, the greatest rivalry in the NBA will begin a new, strange chapter, as both franchises rebuild for the future.

Showtime: 4:30pm PT

Plot: Rajon Rondo will return tonight for the Boston Celtics, as the All-Star point guard hits the court after nearly a year-long absence due to a torn ACL. His triumphant season debut is the nationwide story that will dominate the headlines, to be sure. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, the Lakers are looking to win just their second game in the past month. This is all important stuff, to be sure. But looking at their records alone, this game really just looks like a battle of two of the worst teams in the NBA playing their worst basketball of the season.

The Celtics have lost 12 of their last 14 games. They haven't beaten a Western Conference team in a month. Hell, they haven't beaten anyone since Cleveland and Toronto in a month. They just traded away arguably their best player in Jordan Crawford for the all but useless Joel Anthony. Meanwhile, they watch and wait for their star Rajon Rondo to make his season debut, trying to ascertain whether or not he can return to form and remain a franchise cornerstone. Earlier this year the Celtics were playing hard, fighting the odds that GM Danny Ainge put in front of them when faced with a full-scale rebuild. After a punchy 12-14 start, the C's have come back to Earth hard, making Apollo 13 look like a weekend getaway (too soon?). This year is all about the next five years for Boston, who are amassing as many assets as possible for future Celtics teams.

The Lakers have lost six in a row and 11 of their last 12. They haven't beaten anyone on the road in almost four weeks. Hell, they even lost to Cleveland at home. They haven't traded away their best player in Pau Gasol yet, but personnel losses due to injury and suspension have left the team with just nine healthy players for tonight's contest (including new 10-Day Contract import Manny Harris). Meanwhile, they watch and wait for their star Kobe Bryant to make his second debut, trying to ascertain whether or not he can return to form and remain a franchise cornerstone. After a punchy 13-13 start, they've cratered back to Earth hard, making six seasons of Lost look like Gilligan's Island (too soon?). This year is all about the next two for the Lakers, when they'll try to amass enough assets to surround the next Lakers star they'll try and find through free agency.

It's eerily appropriate how these two eternal rivals have mirrored one another this year, down to the codas and flourishes of the past seven months. Both fan bases are actively rooting for losses, as each team "tries" to climb further and further up the draft lottery ladder in order to select a prime prospect in June. Both organizations, whether they openly admit it or not, are rebuilding, and losing this season seems to be the best way to expedite that process.

But not tonight.

No matter who the personnel and what the year, this is Lakers vs. Celtics. This is the greatest rivalry in the history of the sport and one of the best in the history of sports. As much as losing benefits both sides in the long run, tonight, losing is not an option.

In a season of "tanking", fans look for silver linings. Yes, the Celtics are horrible, but the progress of Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley is still important. Seeing if Rajon Rondo can come back from a torn ACL is extremely important. Yes, the Lakers are horrible, but the progress of Xavier Henry, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill is still important. Seeing if Kobe Bryant can come back from two serious injuries is extremely important. The fans--the Lakers fans--need a reason to at least be proud of their honorable tankers, even in the midst of laughably lopsided losses. In recent games against Cleveland, the Rockets and Clippers, at most times, the L wasn't for lack of effort. They just weren't talented enough to win. Those types of losses are obviously difficult, but ultimately acceptable to watch as a fan.

Against the Celtics, my lowly expectations for the season are granted a one night reprieve. For just tonight, effort is great, but victory is imperative. Most games, losing ends with a simple shrug and a nonchalant click of the remote. Against LA's biggest rivals, losing, no matter how "good it is for the team", ends with a face in my hands.

Any fan that feels that "tanking" is more important winning tonight's game needs to turn in their purple and gold membership card immediately. Along with that swift revocation of Lakers fanhood, they also will be receiving some harsh words and a stapler to the kidneys (I will find you). For one night, the future goes out the window. It's all about beating the Celtics. It's always all about beating the Celtics.

The Lakers will be facing a tough task, especially given that Boston will have that shot of adrenaline from the returning Rondo. However, they'll need to prey on the opposition's readjustment period, go right at the interior and try to move the ball much better than they've been doing. The Lakers have gotten absolutely destroyed on the offensive boards the past several games, and against Jared Sullinger (who just capped a 25/20 game versus the Raptors), Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries, they'll need to fight much harder for rebounds (that's what it's come to everyone--fearing Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries). Quite frankly, I'm not really sure what to expect from either team. The C's will be re-integrating a player who is so key to their offense who I'm sure doesn't even know his own capabilities. Meanwhile, the Lakers will be playing without the services of their leading scorer Nick Young, suspended one game for slapping around Alex Len. LA will have to rely on Jodie Meeks and Pau Gasol to do the bulk of their scoring and see just how much Harris can contribute in his Lakers debut. Put all these factors together, and what you get is a game featuring two of the league's worst teams could be an absolute mess.

On any particular night, the Lakers owe the fans their best effort, despite a slim chance of victory. But for one night, let's expect more than that.

--MAMBINO

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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