Fans, media get wish for Celtics-Lakers matchup

Jim Fenton

They got a small sampling of what the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry is about during a pair of regular-season games.

Even though the meetings took place early on the schedule -- the night after Thanksgiving and five days after Christmas -- media and fan interest was bumped up a few notches.

It was quite noticeable for Celtics coach Doc Rivers and his players when they squared off against Kobe Bryant and Co. The Celtics were back as an elite team, and it made their regular-season matchups with the Lakers special once again.

"When we played them in LA earlier in the year, I thought the atmosphere was nuts,'' Rivers said, "and I told the guys after the game, 'Boy, it would be great if we could see them again (in the NBA Finals).'”

Rivers -- as well legions of Celtics and Lakers fans plus ABC-TV executives and the NBA marketing department -- has gotten his wish.

Beginning Thursday night at the TD Banknorth Garden, it will be the Boston vs. Los Angeles playing for the 11th time in the league's championship round with Boston holding an 8-2 edge.

Following in the footsteps of Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, it will be Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen vs. Bryant and his supporting cast.

The Celtics, who had the best regular-season record, won the Eastern Conference championship Friday night by eliminating the Detroit Pistons, 89-81. The Lakers, who had the best record in the Western Conference and are an impressive 12-3 in the playoffs, were 0-2 against Boston.

"That's the way it should be as far as I'm concerned,'' said Rivers about the Celtics meeting the Lakers. "The Lakers won the West; they were the best team. We won the East, we were the best team, and now we get to play each other.

"The history takes care of itself. I think the right two teams are playing each other.''

The current players were youngsters the last time the Celtics and Lakers met in 1987, capping a four-year run in which they squared off three times.

"I'm looking forward to it, all the things I used to watch on Sunday,'' said Garnett, who was 10 years old in '87. "That big plate of food in front of me, watching the Lakers and Celtics play on Sunday. I remember that like it was yesterday.

"Fire going, I'm gonna grab me a seat right in front, mom telling me, 'Don't get too close to the TV, it'll kill your eyes.' I remember it like it was yesterday, man. I'm really looking forward to this.''

Pierce, who keyed the fourth-quarter rally against the Pistons in Game 6, grew up in Los Angeles and was a Lakers fan who had no use for the Celtics.

"It's ironic, just being a Celtic (now),'' said Pierce. "Now you're playing against the Lakers in The Finals. As a kid, I hated the Celtics. I'm going back home to play against my team that I grew up watching.

"It's a dream come true, man, just thinking about it. I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I'm part of it.''

Pierce was leading the charge after the win over Detroit, chanting, "Beat LA'' during the trophy presentation.

The Celtics, who were given the weekend off and return to practice Monday morning, know that all the hype that was generated last November and December will be nothing compared to what's ahead.

"Somebody asked me (during the regular season) what it was like to be part of it,'' said Allen, "and I said, 'Well, we really haven't been a part of it yet because we haven't created our own rivalry and it would take us to play in The Finals to created that rivalry. And here we are.''

The Enterprise