Drama enters the final act
BOSTON -- The aches and aspirations have built up through the season, 97 games and counting for the Lakers, who hope to push through one final portal.
A decade’s worth of drama was shrink-wrapped into one season -- a star player wanted to leave but didn’t, an up-and-coming center arrived but went away, and Pau Gasol came on board, opening up another dimension for a holdover from the Shaquille O’Neal trade -- but the Lakers don’t yet know whether this postscript will be unbelievable or unfathomable.
The first few paragraphs of the NBA Finals will be known after tonight’s opener at TD Banknorth Garden, home of another franchise that had drifted inexorably toward the middle of the NBA pack, if not lower, the last few years.
The historical figures of the franchises have already had their say, but all eyes will be on the current-day players, starting tonight.
It’s Lakers versus Celtics, finally.
That much was obvious after a heavily attended media day, in which players from both teams fielded questions at individual podiums and answered the bizarre (to Lamar Odom: “Do you have a driver’s license yet?”) and the biting (to Kobe Bryant: “Were there any discussions in specific with what team you would want to go to?”).
Amid the media frenzy came an e-mail announcement that the Lakers had already won the championship, at least in the eyes of EA Sports, whose “NBA Live ’09" video-game simulation had the Lakers defeating the Celtics after Bryant’s 38-point, 11-assist effort in a 106-101 Game 7 victory in Boston.
What a relief for Lakers fans.
The real thing, however, wasn’t quite as clear-cut.
The Lakers had been Western Conference champions for all of 15 minutes before their coach warned them about losing in the real Finals, emphasizing the importance of continuing the journey and finishing up their eight-month mission with aplomb.
Phil Jackson seemed satisfied with what he had seen so far this week.
“They haven’t experienced the game until they’re out there [tonight],” he said. “But the reality of coming through this [playoff] process and doing it the way we’ve done it so far gives me some hope that they’re going to be responsive at that time.”
Indeed, the players seem fine with it, thanks in part to the presence of Bryant and Derek Fisher, who were part of three championship teams this decade, along with another close call in 2004.
“I think that their poise and professionalism have rubbed off on us,” Odom said.
“This is a stage that we’re ready for.”
Still, the Lakers were making changes on the fly.
Jackson changed his movie mantra from “Judgment Night” to “Gone Baby Gone,” which he thought had a slightly harder edge with a geographic tie-in. (Plot of the movie, which the Lakers will learn when it gets spliced into game-video footage throughout the Finals: Two detectives go in search of a missing 4-year-old girl in a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood.)
While the Lakers practiced Tuesday, their bags were being moved from a waterfront hotel to one closer to the arena, part of the unexpected agony of participating in an NBA Finals in Boston the same week as a major microbiology conference and graduations at Harvard and MIT.
The plan is for Gasol to guard Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, but if the Lakers’ center gets in early foul trouble, Odom will shift from Kendrick Perkins to Garnett, at which point Odom will be on the spot.
Garnett averaged 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game in the Celtics’ regular-season sweep of the Lakers.
“My favorite word in this series is going to be ‘Help,’ ” Odom said. “A guy like that, you need as much help as possible.”
While on the subject, there was also a plausible explanation for the Lakers’ lopsided losses to Boston during the regular season . . . sort of.
The Lakers lost to the Celtics here in November, 107-94, and at Staples Center a month later, 110-91.
“I think we had Thanksgiving Thursday here, played on Friday. We were full of turkey,” Jackson said.
“The game in late December was much more reflective of the team. However, we wore those short shorts that night and lost our attitude early in the game. I think the guys got a little tight.”
In the end, there was Bryant, who reflected on the Lakers’ three-year dip -- a 121-125 record the previous three seasons, not including two first-round exits at the hands of Phoenix -- and how difficult it was to get back to this point.
“It’s a lot tougher the second time around because you’re fortunate to be at the top of the mountain and now you’re at the bottom, looking up again,” the league MVP said. “It’s tiring.
“But I feel very fortunate to have a group of guys around me that work. It’s very tough this day and age to pull that off. It’s an answer to a prayer, to be honest with you.”