The Lakers are chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers for the league’s best record, but they haven’t forgotten about their old friends, the Boston Celtics, who have fallen off the pace after experiencing a slew of injuries.
The Celtics (54-18) trail Cleveland by four games and the Lakers by three in the race for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Still, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said the Celtics were championship contenders “without a doubt.”
Kobe Bryant basically said the same thing.
“On our second championship run, we had a lot of injuries,” he said, referring to the Lakers’ 2000-01 season. “We wound up not having the best record, but we believed in ourselves and went in and got it done. We’re not sleeping on [Boston] at all.”
Kevin Garnett recently returned to the lineup after missing 13 games because of a strained right knee. Starting guards Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have also missed some time this month because of injuries.
The Lakers aren’t thinking the Celtics are done, however.
“They have the experience, they know how to run a game, they close well,” Jackson said. “They have the defense and rebounding that goes along with that kind of dominant team.
“Obviously, without Garnett, they’ve struggled the last month or so. Having him back and how he fits together back in there with them, it’s going to be interesting to see that.”
The Celtics won’t be able to coast down the stretch because they lead Orlando (52-18) by only one game for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“I think the big thing about Boston is they do not want to slide down below Orlando and not have home-court advantage if it becomes a two-three matchup in the second round,” Jackson said.
A love-hate deal
Earlier this month, Bryant tied for third in a Sports Illustrated poll of 190 NBA players who were asked which player in the league they would least like to have on their team.
On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated released a poll in which the same 190 players were asked whom they would most like to have on their team.
Bryant finished second behind Cleveland forward LeBron James, who received 32% of the vote. Bryant received 13% of the vote.
Phoenix guard Steve Nash (8%) was third in the poll, followed by a two-way tie for fourth between Garnett and New Orleans guard Chris Paul (7% each).
In the poll earlier this month for least popular potential teammate, Stephon Marbury received 22% of the vote, followed by Houston forward Ron Artest (9%) and a three-way tie among Bryant, Golden State guard Stephen Jackson and Washington guard Gilbert Arenas (5% each).
Jackson passed John Kundla, the Minneapolis Lakers’ first coach, for the second-most games coached in franchise history.
Jackson, who has coached 726 games for the Lakers, is within one game of tying Pat Riley for the franchise record.
“I was a bit surprised,” Jackson said. “I realized that time flies by very quickly.”
Last December, Jackson became the fastest coach in NBA history to 1,000 victories. He is now 1,032-432 in his 18th NBA season and owns the league’s best winning percentage (.705).