After a bit of dramatic tension, it’s Lakers-Celtics after all


Reporting from Phoenix -- Now for that eagerly awaited Lakers-Celtics series.

I know I started talking about the Lakers and Celtics a week ago, but who didn’t?

A funny thing happened on the way to the matchup that the Lakers, Celtics, their fans, the NBA, ABC and ESPN were eagerly awaiting.

With the Magic slicing the Celtics’ 3-0 lead to 3-2, they were one home loss and one in Orlando from the NBA gag job of the new century.

Not that Celtics fans stopped believing, but there was concern, with the Bruins having blown a 3-0 lead over Philadelphia for the NHL gag job of the century, starting with a Game 4 overtime loss … like the Celtics’ Game 4 overtime loss.

Actually, there was outright panic on the airwaves, but that’s what airwaves are for — to warn everyone in case the sky actually falls.

Happily for New England, the league, the networks, et al., the Celtics polished off the Magic in Game 6 on Friday.

Happily for Southern California, the league, networks and those of us who speculated on the Celtics matchup for a week, the Lakers polished off the Suns in Game 6 on Saturday, so this thing is finally, really on.

After the series of accidents that led to them winning Game 5, the Lakers’ game plan Saturday was simple: Just stay close.

The way we’re going, if Steve Nash has a chance to win it at the end, the ground will open up and swallow him.

And what do you know?

Ron (Nooo!) Artest, disrespected as much by Lakers fans as by Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry, who supposedly was insulting Artest by playing off him, scored 25 points, making 10 of 16 shots.

As Artest said after winning Game 5, coming late for the next day’s practice because he didn’t know there was one and getting fined: “I’m moving on.”

So are the Lakers, finally.

Meanwhile in the East, the conference finals were one-sided, as I expected, just with the other side on top.

For three games, Orlando’s stellar inside-outside offense could barely run a play as Kendrick Perkins, one of the few who can single-cover Dwight Howard, held him to 13 points, 30 points and seven points.

Magic point guard Jameer Nelson finally figured out how to get the ball to Howard, over the top.

Voila! Howard got back in it — for two games, anyway.

Now Orlando can figure out what to do with Vince Carter, who scored 23-16-15-3-8-17, and Rashard Lewis, who had 6-5-4-13-14-17, and will make $17.3 million and $20.5 million, respectively, next season.

Of course, you might have missed it with everything else going on, like the NBA fining anyone who said “ LeBron James,” including Phoenix General Manager Steve Kerr, who joked about offering him their mid-level exception.

Then there was ESPN, the House of Rumors, with its scoops about Phil Jackson’s “back-channel” negotiations with the Lakers, Bulls and Nets.

Before ESPN, back-channel contacts, which are ongoing 24/7, were as newsworthy as that rally by Clippers fans urging James to come.

Dealing with a similar story, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Brian Windhorst reported that Jackson is on the Cavaliers’ wish list, too, without the dramatic language, blaring headlines and self-promotion.

At ESPN the promotion never ceases, as when sideline reporter Doris Burke, hopefully under duress, interviewed actor Jake Gyllenhaal at Game 3 in Boston.

There had to be 1,000,000 Celtics fans more deserving of that courtside seat with Jake, who’s not what you’d call a hard-core fan, noting that he roots for the Celtics and Lakers.

And if they met in the Finals?

“I’m just waiting for a Boston-L.A series to make my decision,” he said.

Burke even had to ask about “deviating from your traditional roles” — whatever those were — in his new flick, “Prince of Persia,” distributed, of course, by ESPN’s corporate parent, Disney.

“Oh man, it’s like a whole bunch of fun,” gushed Jake, getting to the reason for the interview, “and a huge, big, epic, action, comedic, romantic movie.”

On the other hand, according to the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, it’s “at once generically insulting and relatively innocuous.”

I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound like a whole bunch of fun.

Of course, if you look at it that way, the conference finals were huge, big, epic, comedic and romantic, too.

And they were just the warmup.