Lakers-Celtics rivalry in its last breath

Once the buzzer struck, the confetti dropped at Staples Center, the 18,997 fans roared and plenty of the Lakers embraced.

Andrew Bynum wrapped a bearhug around Pau Gasol, claiming, "We got one." Kobe Bryant, too, hugged Bynum and then lightly tapped his chest. The Lakers had just finished clawing, defending and making clutch shots en route to a close victory against the Boston Celtics. So it was understandable that the emotions ran high and the excitement boiled.

It sounds like everything that transpired after the Lakers' Game 7 victory of the 2010 NBA Finals. Except this took place on a Sunday in an otherwise normal regular-season game. The cast of characters appeared the same. Metta World Peace came out of nowhere to hit big shots and defend Paul Pierce. The Lakers' front line maintained its dominance on the glass and inside against Boston's depleted front line. After initially struggling from the field, a resilient Bryant made big fourth-quarter baskets, while also leaning on his teammates.

But what made everything so great about the 2010 NBA Finals also illustrated Sunday why these two teams are seeing the end chapter of a storied rivalry. Both teams either could lose their core lineups before Thursday's NBA trade deadline, or risk showcasing their aging and offense-challenged roster against younger and faster teams in the postseason. But don't tell that to Celtics Coach Doc Rivers.

"I guarantee the Lakers feel the same way," Rivers said. "We know there are favorites in the East and we know there are favorites in the West. There should be. We haven't deserved to be one. Neither have they yet. But it's 0-0 when the playoffs start. If both teams are healthy, you just never know."

Rivers' optimism proves unfounded. The Lakers (25-16) may have climbed to third place in the Western Conference, but they've remained unreliable on the road (7-14). Meanwhile, Boston (21-19) remains seventh in the East.

The teams' current state and their current personnel make it likely what everyone saw Sunday marked the end of two good Lakers and Celtics teams.

The Lakers feature an aging core of Derek Fisher (37), Bryant (33), Gasol (31) and World Peace (31), with only one starter (Bynum) and two reserves (rookies Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris) younger than 30. The Celtics also have fragile parts in Ray Allen (36), Kevin Garnett(35) and Pierce(34).

Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has refused to keep anyone outside of Bryant protected from trade talks. Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, said he would consider trading part of his team's aging core if he thought it would help the franchise avoid a return to its dark age of the late 1990s.

"If it is the end of [the rivalry]," Bryant said, "it will resurface one day, I'm sure."


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