Coolbaugh: Same teams, same rivalry, new pieces

Celtics forward Paul Pierce (left) and Lakers forward Ron Artest are both critical components to their team's success in the NBA Finals. Pierce scored a team-high 24 points in Game 1, but Artest proved to be the difference in the game with his 15 points and four rebounds in addition to Kobe Bryant's 30 points and Pau Gasol's 23 points in Los Angeles' 102-89 win on Thursday night. (Robyn Beck/AFP Photo)

Celtics forward Paul Pierce (left) and Lakers forward Ron Artest are both critical components to their team's success in the NBA Finals. Pierce scored a team-high 24 points in Game 1, but Artest proved to be the difference in the game with his 15 points and four rebounds in addition to Kobe Bryant's 30 points and Pau Gasol's 23 points in Los Angeles' 102-89 win on Thursday night. (Robyn Beck/AFP Photo)

By Gethin Coolbaugh

Make no mistake, this is still a series between the two most storied franchises in NBA history: the Celtics and Lakers.

But both are completely different teams than they were when they met in the Finals back in 2008.

The Lakers are much better off now, while the Celtics, lets face it, have gone downhill.

There’s no question that Boston was the better team in 2008, having the better starting rotation and a strong bench.

At that point, the Lakers boasted only two stars in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. They still had Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum, though Bynum missed the Finals, but they didn’t have a major impact.

Now, only two years later, the Lakers are primed for another mini-dynasty like that of the Lakers teams of 2000-2002.

They’ve already been in three Finals in a row including this year’s. The defeated the Magic in five games last year and lost to the Celtics back in ’08. And with their 102-89 Game 1 win against the Celtics on Thursday night, they are in good shape to make it two championship titles in three seasons.

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

As for the Celtics, after winning in 2008, they cooled off. Last season started with a bang as Boston jumped out to a 27-3 start, but they fell back to Earth in the final half of the season.

Being an old team, the Celtics were hit hard by the injury bug. Kevin Garnett was hit particularly hard after he was sidelined for the remainder of the season after suffering a right knee injury against Houston.

Boston made some noise in the playoffs after topping the Chicago Bulls in seven games in the most eventful first-round series in league history.

Their bid for a repeat was ended by the Orlando Magic, who ousted the Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden en route to their second appearance in the NBA Finals.

This season, the Celtics again started out hot, but they finished the regular season with a 50-32 record and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. In its final 54 games, Boston posted a lackluster 27-27 record.

Miami proved to be a pushover in the first round of the playoffs after the Celtics bulldozed Dwayne Wade and the Heat in five games.

And then, the now historic flip of the switch.

Boston went from a team that finished its season in the middle of the pack to a team that played like it was 2008 all over again.

After winning one of the first three games against Cleveland in the conference semifinals, the C’s rattled off three straight wins to eliminate King James and the Cavs.

Then they made mince meat of the Orlando Magic, despite a two-game scare that pushed the series to six games.

But no one ever doubted that the Celtics would return to the Finals after putting up a commanding 3-0 series lead against the Magic.

And then, it was a rematch of the ’08 Finals.

But stop right there. That’s the last time that I’ll mention the 2008 Finals.

This series features two teams that resemble that of their meeting two years ago in name only. To borrow the overused adage, it’s a whole new ballgame now.

Kobe Bryant scored 30 points to lead all scorers and Pau Gasol added 23 points and 14 rebounds in the Lakers’ 102-89 Game 1 victory on Thursday night, but neither was the difference in the game.

While Bryant and Gasol provided the scoring, it was Ron Artest who proved to be the game’s X factor.

Artest scored 15 points and had four rebounds in 32 minutes. In the plus/minus category, Artest was an astonishing plus 26.

The closest Laker to Artest in plus/minus was point guard Derek Fisher, who was plus 18.

In perspective, the closest Celtic was Nate Robinson at plus 10.

The Celtics lost by 13, meaning that if Artest didn’t come up big in Game 1, we might be looking at a different situation heading into Game 2 at Staples Center on Sunday night (8 p.m. EST, TV/Radio: ABC/WEEI).

It’s imperative for the Celtics to find a way to contain the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year offensively.

Entering the series, the prominent concern was Artest’s defense. But now, the Celtics will have to consider him as an offensive threat.

If they can’t find a way to keep Artest from scoring, the Lakers may very well be just one championship away from tying the Celtics for most in league history.

That’s a scary though.

Gethin Coolbaugh is the Associate Editor of Boston Sports U18. He can be reached at 774-279-1995 or at gethin.coolbaugh@bostonsportsu18.com. You can also visit Gethin Coolbaugh’s official website and follow Gethin Coolbaugh on Twitter.

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