The Lakers and Celtics have faded from NBA contention this year, but they remain as compelling as ever. Previewing Thursday's showdown.
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers don't move us anymore. They are too old, too over-exposed and too broken down to matter. The Celtics are hanging on to the last playoff spot in the East. The Lakers can't even claim that much.
Despite similar circumstances, there is a marked difference in the way the teams were put together this season. Danny Ainge added role players to his existing core, while Mitch Kupchak acquired superstars. Doc Rivers is still on the sidelines, while the Lakers bounced from Mike Brown to Bernie Bickerstaff to Mike D'Antoni, changing offenses on the fly with each move. The Celtics feel dated and stale. The Lakers seem ill-conceived and slipshod.
Predictably, there is an air of uncertainty around both teams. Pau Gasol, who has been oddly treated like a spare part by D'Antoni, finally vented his frustrations to the Los Angeles Times and suggested that a fresh start was inevitable. Now he is hurt and out for 4-6 weeks. Dwight Howard, who will be a free agent after this season, is also injured and there doesn't appear to be room for both of them.
The trade vultures had been circling the Celtics even before Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and Jared Sullinger had back surgery. They are looking to pick at the remains in the hopes of adding a proven veteran for minimal return, which caused franchise icon Paul Pierce to declare his desire to retire as a Celtic and Kevin Garnett to acknowledge that it is a business.
It all came crashing down two weeks ago when the Celtics were working on a six-game losing streak and the Lakers had dropped 10 of 12. That's when we were contemplating a world without either of them in the playoffs. For many, that would be fine. Good riddance to yesterday's bullies and all that.
To which, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett would collectively say, "Bullshit."
The C's have won five straight playing an unselfish brand of basketball straight out of the Red Auerbach handbook, while the Lakers have won six of seven after Bryant suggested they go back to basics. For a brief time he was featured as a playmaker, but Kobe went back to being Kobe long enough to do this against the Nets on Tuesday.
My favorite moment of that clip isn't when Kobe ended Kris Humphries, but rather when he nonchalantly took Gerald Wallace back to midcourt with the shot clock winding down. This was the defining moment of the whole sequence, a realization that the basic rules of offensive strategy have never really applied much to Kobe and there wasn't a damn thing Crash or anyone else could do about it. Kobe didn't reverse time, he simply slowed it down long enough to seek and destroy.
Somewhere in his secluded cave, I bet KG smiled. Or cursed violently, or whatever it is he does when he's out of the public eye, which is most of the time. Garnett could relate to Kobe's triumph, just as the Celtics' latest revival mirrored their eternal rivals.
"We have a lot of fight in us," Garnett said last week. "I know Doc made his bullshit comments about us being soft. We're a team that will fight and we are a team that is very competitive and is very prideful."
In the end, that's what Kobe and KG have left. You can't find more different players on the court than Bryant and Garnett, yet they are linked by a stubborn refusal to acquiesce to anyone else's notion of what they should be. It goes without saying that both of them long ago stopped caring about what anyone else thinks of them.
Garnett's manic approach to defense marks him as unique in a league that rewards points and numbers. His offense is still there, a gorgeous 20-foot jump shot mixed in with the occasional Hakeem-like moves in the post and a keen passing eye, yet he refuses to let it define him, sometimes to a fault.
Even with the brilliant Steve Nash at his side, the Laker offense still belongs to Kobe. Unstoppable in his best moments and still feared by his peers, he is having a historic season even by his exacting standards. It is complicated, however, by his casual indifference to the other end of the court.
We see athletes hang on too long all the time and there's always a tinge of sadness that goes along with a faded hero grasping too tightly to past glories. The enlightened among us realize that athletes exist to serve themselves and their legacies belong to them and to them alone.
That's what makes Kobe and KG so compelling, even now. Especially now. Neither will compromise. Neither will even acknowledge the possibility that their time is up against all irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Say what you will, but there's nobility in their defiance.
GAME TIME: 8 p.m. EST.
SPREAD: Celtics by 5.