In a stark indication that both franchises are in slow decline, the Celtics and Lakers enter tonight’s shortened-season showdown in nearly identical positions, making them peers as well as archrivals.
The Celtics story this season has been well-chronicled. Victims of the lockout, their aging players took weeks to get into playing shape, and by that time, they had lost 9 of 14 games. Now they have won 9 of 10, though their status as an Eastern Conference power is rather shaky. There remains considerable doubt as to whether they can truly compete with the Bulls and Heat.
The Lakers arrive for their annual visit to TD Garden as a shell of the team that defeated the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. After being embarrassed by the Mavericks in last year’s Western Conference semifinals, Lakers management decided to nudge Phil Jackson into retirement and reject top assistant Brian Shaw for the head coaching job, hiring former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown.
And when the NBA rescinded the three-team trade for Chris Paul that included Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, the Lakers moved the devastated Odom to Dallas in a salary-clearing trade.
The new Lakers bunch includes players such as Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts, and former Celtic Troy Murphy - not exactly a stellar supporting cast for a championship-contending team. A weakened core means Kobe Bryant has had to do the heavy lifting, but he has been brilliant, despite a torn ligament in his right wrist that he told reporters yesterday has healed.
Despite his gaudy numbers, cinch Hall of Fame status, and five NBA championships, Bryant remains his team’s biggest critic. The Lakers are 14-11, second in the shaky Pacific Division but in a four-way logjam for fifth place in the Western Conference. They have lost two straight and six of nine.
“Terrible, awful, disgusting in patches,’’ Bryant said when asked about the team’s play. “We just don’t have a big margin for error.
“We play very well for long stretches of a ballgame and then we have a couple of minutes where we don’t execute very well defensively and teams tend to bust us open in those stretches.
“It’s not as bad as the record may indicate. There’s a lot of positives there and we’re close to really turning the corner. We’ve just got to keep at it.’’
His quotes sound eerily applicable to the local team. The Celtics could have seven more wins if they had had better fourth-quarter execution. And on Monday, the Lakers led the 76ers with 2:33 left before Lou Williams came off the Philadelphia bench and burned their defense.
Of course, without another closer, the Lakers relied solely on the 33-year-old Bryant to save them. Andrew Bynum is emerging but has yet to reach star status, while Gasol, Metta World Peace (a.k.a Ron Artest), and Derek Fisher are approaching or are at the latter stages of their careers.
Because they have lived at the back half of the draft and carried bloated veteran contracts, the Lakers haven’t been able to attract much youth and athleticism. Like the Celtics, they are banking on some “Cocoon’’-like salves for their aging cornerstones for one final run.
“We’re both not necessarily young,’’ Bryant said, smiling. “We’ve been around the block twice. In this particular season, it may take a little longer to get going than some of the other guys.’’
So while tonight may not resemble one of those ill-fated Legends Games at All-Star Weekend, it will be a battle of two teams slightly past their prime. Both expected more title runs after they faced off twice in the NBA Finals in three years, but both were easily eliminated last year, showing signs of age and decline.
Less than two years ago, the teams played an epic Game 7 at Staples Center, and Celtics president Danny Ainge was encouraged to extend the run of the Big Three a few more years. And the same could be said for Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers, although the loss to Dallas expedited a house-cleaning while he searches for a potential megastar to inherit the mantle from Bryant.
Los Angeles is often the first or second place mentioned by premium free agents when asked about a potential destination, but the Lakers had to watch as the Clippers nabbed Paul and perhaps the distinction as the city’s better team.
Yet, like Ali and Frazier, the Celtics and Lakers bring out the best in each other. Regardless of the circumstances, it remains the greatest rivalry in the NBA.
The Lakers realize they can’t live off tradition and past accomplishments. The Thunder, Clippers, and Nuggets have young, fresh bodies to chase them down in the West, just as the Heat, Bulls, and Pacers can with the Celtics in the East.
So here they are, staring at each other eye-to-eye again, a rivalry revisited, though the swaggers are fading.
“Because of the history between the two teams, I don’t care who’s in uniform, this game should always be special for everybody,’’ Brown said. “This is a different team than last year and last year’s team struggled. I am going to have patience. I am going to have to stay the course and our guys are going to have to continue to try to believe through tough times. We’re OK where we’re sitting now.
“Yeah, we are a little similar. We’re both getting a little older and both rely on execution more than athleticism. We’re not going to outrun anybody, nor are we going to outjump anybody.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe