Celtics-Lakers: A Rundown Rivalry


Celtics-Lakers: A Rundown Rivalry

This opening paragraph would have been a lot stronger without last nights fourth quarter comeback. Had KG and the Brazilian Blur not carried the Celtics to an important (if not all that impressive) Canadian victory, the column youre reading would have started like this:

Tonight marks the first time since March 2006 that the Celtics and Lakers will meet in a game in which neither team boasts a winning record.

That would have been a much stronger, more telling indication of the way this season has gone for both sides of the NBAs most historic rivalry. But what can you do, right? Instead, the Celtics head into tonight with a record of 25-23; the Lakers are 23-26.

Still, just for fun

The game in question took place at the TD Garden on March 20, 2006 and pitted the 34-34 Lakers against the 28-39 Celtics. To no ones surprise, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant are the only players from that game who will be uniform tonight Pierce had 26 points and nine rebounds. Kobe had 43 points (ON 39 SHOTS!), five rebounds, four assists and five steals. Rookie Andrew Bynum had zero points in four minutes for LA. Second-year reserve Al Jefferson had two points in 10 minutes for Boston.

The Lakers won by a score of 105-97, to improve to 35-34 and remained above .500 for the rest of the year before being ousted by Steve Nash, Mike DAntoni and the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs (a series most-remembered for Mr. 39 Shots refusal to shoot the ball in Game 7.) With the loss, the Celtics dropped to 28-40. They finished the season at 33-49 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Anyway, that feels like a long, long time ago. Mostly because it was. Its been forever since the Lakers and Celtics have been as simultaneously unimpressive as theyve been this year.

Of course, the biggest difference between now and then is expectations.

LA came into this season as one of the favorites to win it all. After OKC traded James Harden on the eve of opening night, LA was (at the very least) expected to emerge from the West. This was the dawn of a new era of Lakers basketball. The arrival of the franchises next historic big man from Wilt to Kareem to Shaq to Kwame and now Dwight Howard. It was the boost Kobe needed to match (maybe even exceed) Jordans six rings. Steve Nash would get his first ring, and an official stamp on his Hall of Fame resume.

Expectations in Boston werent quite as high but still pretty steep. Maybe this wasnt a new era of Celtics basketball, but it was a legitimate extension of the old one. They were expected to compete at the highest level, and most likely find themselves in a rematch with Heat for a berth in the Finals. Against Miami, the C's would be heavy underdogs but no one would count them out.

Either way, way back when, tonight's game at the Garden was supposed to be a match-up between two of the NBA's elite, with the LakersCeltics rivalry chugging along as strong as ever.

So, what went wrong?

Well, it might be a cop out, but we should probably start with injuries. In LA, Steve Nash was hurt right off the bat, and his loss was magnified by the fact that the Lakers only other point guard (Steve Blake) was already on the shelf after stepping on a metal spike. Pau Gasol struggled through a series of ailments, before his latest and far more serious injury. Big man Jordan Hill was lost to hip surgery and most importantly, at the center of it all Dwight Howard has been a mess. The once indestructible giant has missed time with back and shoulder issues, and even when he plays he's a shadow of his former self.

In Boston, the Celtics played the first two months without their starting shooting guard, which reeked havoc on the rotation. Darko hurt his wrist and eventually left the team, while an injured thumb sidelined Chris Wilcox and left the C's with nothing but Kevin Garnett in the front court. Once Avery Bradley came back, they lost Rondo for the season, and then Jared Sullinger.

In both cases, while injuries can't be blamed for everything, injuries have severely limited the teams' ability to fulfill expectations.

Then there's chemistry, with Howard and Rondo in the middle.

First, Howard still isn't mature enough to carry the load that's expected of him especially in a market like LA. I don't envy his position of having to co-exist with Kobe, but it's hard to envision Howard handling it any worse than he has. The Rondo problem is slightly less obvious and publicized, but it's still there. While he certainly co-existed with his Hall of Fame teammates better than Howard, there was something missing. This team wasn't clicking the way the Celtics are supposed to; aka the way they have since their point guard went down.

Management also had a hand in the struggles. For LA, the absurd decision to hire D'Antoni instead of Phil Jackson which will haunt the franchise beyond this season. For Boston, there was the decision to stack the roster with guards despite knowing how much Rondo would dominate the ball and leave Garnett without serious help on the block. I'd also throw in the off-season push to hand this team to Rondo among the missteps.

"Passing the torch is typically media generated crap. But in the case, the idea of Rajon Rondo taking over the Celtics was a product of the Celtics. They pushed that narrative as much as anyone else. But it wasn't necessary. Rondo didn't NEED to take over this team yet. Not with KG, Pierce and Terry in the fold. And especially when it's now clear that Rondo wasn't quite ready. That shouldn't have been a major deal, but the team played a role in setting it up that way.

Both teams also suffered through six-game losing streaks that sapped the life out of their season and really, their title hopes.

Between January 16-25, the Celtics lost:

1. At home to Austin Rivers and the struggling Hornets
2. At home to Chicago, in a game where they led by two with the ball, with nine seconds left.
3. In Detroit, a loss that was followed by Doc Rivers threatening to trade the whole team.
4. In Cleveland, after leading by seven points in the second half
5. At home to the Knicks in the Honey Nut Cheerios Bowl
6. In Atlanta, after blowing a 27-point and losing their point guard to a torn ACL.

Between January 1-11, the Lakers lost six games to much better competition than the Celtics faced, but against six teams Philly, Clippers, Denver, Houston, San Antonio and OKC that LA was supposed to beat. The streak dropped them to 15-21, and they still haven't recovered.

It's fair to say that neither of these teams will fully recover and meet the expectations set for them at the start of this season. And there's no question that tonight's game will fall short of what he imagined way back when, in terms of what's on the line, and seeing two of the league's best teams, jam-packed with the league's best players, all competing at their highest and healthiest level.

But then again, let's be honest, CelticsLakers still beats everything else. Even if this game isn't what it could have been, there are few match-ups that stir up more emotion and excitement. Sure, maybe these teams aren't competing for a top seed, but you could argue that this is even better

They're fighting for their lives. All the disappointment has left the Lakers and Celtics more desperate than we ever imagined they would be at this point in the season. This game isn't just about a rivalry, it's about a struggle to even make the playoffs.

And that's a recipe for a great game and a truly memorable night.

Hopefully more memorable than what we saw back in March of 2006, and with a much better result for Boston.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Smart yet to be ruled out of Celtics’ opener


Smart yet to be ruled out of Celtics’ opener

WALTHAM, Mass. – Marcus Smart remains out with a left ankle sprain injury sustained earlier this week, but has yet to be ruled out for the season opener against Brooklyn next week.

An MRI came back negative on Smart’s ankle, which was good news.

But there’s still a high level of uncertainty as to whether Smart will heal in time for the team’s opener at home against Brooklyn on Wednesday night.

He sprained the left ankle in the second quarter of a 121-96 loss to the New York Knicks on Wednesday when he stepped on the foot of Knicks guard Justin Holiday.

Smart fell to the floor and was helped to his feet by teammates Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas in addition to the team’s head trainer Ed Lacerte.

The Celtics are indeed hopeful he will heal in time to play next week, but league sources indicate it’s doubtful due to the nature of the injury and Smart’s history with left ankle sprains.

He sustained one in his rookie season and it kept him out for several weeks and he has had a few minor ankle sprains since then.

Even if he shows signs of being healthy enough to play prior to the opener, the Celtics are likely to be overly cautious to best insure that when he does return he does not re-aggravate the ankle.

Smart appeared in all seven preseason games for the Celtics this season, averaging 8.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Smart shot 42 percent from the field, but struggled mightily from 3-point range while connecting on just 13.6 percent of his 3-point shot attempts.

If Smart is unable to play in the opener or potentially longer, look for the Celtics to lean heavily on Terry Rozier who has been the breakout performer for Boston in the summer and in camp.

“I’m just trying to do whatever they need me to do, to help us win games,” Rozier told CSNNE.com. “I’m feeling good, real good about where my game’s at now. Obviously we’re a better team in every way, with Marcus out there. But if he’s not ready to go, the next man up has to get the job done. If that’s me, it’s me. I’ll be ready.”








Ainge admits tough decision ahead between Young and Hunter for final roster spot


Ainge admits tough decision ahead between Young and Hunter for final roster spot

WALTHAM, Mass. – With the Celtics waiving Ben Bentil on Friday, Danny Ainge confirmed what has been reported for weeks: the final roster spot for the Celtics will come down to James Young and R.J. Hunter.

“It’ll probably go down to the wire, down to Monday,” said Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations.

Boston currently has 16 players in camp with guaranteed contracts. The league-maximum of 15 players has to be met by Monday at 5 p.m.

“We’re continuing to evaluate and look for opportunities out there,” Ainge said. “If there are any deals to be had which we’ve been looking for, for a few months. Both of those guys [Hunter and Young[ have played very well and have made the decision very difficult.”

Having to make a tough call at the end of training camp is nothing new to Ainge.

But this time around is very unique.

It’s highly unusual for a team to have to waive a former first-round pick that they selected.

Young was the 17th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft by Boston, while Hunter was selected by the Celtics with the 28th overall pick in the 2015 draft.

“Sometimes the decision is made for me. It’s really easy,” said Ainge. “But this year it hasn’t been that way. Both of those guys have had some outstanding moments in practice, in training camp and in games. So it’s been challenging.”

Boston being in this roster conundrum is due to having lots of draft picks in recent years that either didn’t turn into impact players initially, or were unable to be flipped for more established talent via trade.

In Young’s draft class, Boston selected him with the 17th pick after picking Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick.

And in 2015, Boston picked Terry Rozier with the 16th overall pick and Hunter with the 28th overall selection. In the second round of that draft, Boston nabbed Jordan Mickey with the 33rd overall pick and Marcus Thornton at No. 45.

Last year’s draft was an even bigger haul for the Celtics, who went into the draft with a record-eight picks.

They traded two of the picks to Memphis, but used the other six which included Jaylen Brown with the third overall selection.

Ainge reiterated that the Celtics like what both players are doing, but doesn’t anticipate a trade scenario presenting itself that would result in both players sticking with the team.

“Unlikely, but always possible,” said Ainge when asked if it were possible for both to remain Celtics.

Both players are still on their rookie contracts, so that along with the increased salary cap teams have now makes each of them a low-risk addition.

However, most of the teams in the NBA have a full roster and the ones that don’t have a couple players in mind to fill out whatever openings exist.

That means there’s a decent chance that Hunter or Young will be waived, clear waivers and can then sign with a team of their choosing.

It sounds good, only if there’s a team to sign with which as stated earlier, is far from a given.