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ON THE NBA

Ready for Revived Rivalry II?

October 26, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

A funny thing happened on the way to the NBA's return to its glory days when the ballyhooed Lakers-Celtics Finals turned into a dud.

Actually, it was the Lakers who turned into duds, but until the series began, the revival of the Rivalry was all anybody talked about -- annoying as that was for coaches, players and fans of the other 28 teams.

I've got bad news for the other 28: It looks as if Boston and the Lakers remain the best teams in their conferences, so get ready for Ballyhoo II.

In the NBA general managers' survey, 74% picked the Celtics to win the East and 67% picked the Lakers in the West.

As far as the ultimate champion, 46% picked the Lakers and 19% picked the Celtics.

Up close and personal, the Lakers looked formidable. Said Toronto Coach Sam Mitchell after losing to them last week: "The good thing is that we play them only twice a year."

For the Lakers, this is like the fall of 1985, coming off one of their most dismaying losses to the Celtics in the 1984 Finals despite looking like the best team, with L.A. leading in the last minute of the first four games.

Last spring's Finals were nothing like that. There was no doubt which was the better team, with the Celtics walking on the Lakers. Nevertheless, this fall, as then, the Lakers went to camp hoping not only to get back to the Finals but to meet the Celtics there again.

Though insisting he wouldn't set a goal -- such as winning a title -- Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who usually eases into seasons, cracked down early in an effort to start fast and finish with the best record, which would mean Games 6 and 7 would be here, rather than in Boston, if they meet in the spring.

The Celtics' Three Thirtysomething Amigos don't have a lot of good years ahead of them, but as long as they last, their renaissance is a gift for the NBA, giving a new generation of fans a chance to root against their storied green selves.

Of course, there are also those who don't like Hollywood's Team. Now, for the first time in years, NBA fans have a choice of marquee teams to hate.

The West is still stronger, with 50 wins last season's cutoff for the playoffs, but it no longer has the NBA's three best teams.

With the San Antonio Spurs aging and the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks reconfiguring themselves out of contention, there's a new elite class headed by the Lakers and New Orleans Hornets -- both marginal picks to make the playoffs a season ago.

Unfortunately, the East doesn't have a lot of good young teams coming up.

The Detroit Pistons are trying to rebuild on the fly, the Cleveland Cavaliers still look like LeBron James and some other guys, and no one else in the conference is as good as they are.

Let's hear it for the guys in green. In this league, daring to hope means imagining a Lakers-Celtics rematch rather than a matchup between the Spurs and the Cavaliers.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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