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Lakers-Celtics rematch? Be careful what you wish for

MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

To Lakers fans seeking catharsis after last year's Finals loss to Boston, nothing short of beating the Celtics this June will do. But getting Stephon Marbury will make Boston that much tougher.

February 25, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

We (heart) the Celtics?

Lakers fans (heart) the Celtics?

The team the Lakers and their fans used to love to hate, the one they yearn to see in June, to obliterate the memory of last spring -- not to mention other springs -- is back.

Wild as it might be, that makes the Celtics local darlings between now and then.

"The great dichotomy!" says radio host Vic "the Brick" Jacobs. "The ambivalence wracks my soul. The ultimate humiliation of Game 6, the 39-point massacre by the Celtics, must be avenged. There must be a physical catharsis, an emotional catharsis."

(For Vic's KLAC teammates, whose names I can't divulge, but whose initials are PP and MMS, I keep going to him because he's the beating heart of Lakerdom, or its most crazed recognizable figure, edging Mychal Thompson, who still dresses like a normal person.)

You've heard of Jews for Jesus? This is Lakers Fans for Celtics.

Of course, Our Guys in Green are just here to play the Clippers, but these are perilous times with Kevin Garnett out, in their race with younger, bigger, deeper Cleveland.

The peril is such that the Celtics are now expected to sign pariah of pariahs Stephon Marbury, who finally reached a buyout agreement with the Knicks on Tuesday.

Finishing second means looking at Orlando in the second round, just to get to the Cavaliers in the East finals -- a possibility the Celtics are already girding for.

"Well, it's tough," said Coach Doc Rivers, "but honestly, I'd rather be the No. 7 seed with everybody 100% than the 1 seed with everybody 75%.

"We can win on the road. We won in L.A. in the playoffs. We won in Detroit."

Kendrick Perkins is Boston's only rotation player who is taller than 6-9 in bare feet. With Tony Allen out too, Rivers says he has to "sit there and take it," rather than burn out Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

So, how can they be 14-2 over two seasons when Garnett is out?

In comparison, the Lakers are a race of giants, with two 7-footers and a 6-10 swingman capable of averaging a double-double -- as Lamar Odom has done since the Feb. 5 game in Boston.

Rarely has a team, done more with less than the Celtics. It was all that was left for them last season, having traded Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Wally Szczerbiak, Theo Ratliff and No. 1 pick Jeff Green for Garnett and Ray Allen.

Aside from Pierce, the Celtics' holdovers were Perkins, 23 at the start of last season, a project center; Rajon Rondo, then 21, a second-year point guard; Leon Powe, a second-year, sawed-off power forward; Allen, coming off knee surgery; and Brian Scalabrine, their 14th-leading scorer the season before when they went 24-58.

They also brought in James Posey and, in the spring, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell.

Now Posey, Brown and Cassell are gone, and the Celtics are up to 112-28 over two seasons.

Amazingly, the linchpin isn't Garnett, Pierce or Allen, but Rondo, who, at 6-1 (try 5-11) and 171 pounds, penetrates, makes plays, finishes, defends, and averages 5.3 rebounds.

If Rondo were an average shooter, he'd be a perennial All-Star. As it is, he's a linchpin because opponents, like the Lakers, try to get away with not guarding him. Before Rondo, players who couldn't shoot were dead men walking. Rondo now tries to keep the ball to make his defender stay close, or use the extra room to drive to make a play instead of a shot, as Rivers puts it.

When Rondo gets it right, the Celtics are great. When he doesn't -- as in this season's two losses to the Lakers, in which he shot 10 for 27 -- they're vulnerable.

"I think the fact Rondo can't shoot isn't the problem and never has been with our team," says Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge.

"I think maybe the combination, with Rondo and Perkins, [who] aren't shooters, hurts. . . . I think Rondo's a terrific player. I think he's had his ups and downs, as have most young players, but we'll keep him around."

He's also courageous. After shooting 12 for 33 in Games 1-5 of the Finals with Kobe Bryant playing off him, he came back to score 21 in Game 6 and hasn't looked back.

Sunday in Phoenix, Rondo blew past Steve Nash, who couldn't have caught him with a lasso, scoring 32 points with 10 assists in a 128-108 rout. Monday in Denver, Rondo shut down Chauncey Billups, outscoring him, 14-3, in a 114-76 laugher.

"It got to the point last year, I was concerned if he wasn't on the floor because he runs the team so well. When he goes off the floor, it's a major loss for us," Rivers says.

This just in: It won't be as major a loss soon. The day Marbury arrives, they'll have a former All-Star on their bench, who's guaranteed to be on his best behavior, hoping to get a new contract, knowing he'll be cut if he so much as rolls his eyes.

Even Garnett, who hadn't sounded enthusiastic about a reunion with Marbury, who ran out on him in Minnesota, called to extend a personal invitation.

Next: ABC's series on Marbury, explaining he was misunderstood all these years! The Celtics also signed former Sacramento King Mikki Moore, an actual 7-footer, so Perkins is no longer their only player over 6-9!

The Celtics were doing well enough the way they were. For everyone in Lakerdom, be careful what you wish for.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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