From Phoenix —
The ugly uniforms, the obnoxious fans, the chippy players, and that damn cigar.
Kevin McHale's arm around Kurt Rambis' neck, Cedric Maxwell's hands around his own neck, Larry Bird on the wing, Danny Ainge on the floor and Paul Pierce in that damn wheelchair.
The Memorial Day Massacre, the Heat Game, the Junior Skyhook game, the June 17 Swoon, and those damn balloons.
Love it and loathe it, the Lakers are once again going green, their 111-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns here Saturday night clinching the Western Conference championship and setting up the 12th NBA Finals meeting of the most storied championship rivalry in any sport.
It will be the Lakers against the Boston Celtics in the Finals, a phrase as common in the sports lexicon as, say, "Paul Pierce is a flopper."
If you sense any angst here, well, the Lakers have endured 51 years of it in this rivalry, losing nine of the 11 Finals, including being run out of Boston two seasons ago in possibly the most embarrassing Finals clinching in NBA history.
The Lakers have been to 10 more finals, but the Celtics have won two more titles. The Lakers have had bigger stars, but the Celtics have played with more substance.
Their Finals fights have been filled with great fun, but gruesome pain. Lakers fans today are using their hands both to applaud their chances and cover their eyes. They want Boston. The Lakers want Boston. Everyone willing to risk the annual heartbreak. Everyone dreaming of the ultimate knockout.
"After we came back in the playoffs last year, I ran into Paul Pierce in a complex . . . in L.A.," said Coach Phil Jackson, referring to one of the Celtics' stars. "I said, 'Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals.' So here it is."
Will this year be different? Will this be the year that the Lakers gain some revenge for moments that span from 1959 to 2008? Can they dredge up the past without being swallowed by it? Will this series push the franchise to the heights of a second consecutive championship, or stall it in old stereotypes?
It says here, yes. It says here, yes to revenge, yes to heights, yes to a memorable seven-game defeat of their rivals.
I picked the Lakers to win two years ago, but didn't realize the toughness of the Celtics and the desperation of their veterans. Today, after a surprisingly difficult series against the Suns, the Lakers are the ones with those traits.
Beginning Thursday at Staples Center, the Lakers will hit the Celtics with a combination of speed and strength that doesn't exist in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers are not only a little better than this year's Celtics, but, more important, they are a lot better than the 2008 Lakers, and that will be the difference.
"We'll see . . . we'll see how much we matured," Kobe Bryant said Saturday after scoring 37 points in helping the Lakers recover from a fourth-quarter stall to hold off the surging Suns. "[The Celtics] challenged us two years ago . . . now it's a test to see how much we've grown.''
They've grown. From the soft team that wilted under the Celtics' elbows and energy two years ago, they've grown. Even from the distracted team that struggled to beat Oklahoma City several weeks ago, they've grown.
They have several advantages now that they didn't have two years ago, and they will use them to hammer out redemptions.
They have home-court advantage. They have won 28 of their last 31 postseason games at Staples Center. Enough said.
They have Kobe Bryant's memory advantage. He is still furious over the 39-point beating handed the Lakers in their last postseason meeting with the Celtics, that awful series-ending Game 6 in Boston two years ago. And you know what happens when Kobe gets mad.
Bryant went seven for 22 in that game and spent the next year listening to folks use it as proof that he couldn't lead a team to a championship. Well, he won that championship, last year in Orlando. Now he wants Boston to watch him win another one.
They have Ron Artest's defensive advantage. Two years ago, the Lakers didn't really have enough manpower to shut down series MVP Pierce. They do now. Artest has reached his Lakers potential this postseason, a game-winning shot Thursday, 25 points on Saturday, lockdown defense at every step.
They have the Andrew Bynum-presence advantage. He wasn't available two years ago and, although struggling with a knee injury now, he will at least be another big body who can throw a few blows to Boston's middle.
"Our bigs have to play, they have to play well," Jackson said.
The only thing certain is that the series will be bigger than all of it. Thursday? Really? Can't we start this thing now?
"It's obviously a huge rivalry . . . a renewed fervor between both these towns," Jackson said. "It's something that has been anticipated the last couple of weeks, so here it is."
Celtics again? Welcome back.
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