Get ready for Lakers-Celtics, Part 12, the league’s most storied franchises renewing their rivalry in the NBA Finals.
Boston beat Los Angeles in the 2008 finals, with a dominant defense that made life miserable for Bryant, that season’s MVP. When they meet again starting Thursday at Staples Center, the Lakers can show how much better they are since then.
“We’ll see, we’ll see how much we matured,” Bryant said. “They challenged us extremely well in the finals a couple years ago. Now is a chance to see how much we’ve grown.”
Los Angeles will be going for its second straight title and No. 16 overall. The Celtics still have the edge, hanging their 17th banner with their victory two years ago in six games.
“We remember more than anything losing on our home court, a situation where we had some defensive lapses and they took advantage of it,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “This year we have home-court advantage, and we look forward to the rematch with great intensity.”
The Celtics improved to 9-2 in the finals against the Lakers, having dominated the series for decades even against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor until Los Angeles won twice in the 1980s.
That was back when a Lakers-Celtics finals was expected. Nobody predicted this one.
While the Lakers were the best of the West all season, the Celtics stumbled over the second half and were only a No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But they’ve rediscovered the defense that contained Bryant two years ago, and after eliminating Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, now they get another shot at the Lakers star.
The Celtics limited Bryant to 25.7 points per game in the finals — he had averaged 31.9 through the first three rounds — and 40 percent shooting. Bryant would say: “They definitely were the best defense I’ve seen in the entire playoffs.”
This one is pretty good, too.
The Celtics knocked off James and Cleveland, which had the league’s best record, in the second round, then upset Orlando, last season’s Eastern Conference champion.
The Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen is still going strong, but point guard Rajon Rondo has perhaps been their best player in the postseason.
The defending champion Lakers are making their third straight finals appearance, best since they won three in a row from 2000 to 2002. Bryant was the sidekick to Shaquille O’Neal on those teams, but the ’08 finals was his first chance to win one alone.
It went horribly, but the Lakers think this time can be different, since they have the home-court advantage.
“Losing that game on our home court, we felt like was really the turning point,” guard Derek Fisher said. “We’re looking forward to getting this thing started on Thursday night.”
The Lakers will host the first two games before the series shifts to Boston for the next three, if necessary. Both teams will be well-rested — the Celtics clinched their 21st trip by finishing off Orlando on Friday, while the Lakers are making their league-best 31st appearance after wrapping up their series against Phoenix in six games Saturday.
Tipoff: Boston at L.A. Lakers, 9 p.m. Thursday