Celtics and Lakers in for the fight of their lives...

by Steve Simineri
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Flickr: Chris.Bury2013

A tough road lies ahead for both historic franchises...

The Celtics and Lakers are among two of the most respected, storied, and successful franchises in professional sports. The National Basketball Association’s two hallmark franchises combine for a total of 52 Finals appearances and 33 Larry O’Brien Trophies.

For the last five years, professional basketball was returned to its best and natural state, as the two historic teams were once again annually in the Championship conversation. It wasn't the 1960s or the 1980s, when both were the favorites nearly every year, but both were talented enough to create anticipation of another possible Celtics-Lakers meeting come June.

However, it already seems to be a foregone conclusion that either wouldn’t be adding to that Championship total this summer. The calendar may have just flipped to February, but the final Sunday of January already felt like the last stand for both swooning ballclubs.

Two weeks ago the Celtics amid a six-game losing streak welcomed the Heat to TD Garden, and the Lakers, losers of ten of their prior 13, were at Staples Center for a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Both Boston and Los Angeles had been mired all season long in the sort of slump that no one saw coming, and going into that afternoon their combined record of 38-48 was worse than that of the lowly Bucks and Kings, who were 39-48.

Both floundering groups were heavy underdogs despite being in their own buildings -- where all 33 of those Championship banners hang high. But, both rose to the occasion and logged their best wins of the season.

"Feels good to finally beat a team that's worth a [expletive]," Kobe Bryant said at his locker afterward.

Throughout an unattractive early few months for both teams, there is something to marvel at in watching these current Celtics and Lakers. Both teams have similarly watched their great players struggle to reach a level they once did routinely, and the results so far has been a season full of frustration and mediocrity, which has left each of their Hall of Fame-destined captains searching for answers.

Kobe has embodies the Lakers, just as much as Paul Pierce has the Celtics. The two have won championships, become legends in their respective cities, and accomplished just about everything a basketball player could. But, as they play out their twilight years it remains to be seen if either will get to the top once again—at least as a Laker or Celtic.

Last year, the Celtics aging Big Three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen believed they could summon the necessary resolve for one last title run, simply because they always could. The trio resisted in conceding what others kept insisting: That their time had come and gone.

The team struggled through the regular season, battling age and injuries, stirring up memories of the final days of another big three two decades prior in Boston. The 1991-1992 season was the 12th and final season with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish wearing Celtic green together. By that time, their bodies had long betrayed them.

They swept the Pacers in the opening round, but couldn’t will themselves past the Cavaliers in a hard fought seven game series. Current Celtic General Manager Danny Ainge has long believed that his mentor, Red Auerbach should have blown that team up before they imploded on their own. It is rumored that Boston fielded proposals that would have sent Bird to Indiana, McHale to Dallas and Parish to Seattle, but Red refused to pull the trigger on any of them.

"I will always be grateful for Red for not trading me," McHale said when reminiscing months back. "It meant the world to me to play my entire career with the Celtics. I know people want to criticize him now but I loved the fact Red said, 'Screw it, these are my guys.' There was real honor to it, something you hardly ever see today."

Last February the Celtics found themselves in a similar conundrum with their modern day trio. However, Ainge went Red’s route and said ‘Screw it, these are my guys,’ about Pierce, Garnett, and Allen.

A year later Boston once again finds themselves debating whether it’s finally time to blow up the roster and build towards the future. Ainge has recently said that dealing either Garnett, who has a no-trade clause, or Pierce is unlikely, but there's no doubt he is exploring his options.

Since losing Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL, the Celtics have seemingly been on a mission to convince Ainge that nobody’s going anywhere. They have won six straight, including an easy victory over the Lakers on Thursday night. Generally, Boston vs. LA generates a possible preview of the upcoming finals.  However, things were different this time around.

Boston is without the talent many believe they can’t live without, and going into the contest they were clinging to the 8th spot in the East. Meanwhile, the Lakers continue to battle a slew of injuries and are languishing in 10th place out West.

Both teams though, are looking to make one hard and final push to sneak into the tournament—even if it means a possible 8th seed, and a potential drubbing at the hands of Miami and Oklahoma City in the first round.  

With their recent winning streak the resurgent Celtics are now three games over .500, and within just 3.5 games of the Bulls, who sit 4th in the Conference. The Lakers came into Thursday’s matchup having won 6 of their past 7, but the loss left them four games under .500, marking only the third time since the ABA-NBA merger that they were below .500 through 50 games.

The last time they were this bad through 50 games, Kobe was a sophomore in Lower Merion high school. After a huge comeback victory over the Bobcats Friday night they sit 24-27, and still 3.5 games behind Houston for the 8th and final spot out West.

The question now is whether both aging and underachieving groups have enough fight left in them to be one of the sixteen teams in the postseason come late April. Amazingly, since the Lakers came into existence as the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948, both teams have failed to make the playoffs in the same year only once during the 1993-94 campaign.

Nobody suspected that this would be the conversation as the All-Star game approaches, but it’s the reality for both teams. The Lakers created a super-team of their own over the summer by adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The Celtics may have lost Ray Allen, but to offset his loss they added Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. They also resigned Garnett, Brandon Bass, and the ever-talented Jeff Green, who sat out all of last year due to a heart ailment.

Reloading, not rebuilding, was the plan for both teams, but in sports things don’t always go as planned. Out in L.A. Howard has been a shell of his former self, age has caught up with the 39-year old Nash, and Pau Gasol been hampered by injuries all year long.  For Boston things have taken time to click, but you can say that they have played their best basketball without Rondo. Yet, conventional wisdom maintains that they can't possibly make a deep run without their All-Star point guard.

In trying to ride the ship, both Bryant and Pierce have suddenly taken on a new playmaking role for their team, a role that not many could have envisioned from them just a few years back. Bryant has become more than a shooting guard for his recovering Lakers, while Pierce has morphed into more than a small forward for his depleted Celtics.

Boston is going to be relying on Pierce to be their distributor as well as a threat to score, which happens to be the same role the Lakers expect from Bryant. In their fifteenth and seventeenth season respectively, Pierce and Bryant are embarking on what may what may be their biggest challenge yet; simply leading their team back to the postseason, for just a chance of perhaps getting hot and healthy at the right time.

In spite of the their teams current woes, Kobe and Pierce still adamantly believe that their teams will once again be playing meaningful basketball come the end of April, and hopefully a bit longer.

For both teams it used to be that the first 82 games were just a warm-up act for the main event, but this year the playoffs have started already for both clubs. Kobe has only missed out on the postseason once in his career and Pierce hasn’t missed out since the 06-07 season.

But it's becoming more difficult for them to impose their will on the game as they begin to creep up in years. And if a 34-year old Kobe and 35-year old Pierce can once more drag their storied franchise to the postseason it could end up being one of their finest accomplishments.

One thing for certain is that Kobe, Pierce, Garnett, and Nash know that their time is running out.  The Celtic or Laker brand isn't getting tarnished, nor is it riding on winning a championship this season, but these guys know they’re not going to have many more cracks at a title.

Both teams still possess the talent to be one of the sixteen teams in the postseason, but what will carry them is their professionalism. Their future Hall of Famer players take pride in their profession and in not being embarrassed.

You can bet they wouldn’t be going down without a fight; however for the next few weeks they will be in for one of the the toughest fights of their long and fine careers.

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