BOSTON Paul Pierce grew up in Los Angeles watching the Lakers play the Celtics for NBA titles. Now he's the captain of the Boston team that is back in the finals for the first time since losing to the Lakers in 1987.
"As a kid, I hated the Celtics," Pierce said Friday night after Boston eliminated Detroit to advance to the NBA finals and a matchup with the Lakers.
"I'm going back home to play against my team that I grew up watching. It's a dream come true, man, just thinking about it. I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I'm a part of it."
The Celtics have won an NBA-record 16 championships, the last of them over Houston in 1986 to interrupt a run in which Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced each other in the finals three times in four years. Those are the series Pierce watched, and the ones that established the rivalry as one of the NBA's best.
"To me, I think that's what pretty much got me started in basketball, growing up in Los
Angeles, watching the Lakers and the Celtics," he said. "It's ironic, just being a Celtic, growing up, now you're playing against the Lakers in the finals."
For the last two decades, though, the NBA's most decorated franchise hasn't been good enough to keep the rivalry's intensity going.
While the Lakers beat the Celtics in 1987, won again against Detroit in '88 and then added three more trophies in the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal era, the Celtics have missed the playoffs entirely nine times from 1994-2007. Twice, the team all-but tanked the season in the hopes of winning big in the draft lottery; twice they failed.
There was a time, in fact, when the Celtics' legacy was a burden on the team. The constant reminders of the past finally forced Rick Pitino to the breaking point, with his memorable rant that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish "aren't walking through that door."
But cheerleaders aside the new owners have embraced the history.
"The whole reason to buy this team was to be trustees for the past," Wyc Grousbeck, one of the partners who bought the team in 2002 and named their company Banner 17, said Saturday. "We're trustees of one of the great franchises in the history of sports, and we're trying to extend the past. The legacy's the whole idea."
Ray Allen got his first taste of it when Los Angeles visited in November. The crowd broke into a "Beat L.A.!" chant, and the building was abuzz.
"Somebody asked me in the beginning of the year what was it like to be a part of it, and I said, 'Well, we really haven't been a part of it yet, because we haven't created our own rivalry,"' he said. "And it would take us to play in the finals to create that rivalry, and here we are."
Kevin Garnett, who also joined the Celtics this offseason to form the final piece of the new Big Three, is not just a newcomer to the rivalry; like Pierce and Allen, he's also a newcomer to the NBA finals.
"This is my first finals, my second or third Lakers-Celtics game," Garnett said. "I'm looking forward to it all the things I used to watch on Sunday, that big plate of food in front of me watching the Lakers and Celtics play on Sunday, Hubie Brown and Dick Stockton doing the game. I remember that like it was yesterday.
"Fire going, I'm gonna grab me a seat right in front. Mom telling me, 'Don't get too close to the TV, it'll kill your eyes.' I remember it like it was yesterday, man. I'm looking forward to this."
Boston beat the Lakers both times they met this season, winning 107-94 at home on Nov. 23, and 110-91 in Los Angeles on Dec. 30.
"I thought the atmosphere was nuts in L.A., and I told the guys after the game, 'Boy, it would be great if we could see them again,"' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The only way we could have seen them again would be the finals. That's the way it should be to me as far as I'm concerned."
The Lakers have improved since last seeing the Celtics, acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis on Feb. 1 and winning 16 of their next 18 games. So they're a different team."So are we," Grousbeck said.
NBA FINALS: Boston vs. L.A. Lakers
Thursday: L.A. Lakers at Boston, 7 p.m.
June 8: L.A. Lakers at Boston, 7 p.m.
June 10: Boston at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m.
June 12: Boston at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m.
June 15: Boston at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m., if necessary
June 17: L.A. Lakers at Boston, 7 p.m., if necessary
June 19: L.A. Lakers at Boston, 7 p.m., if necessary
*All times MDT