This year’s NBA Finals is about more than one championship. Just listen to Paul Pierce:
“A lot of guys have won one,” he said. “But all the great Celtics have won two, at least. I want to be mentioned in that group.”
That this series is between the Celtics and the Lakers is only one aspect of the rich history involved. Individual legacies are on the line. Teams’ reputations are at stake. History is in the balance, everywhere you’ll look on the Staples Center floor tonight.
Winning another ring will prove the Celtics are no one-hit wonder, will validate their run two years ago. Raising the 18th banner this season would put these Celtics on the verge of a mini-dynasty and mark these Celtics as one of the great teams in NBA history. It would put an asterisk on the Lakers’ title last year, one that would read “*Kevin Garnett was unhealthy or Boston would have three-peated.”
Lose, though, and the Celtics will be like the 2004 Detroit Pistons — good enough to win one title but not great enough to come back for more. Strong enough to win one and challenge for more, but not enough to break through another time. Yeah, the Celtics could come back next year and change all that, but there’s no promise of next year. In fact, and I apologize for my buzz kill, there probably won’t be a next year — at least a next year filled with another postseason run that lasts until June. So much is prepared to change this offseason — Ray Allen is a free agent, Doc Rivers might not come back, the old all get a little older — that nothing is certain beyond this series. This could be the Big Three-era Celtics’ last chance to win a title, last chance to cement their places in NBA history.
A ring is enough motivation, sure, but this series provides so much more significance than “just” a single title. Pierce, more than any other Celtic, has a lot on the line this series. He will go down as one of the great Celtics of all time regardless of the outcome of these seven games, but what happens if he wins a second title this season and — who knows? –maybe even wins another Finals MVP award? How high will he climb the Celtics’ pantheon then, with two championships and two Finals MVPs in his back pocket? It’s too late to catch Bird or Russell, but could Havlicek and Cousy be in his sights?
On the other side of the court stares Kobe Bryant, jaw jutted out and finger as crooked as Senator Clay Davis. If you’ve read a recent article comparing Bryant to Michael Jordan you aren’t alone. Comparing the two greats seems to be all the rage these days, after Kobe’s delightful two series that put the Lakers in the Finals. As stars fall from the playoffs all around him Kobe is peeking, proving himself greater than Lebron, greater than any challenger in the contemporary NBA. Jerry West called Kobe the greatest Laker ever, greater even than Magic Johnson. Kobe has proven himself an assassin time after time, but the outburst of support he is receiving now is greater than he’s received at any other time of his career. He deserves it, too — he’s the defending champion and has again made the postseason his personal highlight show.
But what if he loses to the Celtics, again, for the second time in three years? What if Kobe’s one title as the best player on his team (Shaq was the best player during the first three Kobe championships and won Finals MVP in all three years) is forever marred by that asterisk I mentioned earlier, the one that mentions that Boston would have won the title had Kevin Garnett been healthy? Kobe would go from being the greatest Laker ever to the superstar who could get it done against anyone but the Celtics. His one solo ring tarnished, Kobe wouldn’t be challenging Jordan anymore — instead, he’d once again be relegated to struggling to find his rightful place in the annals of NBA history. Sure Kobe would still have four championships, but with three of them coming as Shaq’s right-hand man and the fourth coming as a gift from the injury gods, none would place him anywhere near Jordan or even Magic. Without beating the Celtics, without beating the most powerful opponent of his era, Kobe can’t be considered with those two.
Kobe will deny seeing the importance in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, but you can bet anything he realizes his legacy is on the line starting tonight. Kobe will end up one of the NBA’s greatest of all-time, but — as they have most of his career — people will find a way to question him should he again lose to the Celtics. He’s finally reached the point where people are ready to revere him, ready to praise his impossible abilities and endless obsession with winning, but it could all slip through that mangled finger of his if he loses to the Celtics and again underperforms against Gang Green. Should Kobe lose to Boston again, suddenly some of the doubts about Kobe and his place in history would come flooding back in.
Kobe and Pierce aren’t the only ones with reputations and legacies on the line either. Garnett’s reputation as a big-game player is always in question. Rondo has a chance to further solidify himself as a rising superstar. Ray Allen can cement his reputation as an big-shot kind of guy. Ron Artest can reverse the error of many of his former ways. Pau Gasol can once and for all shred the soft label, and Andrew Bynum can too. Derek Fisher can build on his growing label as a crunch-time killer. It’s the Finals now, the big time, the time when legends are made.
20 years from now nobody will remember that the Celtics beat the NBA’s top two teams to get to the NBA Finals, but everyone will sure as hell remember what happened once the Celtics got there. They’ll remember the hero, the goat, and the moments; the highlight dunks and game-winning or game-tying jumpers; the championship celebration, too; but they won’t remember what else happened in this postseason.
20 years from now, I won’t remember who was the Celtics leading scorer from 2010…
But I’ll sure as hell be able to tell you if he beat the goddamn Lakers.