Long Odds for N.B.A.’s Old Guard, Celtics and Lakers

When the subject of 1993 was raised in relation to a desperate team needing to relocate its championship edge in the most urgent of hours, played along.

“K. G. was at last night,” the coach said, falsely placing at the Connecticut gaming casino.

To get the joke, one had to instantly recall the consequences of a sighting at an Atlantic City baccarat table in the wee hours on the day of a ’ playoff game against the point guard Rivers and the at Madison Square Garden.

A subsequent report after the Bulls fell behind the Knicks, 2-0, in the Eastern Conference finals enraged Jordan and ignited the Bulls to sweep the next four games.

“I was hoping we could bring up Paul or Kevin, you know, something to get them going,” Rivers said, of Paul Pierce and Garnett. But maybe all they needed to incentivize Game 3 of their playoff series with was a big-screen view of what happened to the on Friday night in Dallas and a good hard look in the mirror.

With Garnett and Pierce combining for 55 points and Rajon Rondo playing in the fourth quarter with a dislocated left elbow, the , to draw within 2-1 in their conference semifinal series. For one night, at least, they dribbled around the vortex of change that has been blowing through the

The Lakers, two-time defending champions, disintegrated in the fourth quarter again Friday night and entered that playoff place — down by 3-0 to the — where there is no precedent upon which to peg their return.

Champions in 2008 and one victory from a title last June, the Celtics had to plant doubt in the mind of and Dwyane Wade after Games 1 and 2 in Miami went just as James envisioned, or guaranteed, when he ditched northern Ohio to become a son of South Beach.

Miami’s president, , always said that no series has a meaningful result until a home team loses. By that measure, the Celtics are still on serve, although Rondo may be a modern-day John Havlicek, who played (and lost) against the Knicks in the 1973 conference finals with a dislocated right shoulder.

“We’re following his lead,” Garnett said of Rondo’s profile in courage after dominating the paint, making 13 of 20 shots and grabbing 18 rebounds.

Teams that have gone the playoff distance always believe that a series is one bounce or one plot twist away. Bryant barely toweled himself dry after the Lakers’ defeat Friday night before predicting they would make history, bless his stubborn competitive soul. But title contention is not an open-ended privilege, and this N.B.A. spring from the beginning been about rebellion from below.

Last month, the Knicks’ president, , took inventory of a wild opening playoff weekend and remarked: “I don’t think the old guard has changed yet. But it’s foretelling that it’s about to change.”

That was before the , despite the best regular-season record in the West, were bounced by the Grizzlies, and the Lakers were stunned twice at home by Team Cuban.

History will be kind to the likes of the fading and the retiring . Ditto these Celtics, should they not make it past mid-May. They gave their city its first N.B.A. title in 22 years, or since the Bird era.

They played with pride Saturday night and impressed Erik Spoelstra, the Miami coach, who said, “That was a championship-caliber response.”

More than half of the 64 N.B.A. titles — or 33 combined — have been won by the Celtics and the Lakers. Only eight franchises have handed out championship rings over the past 30 years. In no other major American sport are people as addicted to the status quo. In the early 2000s, Commissioner famously kidded (sort of) that his preferred finals was anyone against the Lakers.

Big-market matchups with telegenic superstars have always thrilled the presiding network and sponsors by creating the highest ratings and the healthiest profits. But the repetition has had a less-quantifiable downside, a belief — fair or not — that the league has preferences and is not wholly authentic.

These days, the executives may actually be wishing for a championship series pitting anyone against the anti-hero but eminently marketable Heat.

But James — limited to 15 points Saturday night, locked down by Boston’s help defense — has to prove he can beat a team that has tormented him more than any other.

As physical as this series has already been, it is also a fascinating psychological duel — in the words of Pierce “an unscripted reality” from one game to another.

Trying to send a message to his own players, reminding them that this was never going to be as easy as they wanted to believe after Miami, Spoelstra compared Garnett to . He talked about how well the Celtics responded to “all the fuel that they’ve been given in the last three and a half days.” And he agreed that Wade gave them some more when he pulled Rondo to the floor after they got tangled up, causing the elbow dislocation.

The play looked accidental but, as Rivers knows, in the playoffs you get your motivation however you can. One more victory here for the Celtics on Monday night, and this series could yet end up a crapshoot.

Bookmark and Share