Lakers, Celtics aiming at Finals rematch

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LOS ANGELES – From deep in the Staples Center stands the fourth-quarter chant rained down.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are two wins from a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
(Getty Images)

“We want Boston.”

The Los Angeles Lakers weren’t even done hanging another double-digit Western Conference finals victory on the Phoenix Suns when the chant started. Lakers fans were simply shouting what everyone around here had been discussing all day: Can we just fast-forward to the Celtics series?

The NBA’s historic rivals are once again staring each other down from 3,000 miles away. They’re playing a nightly game of can-you-top-this that’s threatening to make a mockery of their respective conference finals.

The Celtics went to Orlando and won both games, leaving the Magic reeling. The Lakers have knocked around Phoenix by an average of 15.5 points; the Suns stuck shaking their heads in frustration.

“I don’t really know what the answer is,” Grant Hill(notes) said.

Yes, anything can still happen, so you won’t hear a word from the actual Lakers about this series being over in the run-up to Game 3 Sunday in Phoenix. It’s the same with the Celtics discussing the Magic.

Whatever.

Just about everyone else watching these conference finals has already started looking ahead, calling into talk-radio shows to discuss the possibilities, arguing whether Boston and L.A. will lose a single game combined and checking what the NBA will do if both series end in five games or less (start the Finals in L.A. on June 1).

For the Staples crowd, it’s more exciting than having Hilary Swank appear on the kiss-cam. Or noting that record producer Polow da Don redefined the term fashionably late when he took his courtside seats with 4:10 left in the game.

He’ll show up on time for the Celtics. Or at least in the first half.

Phoenix just doesn’t look capable of beating L.A. in four of the next five games. The Magic not only would have to do the same to the Celtics, they’d have to win twice in Boston.

So here in California they dream of green. And in Boston Saturday, the “Beat L.A.” chants are sure to start early.

It’s not just the two best teams of these playoffs hurtling toward each other; it’s the two greatest franchises with a past intertwined in elbows, clothesline fouls and legend-making, game-winning shots.

The Celtics have a record 17 NBA championships. The Lakers are second with 15. The two franchises have met 11 times in the Finals with Boston winning nine of the series. The back and forth in the 1980s cemented this as a rivalry for the ages, but the 2008 Finals (Boston in 6) are the most relevant should the teams meet again.

It’s that one that the fans here can’t forget. Nor can Kobe Bryant(notes).

Bryant considers this Suns series as payback, and it’s evident in his fourth-quarter play. Phoenix knocked the Lakers out of the 2006 and 2007 playoffs, and when asked before the series if he recalled the series, Bryant snapped, “What do you think? You already know.”

When our Marc Spears asked Bryant earlier this week who he wanted to see in the Finals, Kobe just responded with a knowing smile. If losing to Phoenix in the early rounds with flawed teams still grinds him, then imagine what that Finals defeat to the Celtics meant?

And don’t think for a second Kobe has forgotten or forgiven Boston fans for throwing rocks at the Lakers’ team bus as it tried to pull away from the Garden after the final Game 6 loss.

Lakers icon Jerry West has gone on record recently saying Bryant is the best player in franchise history. That might be true, but the one hole in Bryant’s résumé is not beating the hated Celtics in a final. He’s 0-1. Magic went 2-1.

Meanwhile in Boston, there’s a sense that if not for last season’s injury to Kevin Garnett(notes), the Celtics might be going for a three-peat and L.A. would still be stuck on 14 titles.

The Celtics’ greatest pride is having the most championships. Boston will defend that mark with Bunker Hill intensity.

Bad blood, bad feelings and good times should be ahead, a most welcome development for a playoffs that’s been long on blowouts and low on fire.

Even before Game 2, Phil Jackson was asked about the need to rest Andrew Bynum’s(notes) tender knee so he’d be ready for the physical Celtics. Jackson looked away at the thought of discussing a possible Finals matchup already. Although, he did concede, “if we’re fortunate enough to advance, there will be bigger and more powerful centers ahead.”

Ron Artest(notes) was asked about the potential physical style of play in the Finals and tried to spin it into talking about “a tough team ahead of us, Phoenix … [we] respect our opponent.” He then admitted, “But I know what you’re saying.”

It’s up to Phoenix and Orlando to silence the potential superpower matchup talk. In this series the Suns keep setting when the game gets into the critical moments. The Lakers are scoring almost at will, averaging 126 points in the two games. “We haven’t found a way to slow them down,” Steve Nash(notes) acknowledged.

Then there is Bryant, who has made the winning plays when his team needed them while Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) seemed content to let the game slip away. When the Suns single-covered Kobe in Game 1, he had 40 points. When they threw some double-teams at him in Game 2, he had 13 assists.

Meanwhile, Lamar Odom(notes) followed up his “lucky” 19-point, 19-rebound performance in Game 1 with 17 points and 11 rebounds in Game 2.

“They’re almost impossible to beat when Lamar is that effective,” Suns forward Jared Dudley(notes) said.

Perhaps Boston will have an answer. We’ll see. What Lakers fans want, Lakers fans are almost assuredly going to get.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 20, 2010