NBA Finals: Lakers, Celtics To Square Off In Game 1

The NBA finals get underway Thursday night in Los Angeles. This is the 12th time the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have met with the championship on the line. Will this series live up to the great contests of the past?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is pro basketballs' greatest rivalry, although you wouldn't know it talking to most of the current Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. But seems everyone else is making a big deal about the two storied franchises that faceoff in the NBA finals tonight in L.A. It will be the 12th time the two have played for the championship. The Celtics own a whopping 9-2 advantage. The latest Boston win in the finals came just two years ago. NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now.

Good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So let's talk about the Celtics 2008 victory over the Lakers, which is still fresh in the minds of NBA fans. Has it pumped up the atmosphere quite a bit this year?

GOLDMAN: Absolutely. Two years ago, it had been 21 years since their last finals meeting. And you saw a lot of archival footage from the '60s, then the 1980s. But now these current players have a live rivalry to play off of. Essentially it's the same cast of characters playing for the second time in three years.

Boston's triumph is fresh. And especially humiliating for L.A. was the 39 point loss in the final game of the '08 series. So while the Lakers are the defending NBA champions, they're also the team that wants revenge.

MONTAGNE: But as I mentioned just now, it seems like the guys currently wearing the uniforms aren't exactly getting into the spirit of things.

GOLDMAN: They're not really. Some players have said they don't really care about past history. Boston forward Kevin Garnet said it's not a personal thing. They're a great team. We're a great team. We're both trying to get to the same goal.

Lakers star Kobe Bryant has been particularly crabby when it comes to talk of the rivalry. After L.A. advanced to the finals a few days ago, Bryant was asked if he had a score to settle with the archrival Celtics and here's his answer.

Mr. KOBE BRYANT (Los Angeles Lakers): I didn't give a damn who we played. Didn't matter to me.

GOLDMAN: Now it should be noted, though, Renee, that he has said in the past that when he lived in Italy as a young boy he loved watching the Lakers versus Celtics in the 1980s when they played in the finals three times in four years. So somewhere inside you've got to think Bryant's getting a little bit of an extra adrenaline rush.

MONTAGNE: So how is the series likely to play out?

GOLDMAN: Well, there are compelling arguments for either team winning, and that's what makes this series great going in. The Lakers if they get Bryant to continue playing brilliantly, which he has in the playoffs, that'll help a lot. But he needs a lot of help from his teammates on offense and defense.

And then also the Celtics will win if they keep playing championship level defense, as they've been doing throughout the playoffs. And if their spectacular guard, Rajon Rondo, who's the breakout star of this postseason, can keep pushing the tempo, finding openings to drive to the basket to either score or make his fantastic passes to open teammates.

MONTAGNE: And finally, Tom, let's turn just for a moment, to baseball. And talk to us about a heartbreaking call that was made last night.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it was in the Detroit Tigers versus Cleveland Indians games. Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga�had a perfect game taken away on the last play of the game by a blown umpire's call. A perfect game is when the pitcher doesn't allow a player from the opposing team to get on base. There've only been 20 in Major League Baseball history.

With two outs in the ninth inning, the Cleveland batter was called safe on a ground ball. He was obviously out. The umpire who made the call, Jim Joyce, watched a replay afterwards and admitted he blew it. I mean, he said it was the worst call of his career. He apologized to Galarraga. He was mortified by it. He said I cost the kid a perfect game.

And Galarraga, to his credit, accepted the apology. He told Joyce nobody's perfect. It was a great moment of sportsmanship. Although Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm tweeted that she was issuing a proclamation declaring Galarraga indeed pitched a perfect game. There is one outcome for sure from this - there will be lots of calls for increased instant replay at Major League ballparks.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Nice talking to you.

NPR's sports correspondent, Tom Goldman.

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