NBA Finals: Celtics, Lakers to Meet in 1987 Rematch

It will be just like old times when the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics meet Thursday in the first game of the NBA finals. The Celtics are back in the finals for the first time since losing to the Lakers in 1987.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The NBA finals get underway this Thursday, but basketball fans already are buzzing about the match up: L.A. Lakers versus Boston Celtics. After a 21-year break, the NBA's greatest rivalry resumes in the championship round. Here to talk about it is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hello, good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So this NBA finals match up, it bridges not just years, but several generations of basketball fans.

GOLDMAN: It really does, and that's why league officials love this series between the Lakers and the Celtics. Today's fans get to see several of the league's best players: most valuable player Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, then you've got Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the ever-demonstrative and chest-pounding Kevin Garnett of the Celtics.

Now for those who love their basketball in the 1980s, when players wore really short shorts and people didn't laugh at them, the NBA then was all about the Magic Johnson-led Lakers versus the Larry Bird Celtics who squared off three times in the finals during the decade. And then you can go back another 20 years, the 1960s, the time that, you know, we now remember with black-and-white footage, when the Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor squared off against the Celtics of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek.

You know, the '60s really defined the rivalry. The two teams met in the finals six times in eight years, and the Celtics won each time.

MONTAGNE: And this match up is something of a surprise in the sense that at the very beginning of the season, neither of these teams looked like they were headed this way.

GOLDMAN: That is absolutely right. Boston finished with the second-worst record in the league last season, and the Lakers, in the off-season, they almost lost Kobe Bryant. And if they lost Kobe Bryant, they wouldn't be anything.

He was upset because he didn't think the team was trying to get any better by getting better players, and what happened was is that the general managers for both teams went out and made big trades.

In Boston, they went and got Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join with Paul Pierce, and they form now Boston's big three, and they led the Celtics to the best record this year. So they went from second worst last year to best this year.

And then the Lakers kind of waited out Kobe. They weren't going to trade him unless they got something really good in return, and no team was going to put up what that required. So they hung onto Kobe, the season started, and then their general manager made a couple of very important trades.

They got the big player, Pau Gasol, and they also brought back Derrick Fisher, and so the Lakers really took off. And you know, as you know in L.A., Renee, they brought the stars back to the Staples Center. It wasn't just Jack Nicholson out there on the court. All the other stars, Antonio Banderas, Cameron Dias, Adam Sandler, they all started showing up.

MONTAGNE: And from my perch, I'm happy to say that the Lakers are favored.

GOLDMAN: Yes, yes. That…

MONTAGNE: Barely, barely - but they're favored.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: They are favored. They probably have a deeper team, more players who can contribute. And they've got Kobe Bryant, who really right now is the one player in the NBA who can take over a game by himself.

The Celtics play great defense, though. These great three players I've been talking about, they've bought in to this whole idea of playing strong defense and sharing the ball, and they're very tough at home. So they could make it very close.

MONTAGNE: And this series is a - you might call it a crowning moment of a great year and a big difference from last year.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it really was. It was a rough year last season for the NBA. The finals were, you know, one-sided and rather boring, and there was the big referee-betting-on-games scandal and generally low TV ratings. But this season, the league has really, you can say, been resurgent: exciting teams, exciting individual performances. And then on top of all that, you bring back the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and the NBA's loving it.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

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