LOS ANGELES, June 2 – Kobe Bryant powers the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers into an NBA Finals showdown against the Boston Celtics, who seek a repeat of their 2008 title victory over the Lakers.The Celtics have beaten the Lakers in the finals nine times and lost only twice, but the history that has made this the NBA’s most legendary rivalry will not matter when the best-of-seven showdown starts Thursday at Los Angeles.
"Celtics-Lakers means more to each guy because of the history, even to the young guys," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But 2008 was 2008. We’re not going to lean a lot on that. They are a totally different team."
Bryant remains the spark for the Lakers, who have won 15 titles in club history, second only to the 17 captured by the Celtics.
"You love him if he’s with your team and you don’t like him when he’s on the other team," Rivers said of Bryant. "He has the ability to drive himself and will shots (into the basket)."
Boston has only lost three times in a final, but two of those were in 1985 and 1987 to the Lakers.
"I want to go out and win a championship again," said Boston star and 2008 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Paul Pierce. "So many things motivate you in the finals."
The Lakers might take motivation from the last game of the 2008 final, when new arrivals Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Pierce in claiming Boston’s first title since 1986 with a 131-92 rout.
"Everybody on our team remembers what happened," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said.
Bryant looks back at that loss as a turning point for his club, which beat Orlando in last year’s final and will try to become the first repeat champion since the Lakers won three in a row from 2000-2002.
"They taught us what it takes to win," Bryant said. "We have what it takes to win – in terms of defense, energy and rebounding – more than we had two years ago."
A fifth NBA title in 11 years for Bryant and the Lakers would give him one more than former Laker star Shaquille O’Neal, who left the club after joining Bryant in the "Three-peat" and won a crown with Miami.
Bryant, already the Lakers’ all-time scoring leader at age 31, would cement his legacy among the all-time Laker greats like Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It will be a third trip to the NBA Finals in three Laker seasons for Pau Gasol, the Spanish seven-footer who replaced "Shaq" as the vital Laker big man.
"We were young in a lot of spots," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of the 2008 Lakers. "This team is mature now and experienced."
And still getting better, according to veteran Derek Fisher.
"We’re learning more about what it takes to be the best," Fisher said. "We’re not looking at it that we have the advantage because we are ‘smarter’ than we were then. There has been a natural evolution since then."
Boston’s Rasheed Wallace has suffered back spasms and is questionable for game one while Bynum had fluid drained from his right knee on Monday
"I’m out there for whatever they ask me to do, any amount of minutes," Bynum said. "You don’t come this far just to say, ‘OK, I can’t go any more.’"
The Lakers have a new weapon in Ron Artest, whose five-year deal for 33 million dollars will pay dividends in defending Pierce.
"Pierce is a very tough matchup," Bryant said. "He’s one of the few players that has a long ball, that has mid-range game, can get to the basket. I think that makes him tough to cover, but Ron is up to the challenge."
Artest, who once pulled down Pierce shorts while defending him for Indiana, exchanged elbows with Pierce ahead of an opening jump ball this season in a 90-89 Lakers’ win at Boston in which Pierce hit only 4-of-11 from the field.
"He makes them tougher," Rivers said. "Bynum makes them tougher. I think winning makes them tougher.
"In ’08, you had two teams that hadn’t won. You’re still trying to find your way. We found our way and then last year they found their way. Now you have two teams that know how to win a title and they’re going to play each other."