LAKERS-CELTS AS GOOD AS IT GETS
After surviving the land of orange - not to mention Sasha Vujacic - the Lakers can finally see green.
Celtic green, that is.
They've avoided the mere mention of the Boston Celtics and the NBA Finals for two weeks now, as inevitable as the matchup seemed to the rest of the world, refusing to look ahead, waving off any talk about the possibility of meeting their long-time nemesis on basketball's biggest stage again.
That all changed Saturday, the Lakers marching into the sea of orange that was US Airways Center in Phoenix, building a 17-point lead through three quarters then avoiding near disaster when Vujacic personally surrendered all momentum to the Suns with a flagrant foul, opening the door for a frantic Phoenix run that cut the lead to three points in the closing minutes.
"I wanted to kill him," Kobe Bryant said of Vujacic.
But Bryant took over from there, saving the day in his usual extraordinary self, scoring nine points over the final 1:59 to finally close the Suns out and send the Lakers back to their third straight NBA Finals.
And none other than the hated Boston Celtics are waiting for them.
You remember the Celtics, right? They sent the Lakers back to Los Angeles in the 2008 Finals with a 39-point thrashing in Game 6, dancing all the way to their 17th championship while embarrassing the Lakers like they've never been humiliated before.
"I have amnesia," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "What year was that again?"
Don't believe him for a minute.
The Lakers remember that loss, that feeling. They lived it, slept with it, wrapped themselves around it and used it to fuel their march to the world championship last year.
It was a hurt they never want to feel again, which explains their dominating run last year, when nothing less than a championship would suffice.
"Nothing feels as bad as losing in the final," Jackson conceded.
And as good as it felt to win their 15th title in franchise history, redeeming themselves from the loss the season before, the fact that it came against the Orlando Magic, not the Celtics, made the victory just a tad less satisfying.
They've waited two long seasons to get their chance at true redemption, to finally erase those memories of walking off the floor in Boston, the victims of a beatdown like no other this franchise has ever experienced.
That chance is here, starting Thursday at Staples Center, which will host the first two games of the series.
The Celtics against the Lakers?
It doesn't get any better than that.
"It means a great deal," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "Not just for me but for the city and the organization and the fans."
Jackson tried to downplay the matchup after Game 6, the old New York Knick in him refusing to give an inch to Boston.
"I don't want to make more of it than it is," Jackson said.
Sorry Phil, that just isn't possible.
Not here, not Los Angeles. And definitely not in Boston, a city that once felt it was its birthright to beat the Lakers in the NBA finals through the 1960s.
From 1959 through 1969, the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals seven times, ripping the heart out of Los Angeles a little more each time.
Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers took two of three series from Larry Bird and the Celtics through the 1980s, but of course the Celtics have the most recent one, and that doesn't sit well in Los Angeles.
Even Jackson understands that, having now experienced the rivalry first-hand.
In fact, last year after the Lakers won the title, Jackson ran into Celtics forward Paul Pierce and had one message for him.
"I told him to get it back and let's meet in the Finals again," Jackson said.
"Obviously it's a huge rivalry," he added.
Surprisingly, almost shockingly, the Celtics did get back.
Written off for dead just over a month ago, looking old and tired during the regular season and not expected to offer much resistance against the Clevelands and Orlandos in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Cetlics have enjoyed a rebirth in this postseason.
They handled both of the Eastern powers with relative ease, first disposing of LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games and then doing the same against the Magic.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were taking care of business out West, the two teams on a collision course for another meeting in the Finals.
But after avoiding the subject while focusing on the conference finals, both can now embrace what everyone in basketball has been openly hoping for and talking about.
"Obviously it's something people in both cities have been anticipating for two weeks now," Jackson said. "And here it is."
Here it is, indeed.
"I'm just looking forward to the challenge of it," Bryant said. "Last time we played them, it was a great lesson for us. It taught us what it took to win a championship."
Now we get to see if what they learned is enough to help them overcome the Celtics.
"We're still a long way away from being where we want to be again," Fisher said. "And that's world champions."
by Vincent Bonsignore
BASEBALL NEWS & NOTES
It's hard to believe that there have been 'only'20 perfect games in MLB history -- and maybe harder to believe that 2010 is the first season since 1880 that they have been a pair of perfect games in the same season.
Now, that's one way to link the names of Oakland A's lefty Dallas Braden and Philadelphia Phillies hurler Roy Halladay with the likes of John Richmond and John Ward who fired perfectos just five days apart some 130 years ago -- or just before Phillies lefty Jamie Moyer threw his first big-league pitch (just kidding).
Halladay's trip into baseball immortality was special for an array of reasons including the fact he came off an 8-3 home loss to Boston in his prior start -- Halladay's worst outing of the season -- and because he had to face three consecutive pinch-hitters in the bottom of the ninth inning including Mike Lamb who launched a long fly ball into deep center field that Phillies CF Shane Victorino tracked down with ease. The Marlins never did get any kind of handle on Halladay as 11 Florida batters were fanned as the perfect game author threw a manageable 115 pitches in all.
Maybe it's only fitting that Halladay did zing his perfect game at the end of a week in which Phillies bats were asleep -- the two-time defending National League champions were shut out in three consecutive games at Citi Field while the erratic New York Mets swept 'em in a three-game set -- and then one night after the Halladay no-no there were the Phils getting blanked again 1-0 by the combo of starter Anibal Sanchez and relievers Taylor Tankersley, Clay Hensley and closer Leo Nunez (10 saves).
Heck, the only run the Phils scored for Halladay was unearned thanks to an error by CF Curtis Maybin.
Think there will be a buzz inside Citizens Bank Park in Philly this Friday night when Halladay squares off with the San Diego Padres?
In other Baseball News & Notes ...
No one was about to say that Cardinals 1B Albert Pujols was 'slumping'but his numbers heading into Sunday's game at Wrigley Field weren't great: A pedestrian (for him) .299 batting average with 9 home runs and 34 RBI but dingers in the first, fifth and ninth inning against the Cubs jacked up all of Pujols' numbers (now reading .310 with 12 HR and 38 RBI) and his fourth career three-home run game got folks to be thinking that 'The Machine'is back.
Pujols and the Cards -- now 29-22 entering Monday's home game against Cincinnati -- have been stagnating for much of this 2010 season and hearing plenty of criticism that they are not quite as good as advertised but you may want to put a little asterisk next to this Memorial Day Weekend Sunday win in Chitown just in case the Redbirds take off from here ...
You can't make this stuff up:
Okay, so by now everyone's aware of that freak broken leg injury suffered by Angels star Kendry Morales following his grand slam bash off the M's this past Saturday afternoon but what were the odds that the Halos would have an opportunity to celebrate another walk-off win on Sunday?
In the strange-but-true department, this time 2B Howie Kendrick crushed a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning in a 9-7 win against Seattle and his hero's welcome at home plate was ultra-subdued stuff -- if it wasn't so sad what happened to Morales (11 HR and 39 RBI and a .290 BA) than the walk-off blast and home-plate celebration on Sunday would have been rather funny but maybe MLB players finally realize just how silly those pile-ups on your teammates can be.
Heck, it probably only cost the Angels a shot at winning the American League West! ...
Finally, is there reason to fret if you're the Tampa Bay Rays (34-17)? Following a brutal three-game home sweep at the hands of the hated Boston Red Sox, the Rays staggered through a four-game series at 'The Trop'against the Chicago White Sox with the teams splitting the four-game set. In Sunday's 8-5 Chisox win, the Rays never really had a chance after RHP James Shields surrendered 7 runs and 11 hits in five-plus innings and already there is chatter regarding a starting staff that may show major wear-and-tear by the time we get to the All-Star Game break.
Shields exited this horror show starter with a still-solid 3.62 ERA but other Tampa Bay starters have appeared a tad weary lately and now there's some injury woes to the everyday crew too as underrated SS Jason Bartlett sat out Sunday's loss with a hamstring injury and he's expected to miss at least another game or two. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon claimed it to be a little 'confounding'that his club has not played as well at home (15-12) than it has on the road (19-5) and so maybe it's a blessing that the Rays are headed to Toronto and then Texas this week.
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