Wednesday June 2nd, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- The difference between then and now is conveyed by Kobe Bryant. Back then, in the 2008 Finals, he was still experimenting with his captaincy, following his demand for a trade out of Los Angeles the preceding summer. How was he supposed to preside over so many teammates who had so much to learn? Act too much the hard man and he might lose them, drum the confidence and hope right out of them.

Now he wastes little time worrying. After he sees teammate Sasha Vujacic commit the dumbest foul to invite a fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6 of the West finals, this is what Bryant says: "I'm going to kill him." He says it with a glance out of his eyes' corners, and a grin more menacing than impish.

This NBA Finals rematch of the Lakers and Celtics will not pick up where the last one left off, because too much has changed. But the outcome and consequences of 2008 live on to define each team and all of its important players. This may be the most important result: That after the 39-point loss to finish off the Lakers in Game 6 at Boston, Bryant turned into himself. Over the last two years, he has shown decreasing concern for what teammates and others might think while he has simply demanded excellence in pursuit of the larger team goals.

He commands without fear of hurt feelings. He understands that winning is the motherhood of popularity, and that each championship justifies the means. He has discovered his own form of sincerity -- cursing in postgame interviews, making crass comments, no longer seeking to emulate the universally beloved personality of Michael Jordan. He knows it is working because his fourth ring is less than a year old and the fifth may be a fortnight away.

The difference between then and now is conveyed by Rajon Rondo, who, two years ago, was expected to follow rather than lead. "The game we came back from being down 24," said Boston coach Doc Rivers of Game 4 of the '08 Finals at Los Angeles, "Rondo didn't play the entire fourth quarter. We took him out because of his shooting. We had Eddie [House] on the floor and [James] Posey, we went small and we put all shooting on the floor."

The dynamic between the point and his teammates has changed altogether since then. The Celtics appeared to be aging exponentially this season as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce limped upon bad knees into April. But Rondo's emerging command provided balance to their age. He carried the team when they weren't able, he renewed their faith in winning another championship with one spearheading drive after another against the favored Cavaliers, and he even turned into a finisher when the offense was played through Pierce or Garnett or Ray Allen.

"I want to feel that way," said Rondo when asked if he is extending the careers of his elder teammates. "I want those guys to play for an even longer time. I want them to feel like, 'If I play with Rondo I'll play a couple of more years -- it's not as much wear-and-tear on my body as it was for years before; I don't have to work as hard for my shots, he's giving me easier looks; I don't have to create every shot for myself because he's doing it for me; I just have to stand over here and knock the shot down.' If they're thinking that, then it will put a couple of more years on their careers."

Will it put another ring on their fingers?

Not if Pau Gasol has his way. The difference since '08 is conveyed by the Lakers' power forward, who was cursed as soft while Garnett was averaging 18.2 points and 12 rebounds in the '08 Finals. That criticism is a challenge he continues to answer, evidenced by his pivotal defense in last year's Finals against Dwight Howard and with the 20.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 blocks he has maintained throughout this postseason. This rematch with Boston is Gasol's opportunity, once and for all, to prove he is the reliable secondary star Bryant lacked two years ago.

The difference is conveyed by Paul Pierce, who needs to win another championship to join the numerous Celtic legends who rank ahead of him. Two years ago, he was Finals MVP at the expense of Vladimir Radmanovic; now he must deal with the brute defense of Ron Artest.

It is just as surely conveyed by Artest, the one player in either team's rotation who does not own a championship ring. The Lakers' ambition is measured by their willingness to gamble on signing Artest last summer, knowing he would be needed in a potential Finals rematch against Pierce.

It is conveyed by Garnett, who has worked too hard over the last year to rehabilitate his knee for the work to go to waste.

It is conveyed by Bynum, injured for a third straight postseason -- and absent from the '08 Finals -- who has put off knee surgery in hope of making an impact this time.

It is conveyed by Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins, who fill out a Celtics starting five that has yet to lose a playoff series when intact; and it is conveyed by Derek Fisher, who, like Bryant, is seeking a fifth championship -- and a first against Boston.

Can the Celtics match the hunger of their opponents? The Lakers' ambition to atone makes them the antagonists in this drama, the aggressors. The individual circumstances have changed over the last two years, but the larger dynamic is no different than it was in the eras of Bill Russell or Magic Johnson. Do these Celtics own this rivalry, or will these Lakers avenge 2008? Each side will be defined by the next two weeks.

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