Lakers, Celtics rekindle rivalry, but true test is still months away

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After winning the last two championships, the Lakers have been casting about for inspiration all season. West gave it to them -- prove me wrong, he was saying -- and he did so as the Celtics were on their way to Los Angeles for the first rematch since Game 7 last June.

It's hard to define the importance of regular-season meetings among title contenders. "Once they get between the lines, the outcome of that game makes all the difference in the world to those players," an NBA advance scout said this week, looking ahead to Boston's visit to L.A. on Sunday afternoon. "But two nights later, if the Lakers are playing Minnesota or whoever, they're realizing that game means as much in the standings as the game against the Celtics."

The Lakers and Celtics have met in the Finals five times since 1984, and the outcomes of their regular-season meetings haven't always been helpful:

2009-10: Split regular-season series, L.A. won Finals 4-3

2007-08: Boston swept 2-0, Boston won Finals 4-2

1986-87: L.A. swept 2-0, L.A. won Finals 4-2

1984-85: Split series, L.A. won Finals 4-2

1983-84: L.A. swept 2-0, Boston won Finals 4-3

In the NBA's most important rivalry, each team is most concerned by its own prospects. The Celtics are beginning to work center Kendrick Perkins back into their rotation after losing him to a major knee injury in Game 6 in L.A. They've earned the East's best record despite injuries that have sidelined a half-dozen members of their rotation for at least nine games each. Their focus has been remarkable even as coach Doc Rivers complains of "slippage" in their execution because he has been making do with a different mixture week after week.

"We do a lot of skeleton stuff over and over again, which is extremely boring and monotonous," Rivers said after practice Monday. "We've done more skeleton work than we've ever done but we do it at full speed, game-like, because we don't have enough guys to go up against each other. I'll say this: Our veterans -- Ray [Allen], Paul [Pierce], Kevin [Garnett], [Rajon] Rondo -- have been terrific in understanding the situation we're in. Like today, we had a good practice because of them and their focus. They knew we weren't going to be here long, but they got through stuff."

Has Lakers coach Phil Jackson had as much cooperation? The Lakers were never going to be as energized after earning so much positive reinforcement over the last two postseasons. The Celtics have been hungry all year following the distress of their Games 6-7 collapse in L.A., while the ever-confident Lakers have been wondering when and how to begin ramping up for yet another title run.

Everything comes easily for the Lakers. They've given minimal effort, by their own standards -- they're 0-3 against the Spurs, Heat and Mavericks -- and yet they've delivered the league's third-best record. Despite West's objections, through Thursday they ranked No. 3 in field-goal defense (43.7 percent), one spot ahead of Boston (43.8 percent). While they have a lot of high-mileage players, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher are the only contributing Lakers who are past their prime ages, and Bryant is still averaging 24.9 points as he looks forward to launching another postseason run.

"I think Phil actually likes this," a pro personnel scout said of the Lakers' malaise (if in fact a team that has won 10 of its last 12 can be accused of melancholy). "It builds some adversity into their season. It gives him something to talk about and it gives them something to fight against."

The big difference in the rivalry is the appearance of Shaquille O'Neal in the enemy green of the Celtics, which will be a jarring image for some Laker fans. Allen has been terrific all year after being limited during the Finals by a deep thigh bruise inflicted by Ron Artest. But I'll be most interested in the matchup at power forward after seeing Garnett be outrebounded 18-3 in Game 7 by Pau Gasol. Garnett has since recovered from 2009 knee surgery and is averaging 8.9 rebounds while reclaiming his defensive leadership of the Celtics. Can Boston compete in the paint and on the boards this time? The result Sunday will be interesting, but it will be nothing close to a final (of Finals) answer.

The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

If Roger Goodell is willing to take $1 in salary in the case of an NFL lockout next season, then what do you think would be a good salary for me? Is he keeping benefits? What about stock options? A 401(k)? I can't imagine he'll be flying commercial.-- D.S., New York

David Stern, the big difference I notice between your league and Goodell's, is that the NFL is openly worried about the impact of a lockout next season, while the NBA is looking forward to creating a new financial structure at the expense of a lockout. The NFL is No. 1 in fan support and doesn't want to surrender that platform while inviting the audience to turn negative.

My impression of your league is that an extended lockout will be worthwhile in exchange for the creation of a new revenue-sharing plan that gives owners more control over the players. Many of your owners have paid big money for their franchises in exchange for annual operating losses (17 NBA teams lost money last year, according to Forbes magazine) created by a system that rewards the richest payrolls. Comments from Goodell and his owners suggest confidence that the NFL can negotiate a new bargaining agreement without missing games next season, but I sense your owners are looking forward to an era of financial relief with an understanding it can be achieved only by crushing the players during a lockout.

How will it look if I decide to sign the extension with New Jersey? Will I go down as a flip-flopper? Everybody knows I want to be a Knick. But let's be realistic, I may not have that choice.-- C.A., Denver

Carmelo Anthony, based on what you told me two weeks ago and reiterated to the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman recently, you want to sign a three-year, $65 million extension before that offer expires in July and leaves you with the possibility of an ensuing offer that could be worth much less than $50 million. If that should happen, you will have to admit you messed up in a very expensive way.

Let's say the Nuggets approach you on the morning of the Feb. 24 trade deadline with two options: They'll move you either to Houston (or another team willing to rent you out in the short term) or to New Jersey. Are you going to turn down the $65 million because it isn't coming from the Knicks?

The problem with your ability to force a trade to the Knicks is that everyone doubts your willingness to forego the $65 million extension in order to sign with New York for much less money as a free agent this summer. You can't make the threat of signing only with the Knicks unless you're willing to see through that threat. And the reason why you haven't made that threat, from everything I can gather, is because you're too smart to throw away so much money.

I understand any hesitation you might have had a month before the deadline about committing to New Jersey, because you could have been hoping the Knicks (or Bulls) would have been able to acquire you. Maybe the Knicks will yet be able to make a competitive offer that satisfies the Nuggets and enables them to trade you to New York.

But I don't believe the Nets have lost all interest in dealing for you. They had good reasons for pursuing you for so many months, and those reasons still exist. If the Nets can push through a trade for the same terms or less than they were offering a couple of weeks ago, when owner Mikhail Prokhorov cut off the negotiations, then Prokhorov will be credited for seizing control of the process.

It's reasonable to predict your point of view will change at the deadline. If the Nuggets make you a take-or-leave-it opportunity that involves committing to the Nets while leaving you no time to pursue further options, are you really going to turn down the $65 million?

What exactly is the future of my team? Is it going to be in New Orleans after this season? Who is going to buy us? Is the next owner going to move the team to another city? Is Chris Paul like to say? I'm asking because I can be a free agent after the season, and I'd like to have some idea of my future prospects here.-- D.W., New Orleans

David West, there are no answers to your questions. Fans in New Orleans purchased enough tickets to forego an option that could have released the Hornets from their lease this summer, and the state government may be willing to provide a sweetheart deal on a future lease. But the next owner of the team -- which is currently being held by the NBA -- may have plans to move the Hornets to a larger market that is willing to match or beat any offer made by Louisiana to keep them in New Orleans Arena.

I hear speculation from rival teams that the Hornets may consider trading you before you can walk this summer, but I can't foresee the NBA participating in a deal that would weaken the team and hasten its departure from New Orleans. Plus, if you were to go, Paul -- who calls you his closest friend in the league -- would probably be out the door right behind you.

How to build an NBA arena.This comes from Magic president Alex Martins, who presided over the design and construction of the new 18,500-seat Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

"It starts far ahead of putting the shovel in the ground. The research and design started 10 years ago. We visited and studied just about every arena facility in North America, and some outside North America. We wanted to structurally determine what kind of sight lines and seating bowl we were most interested in from a fan perspective, primarily for basketball, although our charge was to create a building that was flexible enough to host any event. We also wanted to find the best elements that were out there in terms of fan amenities. We wanted to know what to do and what not to do, what worked and what didn't work.

"It wasn't until we combined all of that research together that we engaged an architect. We selected Populous, and one of the first things we did with them -- along with our partners, the city of Orlando -- was to go up to New York and data-dump all of the research we'd done. We discussed what our priorities were, what we wanted this building to be, all of the design elements.

"That was step 1 -- the research and development. Step 2 was to develop the right team of professionals who have done this kind of thing before. That meant bringing together the right architect, the right construction manager, the right program manager -- someone from their industry who knows all of the shortcuts and where all of the bones are buried so they don't get buried in our building.

"Then it was a matter of building it and living with the challenges of building anything. Everything looks great on paper until you have to get out there and build it. The worst thing we did have was a crane that collapsed because a cable snapped, but nobody was in its way. Construction had just started in the upper bowl, but it was minimal damage and it didn't delay us at all.

"One of the ideas we picked up from another arena was the kids' interactive zone and play area in Phoenix [at the Suns' US Airways Center]. We implemented that in our building and we believe it's as good as any play area for kids in the country, and we've gotten rave feedback on it.

"For a restaurant, I would point to the Toyota Center in Houston as our benchmark for the manner in which they exposed their multi-tier restaurant into the bowl area. It provides visual access so you can be eating dinner and watching the game. That was one we really loved, it was something we wanted to duplicate and we put our own touches on it.

"For our seating bowl, I would have to point to Conseco Fieldhouse (in Indianapolis) because Conseco, more so than any other NBA facility, has unique sightlines that were especially designed for basketball. We could have an NHL team in our building -- it's designed for that, it's prepared for that -- but I don't think anybody would tell you it would have the best sightlines in the NHL. But most people would tell you we have some of the best sightlines for the NBA because it was designed for that, in the way we pinched in the corners behind the basket, and in the grade and steepness in the middle and upper sections -- you really feel as if you're on top of the action.

"Denver's Pepsi Center had this concept of a bar that anybody in the building could have access to, and while you're at the bar you had that visual access -- so you could be standing at a drink rail and not miss any of the action live. We found that intriguing because one of our principles was to develop the arena for all levels of ticket buyer. That's how we developed the Budweiser Baseline Bar -- people will buy a $5-10 ticket but stand at the bar and they've improved their position, because the far is finished in a way would see a club-level bar.

"In a lot of these buildings in warm-weather climates they tried to work with outdoor spaces. We saw that most warm-weather cities tried it, and what we found is they weren't being utilized and a lot of them were abandoned over time. Most of them were outfitted with barstools and high-top tables. We felt we had to make it compelling for people to utilize the outdoor space, that we had to give it a high-end feel so it would compete not just with other spaces in our building but it would also compete with some of the best club-level environments in downtown Orlando. We feel that our Gentleman Jack Terrace is the equivalent of a W Hotel rooftop-type bar. It is an open-air environment with swanky furnishings and a great view of downtown Orlando, and it's one of the most popular spaces in the building. People have stayed there late after games.

"Our goal was to not only build the premiere facility in North America, if not the world, but to make sure we were prepared to operate it that way as well. One of the unsung components of how we have had early success was our decision to engage Walt Disney World to do customer service training with every employee in the building -- every ticket-taker, every concession worker and every Magic employee went through the customer service module with Walt Disney. Of everything, I get comments on, the No. 1 element is how great the service is and how radically different the touch points are compared to the staff from the old building."

• With an NBA team executive.On 6-foot-2 senior guard Jimmer Fredette of BYU (27.4 points per game, including three 40-point performances in his last four games): "Absolutely he's going to play in this league. He is Mark Price. You can't go to Arizona and get 49 [as Fredette did last year]. Utah-BYU is like Oklahoma State-Oklahoma, it's like Auburn-Alabama: They hate each other. And he goes to Utah [on Jan. 11] and gets 47. He's a killer.

"I'm not saying he's a starter, but to have a guy come off your bench when you're in one of those four-games-in-five-nights stretches and your veterans are tired and he's saying I can score -- I can't guard you but you can't guard me either -- that's valuable. I hear all of these [NBA] guys dismissing him because he's too small, he can't do this or that, and that's the problem with the way people evaluate players: All of the talk is about what a guy can't do. Let's accent the fact that this guy shoots three feet beyond the college three-point line, that he's shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line, that he gets to the foul line and he competes. He goes at his own teammates, his coaches, referees, opponents, because he's a competitive little bastard.

"Look, I'm not taking him at No. 10. But if he's there at No. 25, he's on my team because he's the first guy to practice and the last to leave. I've heard the talk that he's going somewhere in the second round, that he can't do it at the NBA level. OK, we'll see."

• With Nuggets coach George Karl.On his affinity for "crazy" players: "There is a theory that you can have one bad apple, but you can't have two. Then there are some people who might say you need at least one bad apple, you can handle two and you might need three, because there are not enough players.

"Me, I've always been one of the guys who have taken the crazies and done a good job with them. I like the crazies a little more than most people, because they have similar things to what I have even though I went to North Carolina. And don't get me wrong, I still believe in character. But because you have a tattoo or because you wear crazy hair or because you wear your emotions too far outside your body, you get labeled. I know, because I still read articles about 'the wild and crazy George Karl, the emotionally unstable George Karl.' When was the last time wild and crazy happened in my career? It was like 15 years ago."

• With a team executive.On judging the draft: "I thought DeMarcus Cousins was the No. 2 player in the draft [last year]. Evan Turner is still going to be a good player; it's just that he's not a good fit in Philly. What is unfair is that it's such an opportunity league that favors guys who have a chance to play. There are good players who don't have a chance to play. It was like after the Kevin Love-O.J. Mayo trade [in the 2008 draft] -- a year or two after that, everybody thought O.J. Mayo was the best player in that trade and that it was one-sided for Memphis. But clearly now you can see that trade was one-sided for Minnesota. So sometimes you have to wait a while to find out."

Through the eyes of Phoenix 6-6 swingman Mickael Pietrus.Now 28, Pietrus was born and raised on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. By the time he was 7, he was watching the weekly NBA game on television for any scenes he could catch of his hero Michael Jordan.

"I would like to meet him one day and to thank him for what he does for me, and for getting me into basketball," Pietrus said. "When I was 7, I was watching the All-Star Game to see the new shoes he was wearing. I could not afford them because my mom and my dad, they didn't have any money to give them to me as a gift."

So he showed his devotion in other ways. "I was crazy about Jordan," he said. "I remember back then I used to go to the grocery store with my mom. I would go get the toothbrush and on the back the label would say Jordan [the company name]. I used to carry the label and put it on my shirt."

Pietrus was the middle of three brothers who loved basketball and would grow up to play for the French championship club Pau-Orthez, as Mickael did when he moved to France at 15. Mickael was 9 when his mother died. "She had an illness," he said. "It was tough for me. When I lost my mom, I didn't really have any direction. But I really liked the way Michael Jordan carried himself on the floor and off the floor, too, so I was trying to do the same."

Pietrus didn't begin to play organized basketball until he was 12. For years before, however, he would try to mimic Jordan with a soccer ball or tennis ball.

"I was watching him and I didn't have any skills, but I was trying to do the same moves, the same stuff," he said. "Just trying to be like him. My whole thing was Jordan. My whole thing.

"I used to watch him at 10 o'clock on Wednesday night, because that was when they were showing the NBA game. My grandmother didn't even know that I was watching Michael Jordan, because she would have yelled at me. The thing is he made a great impact on my life, and that is the reason that I'm trying to be the best basketball player that I can be and trying to be in his way."

Once Pietrus was introduced to organized basketball, he was waking up at 6 a.m. and in the gym to practice for an hour each morning before school. What was the global impact of the NBA in the 1980s and 1990s? Mickael Pietrus would say it was enormous. He would become the No. 11 pick of the 2003 draft by the Warriors, and he would play in the 2009 NBA Finals with the Magic. Someday he would like to win a championship, and he would also like to meet his role model.

"I'm very happy that I followed his leadership when I was young," said Pietrus, fully aware that other French children may now dream of following him. "Hopefully somebody is going to do the same by watching me."

The New and the Old. While trying to grasp at which age old players grow too old, I put together a couple of All-Star teams. If they were to meet in a game, which side would win? (I'd favor the old ones myself.)

22 years old or younger

C Brook Lopez, 22 years oldPF Blake Griffin, 21SF Kevin Durant, 22SG Eric Gordon, 22PG Derrick Rose, 22C Serge Ibaka, 21PF Kevin Love, 22SF Michael Beasley, 21SF Nicolas Batum, 22PG Russell Westbrook, 22PG Stephen Curry, 22G Tyreke Evans, 21

14 years or more in the NBA

C Tim Duncan, 14 years experiencePF Kevin Garnett, 16SF Grant Hill, 15 (94 draft)SG Kobe Bryant, 15PG Steve Nash, 15C Shaquille O'Neal, 19PF Marcus Camby, 15PF Kurt Thomas, 16SG Ray Allen, 15SG Tracy McGrady, 14PG Jason Kidd, 17PG Chauncey Billups, 14