For the first time in over 20 years, the Los Angeles Lakers go to Boston without Kobe Bryant on the roster.
The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers provide the NBA with its most famous and most meaningful rivalry. The rivalry gained steam in the 1960s, when Bill Russell's Celtics beat up on Wilt Chamberlain's Lakers, renewed in the 1980s with Magic and Bird, and completed its latest chapter in the new millennium with Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce.
In all, the Celtics and Lakers have met in the NBA Finals 12 times, starting with 1959 and most recently in 2010. Boston leads the head-to-head series 9-3, but the Lakers have won three of the last four meetings in the NBA Finals.
While the current Boston Celtics are second in the Eastern Conference and look well ahead of schedule, a return to the NBA Finals would be a surprise for Brad Stevens' group. Even more surprising than the Celtics making the Finals would be Luke Walton's Lakers making the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Entering Friday's game, the Lakers have fewer wins, 17, than the Celtics have losses, 18, but those numbers being comparable speaks to the current divide between the two teams. However, the Lakers and Celtics have a great deal in common, starting with their young coaches.
Stevens was a fresh 37-year-old coach back when he coached his first NBA game in 2013. Similarly, Walton is 37 and in his first season as an NBA head coach. Three years from now, the Lakers would love to be competing with the elite of their conference. In Stevens' first season, the Celtics missed the playoffs and finished with a 25-57 record, which is about where the 17-35 Lakers are headed in the current season.
The Celtics have been buoyed by a weak Eastern Conference that has consistently allowed Boston to gain invaluable playoff experience over recent seasons, as Boston snuck into the 2015 NBA playoffs despite finishing with a losing record. A year later, the Celtics finished with a winning mark and tied for the third best record in the conference.
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Consistently, the Celtics have improved under Stevens, and the emergence of MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas has a great deal to do with the recent jump in status. Thomas is averaging 29.7 points and 6.4 assists per game for the season and enters Tuesday's game with back-to-back 40-point games in his back pocket. The 27-year-old has been a man possessed recently and averaged 32.9 points and 6.9 assists per game in January. Thanks to Thomas, the Celtics enter Friday's rivalry game on a five-game winning streak.
The Lakers are also excited about the recent play of their point guard, D'Angelo Russell. The 20-year-old set career-highs in assists in back-to-back contests following a short spell on the sidelines due to a knee injury.
In his young career, the point guard had never recorded more than eight assists in a game prior to Tuesday night. Then, the former Ohio State Buckeye seemed to unlock the NBA puzzle and set a new career high with 10 assists and 22 points in a win over Denver, following that up with 17 points and 11 assists in the loss to Washington Thursday night.
In both games, the guard pulled down seven rebounds, hinting that a triple-double could be just over the horizon. Getting the first career triple-double against the Celtics in a surprise win would certainly endear Russell to the Lakers' fan base. The Lakers and Celtics is a rivalry game, after all.
For one game, records go out the window, as does all talk of "tanking" for a draft pick. For one game, at least, all Lakers' fans will be unified in cheering for a victory.
The Lakers and Celtics tip-off at 5 p.m. Pacific Time.