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Well, this is it! The NBA Finals everyone had been hoping for; the series that had the greatest bite at capturing viewers from all across the country.

It’s the Lakers-Celtics, again, for the 12th time in NBA history and for the second time in three years.

In their storied franchise histories, the Lakers have been to 10 more Finals, but Boston has won two more championships. Altogether, that’s 32 rings combined for these two teams.

“After we came back in the playoffs last year, I ran into Paul Pierce in a complex . . . in L.A.,” said Coach Phil Jackson, “I said, ‘Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals.’ So here it is.”

That series two years ago gave a rude awakening to the favored Lakers that they were a bit soft and not tough enough. The Celtics totally outplayed and out-muscled them in nearly every facet, but somehow this year’s version of the Lakers seem more equipped to deal with adversity and play tougher on the road.

Kobe Bryant is still his great self and now has one ring alone – without Shaquille O’Neal – maturing into that confident team leader. Pau Gasol plays with a different type of toughness than we saw in 2008, thanks to Bryant’s constant prodding, making him that way. Andrew Bynum, despite gimpy on one leg, provides that extra big man inside that wasn’t present in the first meeting.

The biggest upgrade in the toughness mindset has been the addition of Ron Artest, a player who appeared not to fit in throughout the season, but has since made a huge splash in the playoffs. In each of the three series – all culminating with tough Laker road wins – Artest elevated his game to new heights for the Lakers, increasing his scoring and rebound totals with each new team they faced.

The biggest difference with this year’s Celtics team and the team that won two years ago is age, and we’re not just talking about the long toothed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Rajon Rondo is two years more mature and has taken over this team. He’s gone from averaging 29 minutes, 5 assists and 10 points a game in 2008 to 37, 9.8 and nearly 14 per game this season.

He’s always been a tenacious defender, but now he’s got the respect of the officials who know him and allow a little more hand jive without calling the fouls.

Kevin Garnett had his lowest scoring average (14.3) and minutes played per game (29.9) this season since his rookie year, but keeping him fresh for the playoffs never became more important than the Cleveland series, where he looked like the Garnett from 10 years ago.

When the Celtics were down 2-1 to the Cavaliers, Garnett put the team on his back while waiting for others like Paul Pierce to show up.

When Pierce finally showed up for the Magic series, sprinkled in with a few Ray Allen sightings, Orlando really had no chance. The Celtics that had struggled down the stretch of regular season, appearing to limp into the playoffs, have come full circle to somewhat resemble that great team from two years ago.

The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book has opened the series price with the Lakers a minus-180 favorite with Celtics getting back plus-165, based largely on the Lakers having one more home game should the series go seven games.

“We’ve been getting some action on the Lakers already to win the series,” said the Hilton’s Jeff Sherman. “We’ve moved the line slightly to (minus)-185. Considering they were (minus)-200 against Boston in 2008 when they didn’t have home court advantage, no Bynum or Artest in the lineup, the price looks kind of cheap to me. It’s almost like the Lakers have the same team, except they have championship experience and two really good players as additions.”

Game one has the Lakers as 5.5-point favorites with a total of 193. The total is nearly 30 points less than what we saw a few of the games reach in the Suns-Lakers series.

If looking at the two regular season matchups between the two teams, you won’t find many closer games, or any more reason not to believe this is going to be a tight brawl. The Lakers won the Jan. 31 matchup 90-89 at Boston thanks to a late, cold-blooded, Kobe shot to win the game.

The Celtics returned the favor by winning at the Staples Center 87-86 on Feb. 18, a game that Kobe Bryant missed due to a sprained ankle. In that game, Ray Allen was the difference with 24 points. Despite Bryant being out, the Lakers had won five straight up to that point without him.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Lakers come out in sync fired up to win easily in game one and send the game way over the listed total against maybe a too well rested Celtics. Game two would seem to be the money game and determine where this series goes. If the Celtics steal that game and head to Boston tied, the Lakers may find themselves down 3-2 heading back to Los Angeles for the final two games.

I hate to go against Bryant, but I believe the Celtics will get the Lakers to play their game in at least five of the games, forcing the Lakers to do things they don’t want to. This year’s Lakers are tougher than the past, but they still lack a nice offensive rhythm to keep key players like Lamar Odom’s head in the game. I’ll take the older guys to win in six.


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