EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The NBA finals seemed to go on forever last summer, stretching through seven games over two weeks until the exhausted Los Angeles Lakers finally edged the injury-depleted Boston Celtics with their last gasp in the final quarter.
After seven months to recover, the rivals finally are ready to go at each other again.
When they meet Sunday on the same Staples Center court where the Lakers won their 16th title and denied the Celtics their 18th, their epic shared history always looms in the background. They've won more than half of the NBA's total championships and met in 12 NBA finals, including two of the past three.
The franchises' generational animosity has been rekindled, as anybody could tell last June. Just don't expect them to acknowledge it in late January.
"Playing them doesn't really bring up anything extra," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said with a shrug.
Yet the unfriendliness of this rivalry manifests itself in weird, subtle ways: According to a widespread Internet rumor backed up by photos from the manufacturer, Kevin Garnett is expected to wear a special pair of green, suede-covered shoes with "152-120" embroidered on the tongue.
That's the Celtics' overall winning record against the Lakers.
Boston added another spicy element to the rivalry in the offseason by signing Shaquille O'Neal, who won three titles and the NBA finals MVP awards in Los Angeles. Yet the Celtics' 38-year-old backup center is hardly the biggest concern for the Lakers — not with both teams struggling to stay consistent during the grind leading up to the All-Star break.
Both are coming off embarrassing losses Friday night. The Lakers played horribly at home against lowly Sacramento, while Garnett and Celtics coach Doc Rivers were ejected while Boston scored a season-low 71 points in Phoenix. Garnett escaped suspension for hitting Phoenix's Channing Frye in the groin area, with the NBA saying it isn't looking into the matter but is still reviewing Rivers' actions.
The Celtics, who flew into Los Angeles late Saturday, still lead the Eastern Conference at 35-11, while the Lakers are comfortably in second place in the West at 33-14, well behind overall NBA leader San Antonio.
The Lakers went through a 2½-hour practice at their training complex in El Segundo on Saturday, but not due to extra preparation for the Celtics. They usually spend the first part of practice correcting the mistakes of their last game, and that portion was extra-long after Friday's 100-95 loss to the 11-win Kings, likely the most embarrassing night of the Lakers' season.
"We've had some tough losses that kind of jump out at you, but it's just about being more consistent," Bryant said. "(We're) right where we need to be."
While the Celtics have showed more consistency than the Lakers this season, Los Angeles hasn't risen to the level of its high-profile showcases. Most notably, the Lakers flopped in a 96-80 Christmas loss to Miami, with Bryant lamenting, "It's like these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us."
The Lakers responded in their biggest game of last season, although they still realize they were fortunate to hang on for an 83-79 victory in Game 7, rallying from a 13-point deficit in the second half. It's tough to look back fondly on such an ugly victory, even if it's one of the biggest wins in Lakers history.
"It was a tough one, sure, having to come back the way we did and taking it from them the way we did," said Bryant, who infamously went 6 for 24 in Game 7.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he didn't mention Game 7 or show any clips to his players Saturday, instead using video from Game 6 — a blowout Lakers win — to illustrate a few defensive concepts he expects his team to embrace.
"They have good shooters, and they get the ball in the right people's hands," Jackson said. "This is a new year. That's a long time ago, with basketball."
Fisher doesn't see O'Neal's decision to sign with the Celtics as a betrayal of anything they accomplished with Bryant a decade ago, largely because Boston wasn't those Lakers' biggest rival. The Celtics missed the playoffs during the Lakers' title runs in 2000 and 2001, then lost to New Jersey in the 2002 Eastern Conference finals.
"The years we were here, the Celtics' mystique wasn't really where it has got back to," Fisher said. "We basically played them once every nine months, and that was the extent of the rivalry."
O'Neal and Bryant appear to be on friendly terms now, the jealousies of the past decade largely ignored publicly — aside from an occasional sarcastic comment. When asked after Game 7 what a fifth title meant to him, Bryant immediately noted he has one more ring than Shaq.
Although O'Neal's No. 34 jersey is likely to hang alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's No. 33 and Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13 in the Staples Center rafters, the Lakers don't begrudge him returning in green.
"I don't think it's too weird," Bryant said. "I don't really hold too much significance to the fact that he's playing with the Celtics. I don't think Lakers fans as a whole are. I don't think it's that big of a deal."