By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two years after being outmuscled and outplayed in the NBA Finals by their arch-rivals the Boston Celtics, the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers have a perfect opportunity for redemption, starting this week.
The Lakers have come a long way since their humiliation in 2008 when they were mauled 131-92 by the Celtics in the decisive Game Six at Boston Garden.
They went on to win the 2009 NBA championship, outclassing the Orlando Magic 4-1, and stiffened their defense during the off-season by acquiring volatile forward Ron Artest from the Houston Rockets.
Artest, a formidable defender known for his physical presence, is likely to guard Boston's Paul Pierce in the upcoming series, an intriguing match-up between two players who are six-foot seven.
The Lakers also have the advantage of seven-foot center Andrew Bynum, who two years ago was sidelined with a knee injury. Although Bynum is still struggling with injuries, he has been ever-present in the playoffs and will start Thursday.
"We'll see how much we have matured," Bryant told reporters after the Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 111-103 on Saturday to win the Western Conference championship series 4-2.
"It's a great challenge for us to see how much we've improved, how much we've gotten better, to be able to go up against this team in a playoff series."
Asked how much he was spurred on by memories of the 2008 NBA Finals, Bryant replied: "The challenge is to win the championship. The Celtics are in the way. They feel the same way about us.
"Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us. It taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal in that series."
The Lakers lost seven of their last 11 games in the regular season and were forced to battle hard before overcoming the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2 in the first playoff round.
"We're good. We're good," said Bryant, widely acknowledged as the best closer in the game with his remarkable ability to make shots from every angle when under pressure. "We're playing a different style of ball now.
"We've had three series here (in the playoffs) and every single one of them has been different. Now we're going to this series where the level of intensity and physicality is going to be at an all-time high."
"It's something that has been anticipated now for the last couple weeks. This year, we have home court advantage and we look forward to these playoffs with great intensity."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)