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NBA hopes Celtics-Lakers rivalry can respark the fans

But current finals lacks superstar matchup of Bird vs. Magic.

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Boston's resurrection marks the single biggest one-year turnaround in NBA history. General manager Danny Ainge, who played with Bird during the Celtics' title runs two decades ago, engineered two stellar trades last off-season, creating the so-called Boston Three Party by adding versatile swingman Kevin Garnett and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen with long-suffering but talented Paul Pierce.

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"Other than Kobe, who is obviously a marquee player, this is more of a team-style matchup," says Don Hinchey, an executive at The Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports-consulting firm. "With Bird and Magic, it was about superstars. These teams are attractive in a different way, but these franchises still galvanize interest."

And, hey, you can still count on Jack Nicholson sitting courtside when the series shifts to Los Angeles Tuesday.

Analysts say the encore edition of Celtics-Lakers is enough to intrigue casual viewers – and bring back old-school NBA fans who may have lost interest in the league once Jordan and the Bulls won their sixth and final title in 1998. Since then, with a brief run by Bryant and then-teammate Shaquille O'Neal, the finals have been marked by plodding play, dull matchups, and a fleet of uninspiring teams from Detroit, Cleveland, and New Jersey, among others.

"Are these teams going to go down in history like the great Lakers and Celtics of the past? Only if they win multiple championships," says Carl Scheer, a former general manager with several NBA teams and now a sports-franchise consultant. "One time in the finals doesn't do it. What gave those teams their legitimacy was their consistency."

Mr. Scheer and others say the current championship round must extend to six or seven games, ensuring enough drama to stick with fans beyond summer vacation.

When the Lakers and Celtics met three times in four years for the title during the 1980s, the series went seven, six, and six games, respectively. For anyone who followed the NBA then, it felt as though nobody but Los Angeles and Boston ever played for the championship.

Dynasties harder to build now

Matching those giddy days would be hard for any franchise, but in the era of hyperfree agency and salary cap-induced trades, it's harder.

Johnson, leader of the showtime-era Lakers, urges everyone to revel in the current rivalry.

Says Johnson: "Even though the names have changed as players and coaches, when you think about most fans around the world who watch basketball, if you ask them [who] they want to see in the finals, they would pick these two teams."