Celtics, Lakers renew classic rivalry as NBA finals begin tonight

Imagine ``Gone With the Wind, Part 10.'' In a sense, that's what the latest renewal of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, which begins tonight in the National Basketball Association finals, represents in pro basketball - a long-mileage classic with what must seem an unlimited warranty. Since World War II, only baseball's Yankees and Dodgers have met as often in championship play.

Like the Dodgers, the Lakers migrated to Los Angeles, but not until after 1959, when as the Minneapolis Lakers they began their intermittant showdowns with Boston, losing in the finals four games to none.

Thereafter it has been Boston-L.A., time and time again in a matchup that is perfect for TV: East vs. West, the Old World atmosphere vs. the brave new frontier, the hard-nosed image of Boston vs. the slickness of Los Angeles.

Sure, some of this is pretty flimsy stuff, but it seems to sell - even in June when people keep asking themselves why anybody would be playing basketball games, much less watching them.

Of course, for these two clubs, racing up and down a court ridiculously late in the spring no longer seems unnatural. The Celtics, who are going after their 17th league crown, have won three titles during the 1980s (in '81, '84, and '86) and the Lakers a like number (in '80, '82, and '85).

Just ``being there'' is never enough for these teams, and both have played throughout the season with a commitment to just one thing: winning it all. Boston is determined to become the first repeat champion since the Celtics of 1968 and '69. The Lakers, on the other hand, seem to feel they have had the better team in recent years, but need to prove it after losing in the finals in '83 and '84 and failing to make them a year ago.

In their head-to-head confrontations, Boston was 8-0 until Los Angeles finally broke the string in 1985. Last year the Lakers were upset by the Houston Rockets before reaching the finals, but this year they have been on a mission, compiling a best-in-the-league 65-17 regular-season record, and then racing through the Western Conference playoffs with an 11-1 mark.

Boston, which put together the second-best regular-season record, enters the finals as a clear-cut underdog, a champion seemingly on the ropes. By now the litany of problems is familiar, going all the way back to last June when Len Bias, the team's No. l draft choice, died in a drug-related incident. Because of injuries, key reserves Bill Walton and Scott Wedman have seen very limited duty and the rest of an inconsistent bench has been used sparingly. Pressed into playing extra minutes, the starters have practically been worn to a frazzle just getting to the championship series.

There's been so little chance to rest the weary that in Saturday afternoon's dramatic 117-114 Eastern Conference clincher over the Detroit Pistons, Larry Bird went a full 48 minutes in a sultry Boston Garden. His fellow starters were severely taxed, too, especially center Robert Parish, who played on despite an ankle so tender as to render him virtually immobile at times.

The Celtics have now been extended to seven games by their last two playoff opponents, Detroit and Milwaukee, and the fatigue mounts, yet the determination never wanes. ``I've been tired since January,'' Bird said. ``We could have quit a long time ago.''

With the best-of-seven championship series beginning in Los Angeles, some observers expect the Lakers will jump out to a quick 2-games-to-0 lead at home tonight and Thursday and never look back once the action shifts to Boston next Sunday. The Lakers are clearly the more rested and fitter team. But having more than a week off since sweeping Seattle 4-0 in the West Conference finals may not be all that advantageous. Concerned that his players might become distracted and rusty, coach Pat Riley conducted a mini-camp in Santa Barbara.

Much of the attention will naturally fall on Bird and L.A.'s Magic Johnson, who have been big-game foes since college. As important as their play is, James Worthy may hold the key to victory for the Lakers and Kevin McHale for the Celtics. Worthy has presented matchup problems for Boston in the past with his quick, explosive offensive repertoire just as McHale, at 6 ft. 10., does for L.A. with his size and hard-to-defend inside moves.

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