Kobe ready for Celtics match-up

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 face the Celtics in game
one of the NBA Finals on Thursday. Los Angeles 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 defence 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.

All-Star guard Kobe Bryant, Spanish
forward Pau Gasol and veteran Derek Fisher complete the Lakers starting unit,
each of them members of the team humiliated by the Celtics in 2008. Bryant is
fresh off an impressive and decisive game six victory over the Phoenix Suns in
the Western Conference championship series. He made a shot for the ages over
Grant Hill in the final seconds of the fourth quarter and says he’s looking
forward to facing Boston.

“We’ll see how much we have
matured,” Bryant said. “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.”

L.A. will have quite a challenge
dispatching a Celtics team that upset the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando.
Aside from Boston’s Big Three the Lakers will have to contain point guard Rajon
Rondo. With Rondo’s latest performances Bryant is more focused on the current
form of Boston rather than the 2008 version.

“The challenge is to win the
championship,” Bryant said. “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. Bryant feels that
adversity toughened his team.

“We’re good. We’re good. 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.”