Despite reaching the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics struggled to rebuild in the mid-2000s and finished with only 24 wins in 2007. Boston made huge splashes the following off-season when they traded for 2004 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett and perennial All-Star Ray Allen. Teamed with fellow star Paul Pierce, the Celtics’ new “Big Three” stormed through the regular season to a league-best 66 wins, led by former Coach of the Year Doc Rivers. The playoffs were much more difficult, however, as it took seven games for Boston to beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round–a series where the home team won each game. The Celtics then dethroned the reigning conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in another seven-game series; the finale saw an epic Pierce and LeBron James duel result in a combined 86 points. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston took down the Detroit Pistons in six games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987.
Phil Jackson returned to coach the Lakers in 2006 after they missed the playoffs in the 2004-05 season for the first time since 1994. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, but in 2008 they remained competitive and were middle-of-the-pack halfway through the season when they landed a huge trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. Following the All-Star’s arrival, Los Angeles finished the season with 57 wins, best in the Western Conference and enough to earn Kobe Bryant his first ever MVP award. In the playoffs, the Lakers easily swept the Denver Nuggets and dispatched the Utah Jazz in six games after dropping the middle two games on the road. In the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles eliminated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in five games, erasing a double digit deficit in the second half of the final contest to move on to their first NBA Finals since 2004.
In the back court, the Celtics paired young point guard Rajon Rondo out of Kentucky with All-Star shooting guard and three-point specialist Ray Allen. Team captain Paul Pierce started at small forward in the front court alongside 2008 Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett at power forward and hard-nosed center Kendrick Perkins.
Off the bench, Boston fielded a group of veterans with two-time champion Sam Cassell playing the backup point guard and Eddie House as the fourth guard. Champion with the Miami Heat, James Posey served as the first man off the bench on the wing, and Leon Powe and veteran P.J. Brown served as the primary backups in the post. Tony Allen and Glen Davis played minimally in the NBA Finals.
For the Lakers, Derek Fisher returned in the off-season to reclaim his spot as the starting point guard alongside league MVP and two-time scoring champion Kobe Bryant at shooting guard. In the front court, Vladimir Radmanovic started at small forward alongside crafty left-handed power forward Lamar Odom and All-Star center Pau Gasol.
Los Angeles utilized Sasha Vujacic as the first guard off the bench, and Jordan Farmar provided added depth at point guard. Luke Walton served as the main backup at forward for the Lakers, while Ronny Turiaf served as Gasol’s primary backup off the bench. Trevor Ariza and Chris Mihm played sparingly in the NBA Finals for the Western Conference champions.
Game One: Lakers 88, Celtics 98
The Lakers pulled ahead after the first half and appeared ready to steal game one on the road in Boston when Paul Pierce injured his knee and had to be taken off the court in a wheelchair. Minutes later, he made a miraculous comeback, inspiring his team and the crowd with consecutive three’s to give Boston the lead for good. Kobe struggled in the opener, making only 9/26 shots en route to a team-high 24 points. Garnett came up big for the Celtics alongside Pierce with 24/13, and Allen and Rondo combined for 24 points as Boston won game one at home. Gasol, Odom, and Fisher combined for 44 points, but Los Angeles would have to rebound in game two to even the series.
Game Two: Lakers 102, Celtics 108
The Lakers again led early, but the Celtics came back to build an enormous 24-point lead in the second half, helped by 21 huge points off the bench by unexpected contributor Leon Powe. Los Angeles stormed back with a 31-9 run in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to two with under a minute to play, but Boston held on with clutch free throws late. Pierce was again big with 28 points to lead his team, and Garnett delivered another double-double. Kobe erupted for 30 points to lead the Lakers alongside Gasol’s and Radmanovic’s double-double’s, but Los Angeles now faced a near-insurmountable 2-0 series deficit.
Game Three: Celtics 81, Lakers 87
Back at home in the Staples Center, the Lakers led comfortably throughout the first half, but a 15-3 run midway through the third quarter allowed the Celtics to reclaim the advantage. The teams traded blows in the second half, but Kobe hit a clutch three to retake the lead in the fourth and scored 10 points in the final period to clinch the first win of the series for Los Angeles. Bryant finished with a monster 36 points, assisted by Vujacic’s timely shooting and 20 points off the bench. Allen paced Boston with 25 points, but Pierce and Garnett both struggled on a combined 8/35 from the floor, and the Lakers now looked to even the series in game four.
Game Four: Celtics 97, Lakers 91
Lamar Odom found his game early making his first seven shots and helped the Lakers jump out to a 24-point lead in the second quarter. Boston responded in the second half, however, and a 23-3 run allowed them to tie the game early in the fourth. Neither team could take a distinct advantage in the final period until an Eddie House jumper gave the Celtics the lead for good. The “Big Three” combined for 54 points to lead the way, and Posey and House contributed 29 clutch points off the bench as Boston pulled off an impossible comeback. Kobe struggled from the field on 6/19 shooting, and Gasol and Odom’s double-double’s weren’t enough to keep Los Angeles from falling into a 3-1 series hole.
Game Five: Celtics 98, Lakers 103
Kobe Bryant started out on fire with 15 points in the first quarter as the Lakers again built a 20-point lead in the first half, but Paul Pierce helped the Celtics storm back in the second with 21 first half points of his own to close the gap. Down 14 points in the fourth quarter, Boston again rallied to tie the game, but a critical turnover by Pierce late in the period helped Los Angeles escape with a victory while facing elimination. Bryant led the Lakers with 25 points and 7 assists, and Odom and Gasol again turned in double-double’s. Pierce’s game-high 38 points were not enough as the series now stood at 3-2 headed back to Boston.
Game Six: Lakers 92, Celtics 131
Though the Lakers hung close after the first quarter, the Celtics ran rampant over the final three periods and blew out Los Angeles in what is still the largest margin of victory in a championship-clinching game: 39 points. Rajon Rondo played an excellent all-around game, and the “Big Three” combined for 69 points with Ray Allen tying an NBA Finals record with seven made three-pointers. Kobe again struggled from the field on 7/22 shooting, and the Lakers fell to Boston in six games. For his consistent play in the series, Paul Pierce was named the Finals MVP as the Celtics clinched their first title since 1986.
Having capped off their title, the Celtics looked to repeat in 2009 after starting 27-2. Their fortunes changed, however, when Garnett injured his knee after the All-Star Game and was lost for the season. Boston would lose to the Orlando Magic in the second round in seven games despite holding a 3-2 series lead, but the team would rebound and again reach the NBA Finals a year later in 2010.
In 2009, the Lakers’ starting center Andrew Bynum returned from injury to bolster the top front court in the league. Los Angeles reeled off 65 wins in the regular season, the most in the Western Conference. After beating the Utah Jazz in five games, the Lakers outlasted the Houston Rockets in seven and the Denver Nuggets in a six-game Western Conference Finals to clinch a berth in the 2009 NBA Finals.