It's not just a slogan, not just a chant, not just a T-shirt anymore. It's now a reality.
For the 12th time in NBA history, the NBA Finals advertises a matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, the two most storied franchises in the game.
The Lakers, 111-103 victors over the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the West finals Saturday night, are headed to their 31st Finals. The Celtics are on the way to their 21st.
"It means a great deal," Lakers veteran Derek Fisher said at his postgame press conference. "Not just for me, but for the team, for the organization, for the city of L.A. For all of our fans. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and heartache and pain and injuries. A lot of 2, 3 in the morning, landing in another city, and trying to do everything you can to get back to this position, where you have a chance to win a title. So we feel good about this part of the accomplishment, but we're still a long way away from really where we want to be, and that's champions."
The Lakers are the defending champions of the NBA — they took down the Magic in five games last June, winning their fourth title since Fisher, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson ushered in a new era in Laker history a decade ago.
But they're still feeling the sting of two years ago, losing to the Celtics at the TD Garden in Boston. They were 3,000 miles from home and desperate to force a Game 7, but they lost the sixth and final game of the Finals in a blowout, 131-92. As Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce made their victory speeches, the Lakers were forced to watch.
"Some of these guys remember how it felt to lose," said Jackson, who has won 10 rings as an NBA head coach. "There's nothing worse than losing in the Finals. It's about as low as you can get, after riding a high, getting through three series and going into to a fourth one in the Finals. I had hoped I'd never experience it, but I've done it twice now. So I know it's a real difficult summer after that."
The Lakers have had a lot of difficult summers in their history. Out of the first 11 Finals meetings between the Celtics and Lakers over the years, the C's won the first eight — seven in the Bill Russell era, and then another one in 1984 under Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. When Boston won it in '08, it was No. 9 on the long list of triumphs over the Lakers.
But this time, L.A. wants to get even.
"I'm just looking forward to the challenge of it," Bryant said. "The last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us. It taught us what it takes to be a champion — the defensive intensity that they play with, the tenacity that they play with. We learned a great deal in that series. It's a great challenge for us to see how much we've improved, how much we've gotten better."
The Celtics have never lost a postseason series with their current starting five of Garnett, Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. They're 7-0.
The Lakers have a revamped starting five in this postseason, and it's undefeated too — the interloper in the group is Ron Artest. And Artest, while he's rarely seen as the headliner of the bunch, will be a key for the Lakers in this series, as he'll be asked to guard the red-hot Pierce.
"Pierce is a tough matchup," Bryant said. "He's very smart, and he's one of the few players that has a longball, has mid-range game and can get to the basket. So that makes him a tougher cover than most. But Ron's up for the challenge."
In 2008, the Lakers were a little banged up and a little out of sorts.
In '09, the Celtics were without KG.
This time, the NBA's two titans are ready to go. One of them will restore glory to a proud basketball town, and the other will have a painful summer ahead.
"The challenge is to win a championship, and the Celtics are in the way," Bryant said. "They feel the same way about us. Obviously this is a matchup that's very easy to talk about. There's a lot of things that people can write about and talk about. It's a sexy matchup. So we're looking forward to this challenge and this test.
"When the ball goes up, we'll be ready to go."