(AFP) – Oct 26, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Defending champion Boston and Kobe Bryant's runner-up Los Angeles Lakers, once again the teams to beat in the National Basketball Association, open the league's 63rd season with home games Tuesday.
Powered by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce plus guard Ray Allen, the Celtics won their first title since 1986 last June and accept their championship rings when NBA scoring champion LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers visit.
"We're not going to dwell on what happened last year," Garnett said. "This is a new year. We have a new goal. We're going to talk about going forward. The three of us are very competitive. We're still hungry."
The Celtics won their 17th NBA crown just one season after winning only 24 games, bringing in Garnett and Allen and winning 42 more games, the best one-season reversal of fortune in NBA history. But can they repeat?
"That's something we'll see," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I can only tell you what I've seen is they are hungry. They have a great sense of urgency in practices.
"We want to do it again. It's pressure but it's good pressure, the kind of pressure you want."
The Lakers, sparked by Bryant and Spanish center Pau Gasol, open the season against Portland in the NBA debut of center Greg Oden, the heralded rookie big man who missed last season with a right knee injury.
It also marks the first official game when Bryant, Gasol and 20-year-old big man Andrew Bynum, injured during most of the Lakers' run to the finals, will play together as Los Angeles looks to live up to great expectations.
"We're favorites for a reason," Bryant said. "We have all the tools here, all the pieces to the puzzle. Now it's time for us to do the work."
Bryant, who helped the US team win Olympic gold by beating Gasol's Spaniards in the Beijing final, has not been nagged by a pinky injury from last year, when he scored 28.3 points and played in every game for the Lakers.
"If we win a championship, I'm not touching it," Bryant said. "I'm not doing a darn thing. I'm leaving it alone."
Bryant pondered leaving the Lakers before they moved last year but Gasol's arrival eased his worries and raised his hopes of bringing the Lakers' their first title since the departure of star center Shaquille O'Neal.
The Celtics won in part because they had a home-court playoff edge obtained from winning the regular-season crown, going 12-1 at home in the post-season with seventh-game home wins over Atlanta and Cleveland on the way to the title.
"Once you get a taste of it, you don't want to let it go," Pierce said.
Familiar rivals will try to topple the Celtics in the East, including the Cavaliers, powered by James and his 30 points a game with Mo Williams added to provide backcourt scoring pounch, and a veteran Detroit Pistons squad.
In the West, the Lakers will face a host of contenders, including a veteran San Antonio lineup, Yao Ming-sparked Houston, playmaker Chris Paul and a quick New Orleans squad and perennial threats Dallas, Phoenix, Denver and Utah.
Houston added controversial forward Ron Artest, who had troubled stays in Sacramento and Indiana, to China's Yao, who had 22 points and 10.8 rebounds in a season cut short by injury, and McGrady, who had 21.6 points a game.
The Spurs will hope Argentine guard Manu Ginobili can come back healthy from a left ankle injury, coming off the bench to lift a team ignited by big man Tim Duncan and French guard Tony Parker.
Paul averaged 21.1 points a game last season for the Hornets, who also boast David West and 3-point ace Peja Stojakovic plus new reserve James Posey.
German star forward Dirk Nowitzki, the 2007 Most Valuable Player, and forward Josh Howard are joined by guard Jason Kidd and new coach Rick Carlisle in trying to assemble talented players into a winning unit.
Phoenix has older veterans with 36-year-old "Shaq", Amare Stoudemire, 36-year-old Grant Hill, Raja Bell and former MVP Steve Nash, 34, preparing for one more run at a first title for the Suns.
Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson make Denver a threat while Utah offers a balanced team lineup and the savvy of coach Jerry Sloan, in his 20th season with the Jazz, to rival the best in the West.
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