The Los Angeles Lakers are taking the court for the first time since the death of Jerry Buss, and it's rather fitting that the opponent will be a storied rival.
Emerging from the All-Star break, the Lakers may see a meeting with the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night as a chance to show some consistency while paying tribute to their charismatic and beloved owner.
The Lakers (25-29) have long been one of the world's premier sports franchises, and much of the credit goes to Buss, who died at 80 from kidney failure on Monday. A memorial service will be held Thursday across from Staples Center at Nokia Theatre, and he'll be honored Wednesday before tip-off.
After Buss purchased the team in 1979, he turned it into a spectacle dubbed "Showtime," led by Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal later helped usher in another era of dominance for a star-studded franchise befitting of the searing Hollywood spotlight.
The Lakers won 10 of 16 NBA Finals under Buss, the most of any team in that span. However, his business savvy, knack for promotion and willingness to acquire some of the best players in basketball history made the Lakers into the NBA's first global brand.
"Think about the impact that he's had on the game and the decisions he's made, and the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime and the impact that had on the sport as a whole," Bryant said. "Those vibrations were felt to a kid all the way in Italy who was 6 years old, before basketball was even global. His impact is felt worldwide."
Buss' impact will be felt Wednesday, especially against the Celtics (28-25).
The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win half of the NBA's 66 titles, and they've matched up five times in the Finals since 1980. Los Angeles has won three of those series, most recently in 2010.
Both teams haven't seemed capable of reaching those lofty expectations this season, but the Lakers may be the bigger disappointment. They're 10th in the Western Conference, 3 1/2 games back of Houston for the eighth and final playoff position.
The Lakers also lost three of four to the Los Angeles Clippers, dropping the season series to their historically lowly neighbors the first time since 1992-93 after falling 125-101 on Feb. 14 before entering the break.
Bryant has been doing his part, ranking fourth in the league with 26.8 points per game, and lately he's tried to get others involved. While he's averaging 18.4 points over the past 12 games, the All-Star guard has 8.5 assists per game after dishing out 11 against the Clippers.
He's averaged 28.7 points over the past 12 meetings with Boston, including seven in the 2010 Finals.
Bryant's 27 points weren't enough in the latest meeting Feb. 7, when Los Angeles lost 116-95 on the road.
Oft-injured Dwight Howard has taken the brunt of the blame for the Lakers' struggles, averaging 16.3 points and 11.8 boards after being seen as the final piece to add to the franchise's trophy haul.
The All-Star center was limited to nine points and nine rebounds after missing the three previous games with a shoulder injury.
The Celtics are trying to re-establish their momentum after losing 97-90 at Denver on Tuesday in the opener of this season-high five-game road trip. They had won eight of the previous nine while dealing with season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo (ACL), Jared Sullinger (back surgery) and Leandro Barbosa (ACL).
"We got stagnant with ball movement," said forward Paul Pierce, who had 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. "We just didn't make the adjustment. A little too much one-on-one. On the other end, we didn't get key stops. We fouled a little bit too much. Every crucial possession that we needed a stop, we didn't get the stop that we needed and they were able to pull away."
Pierce leads Boston with 18.3 points per game, but he's only managed 10.3 over the last three games. He's averaging 25.2 over 13 regular-season road meetings with the Lakers.