Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Celtics-Lakers rivalry to begin anew Thursday night

While the NBA is a shadow of its former, 1980s self, it's nice to see two old-time rivals play in the NBA Finals. The NBA had become a bit of a thug sport throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, but with new rules in place, the league finally embraced a running game and athleticism over hockey-style defensive trapping and plain old jump shots. That mentality resulted in poor quality play and low scores.

During that time, and even during the Bulls dynasty of the early nineties, the Celtics epitomized mediocrity in the NBA. Twenty years removed from its last championship appearance, many in the stands recently had only attended for the corporate hand-shaking and cool factor of being at an entertainment event, instead of being there to watch the Celtics play. I write from the perspective of someone who grew up going to see Bird, McHale, et al play the game the way it was supposed to be played, along with attending the final Celtics games at the Boston Garden - the last Celts/Lakers match up in the Garden during the 1994-1995 season, which ended with Nick Van Exel's last-minute 3-pointer, heartbreaking after a Dino Radja tip-in layup to take the lead; the last regular season Garden game, and last playoff Garden game with the Celts losing to Shaq and the Magic in 1995 - all great experiences. And I'm not even thirty years old - the standard for basketball in this city for those a few years older than me is just that much higher.

So of course, it's nice to see the Celtics go 66-16 during the regular season, and struggle through the playoffs a bit before finding their groove when it matters. The 2007-2008 Celtics have won with good defense as well as timely offense, and a decent running game, particularly against older teams or teams with injuries. They won Game 6 vs. the Pistons with defense, but it was also the steals and the running down the floor at times that helped wear the Pistons out - so much so, in fact, that with 15 seconds remaining (an eternity in the NBA) and the series on the line, the Pistons gave up and didn't bother fouling to go for missed free throw rebounds and last-second desperation threes.

This Boston-LA rivalry, which will be rekindled Thursday night in Boston, has been on hiatus for twenty years now. In anticipation of what should be a great Finals series, here are some links and facts:

Boston - number of championships: 16 (leads NBA all-time)
LA - number of championships: 14 (including 4 in Minneapolis before the team moved)

Red Auerbach, Boston: most coaching titles - 9
Phil Jackson, LA: most coaching titles - 9 (tied)

Celtics championships vs. Lakers: 8
Lakers championships vs. Celtics: 2
(note - the Celtics avoided what probably would have been an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Lakers in 2002 by choking against the Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2, after being up 2-1 due to an improbable 4th-quarter comeback in game 3).

By the way, it's pretty amazing that two teams are about to meet for the 11th time in an NBA Finals series. The league has only been around in its current form since about 1947 - this isn't like two baseball teams going at it for the 11th time in a hundred years; this is effectively twice as much.

[Celts/Lakers - Wiki]

I barely remember this, but as McHale was my favorite player in the 80s, this little bit of 1984 NBA Finals history is particularly memorable for me (games 4 and 5):

The game was also marked by Celtic forward Kevin McHale's takedown of Laker forward Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup which triggered the physical aspect of the rivalry. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would go after Larry Bird later on in the third quarter, and 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell further antagonized the Lakers by following a missed James Worthy free throw by crossing the lane with his hands around his own neck, symbolizing that Worthy was "choking" under pressure. In Game 5, the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead as Larry Bird scored 34 points. The game was known as the "Heat Game", as it was played under 97-degree heat, and without any air conditioning at the infamous Boston Garden

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