Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Can The Celtics Steal *Another* One From L.A.

With Basketbawful reposting its epic series from 2008 on the "Worst of the Celtics-Lakers" - a comprehensive series-by-series look at each Boston-L.A. Finals matchup - I thought I'd do a modified repost of what I wrote on the eve of the 2008 Finals, as I think it's more relevant than ever today.

What I wrote then was "[W]hat's interesting in looking back at the history of Celtics-Lakers Finals is that, despite Boston's decisive 8-2 edge, the C's have often won as underdogs, occasionally by stealing games they had no business winning."

Now, you can make that 9-2, after yet another underdog win for the Celtics in 2008, with Laker hearts especially broken by the Game 4 collapse in which L.A. lost at home despite holding leads of 24 points in the first half, and 20 points in the third quarter.

And here we are once again, with the Lakers favored to win again. Boston seems to be getting more respect this time, even though it did not have the better regular-season record, unlike 2008, probably a combo of memories of the '08 Finals plus how well they've played in this year's playoff run. Still, the Celtics are clearly underdogs against the defending champs overall.


What's at stake? Let's not forget the epic Joey Buss acceptance of the Larry O'Brien trophy last June, when he pointedly reminded the world that not only did the Lakers have 15 championships, but also that they needed two more titles to catch the Celtics. Will it be 18-15, or 17-16, with Kobe and Phil just one title away from catching the Lakers' arch-nemesis?

Then, in a phone interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters on draft night, Shaq pointedly said that he was going to Cleveland with the goal of being the "first to five" rings. Now, Kobe is on the cusp of beating Shaq and Timmy to 5.

Who do I like? I picked the Celtics to lose in 2008. I picked against them in the preseason and wrote them off at midseason. I picked them to lose to the Heat, I picked them to lose to the Cavs. I not only picked them to lose to the Magic, but after Game 5 I *still* thought that they'd lose to Orlando.

I am done doubting the Boston Celtics. After three playoff rounds which have been so mind-boggling in so many ways, what the heck, let's go with one more improbable result: Boston will win Game 7 at Staples Center, in one last triumphant homage to the 1969 Celtics.


Now, as promised, here's our repost of examples of several Celtic underdog wins over the Lakers, prior to doing it again in 2008:

The 1963 Finals are hard to get a read on. As this excellent 1963 SI story on the emerging rivalry spotlighted, the Celtics were considered to be an old team, which is somewhat odd because, as Basketbawful pointed out, many of the Celtics stars were in their prime, although Bob Cousy was in his final season at 34.

The Lakers made for a good story as the hot new team in L.A., just starting to draw Hollywood stars in their third year in town, and with a fresh young marquee idol in Jerry West at 24. Many thought they were set to end the Celtics' streak of four straight championships, apparently including, strangely enough, Cousy himself.

As The Cooz said in his book The Last Loud Roar:
    Very candidly, I had not expected to beat Los Angeles in this playoff. Last year's series had gone to overtime of the seventh game, which is about as even as two teams get. Facing the matter realistically - and pros are, above all, realistic - it seemed to me that they had improved a bit, if only through the acquisition of Dick Barnett, and we had gone back a little, if only because Frank Ramsey was having a bad year.
Perhaps the most colorful description of the series came from the man himself, Mr. Bill Russell, who recounted the 1963 Finals like so in his autobiography Go Up For Glory:
    1963... a vintage year.

    This was the year that everyone decided Los Angeles would beat us for the championship. We were finished. Even Los Angeles believed it. They had Baylor and West.... They had style and ability and we were getting older.

    The All-Star Game was at Los Angeles that year and the California radio stations blared all through it: "Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    It bothered us.
    It was Cousy's last series. And all that fru-fraw about the basketball capital of the world. Everyone came to see us get killed. By the time the sixth game came around the idea passed along that maybe we weren't going to be the lambs led to the slaughter.

    We were moving, fast, loose as ashes, and we were shaking L.A. and turning them every way but loose, baby. We had their number.
    [After talking about how the Celtics had blown a 14-point lead in Game 6, Russell threw in this beauty of a paragraph as he set the scene for the game's climax.]

    The mob was yelling. The noise swept over and out of the corner of my eye. I watched Doris Day drop her popcorn in her lap as she jumped with excitement and thought "Not this year, Doris, baby, not this year." I smiled and looked back to Baylor and he was picking up steam and coming down to meet me.

    [Baylor would be called for a charge that ended up sealing the game and the championship for Boston.]
    I had a magnum of champagne to celebrate [on the plane home], my one annual drink. As I stood in the doorway, I couldn't resist it. I raised the magnum and bowed and said, "As the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid farewell to Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    We exited laughing.
Yes, he said "fru-fraw."

The Celtics' streak of eight straight championships had ended at the hands of a dominant 68-13 76ers team in 1967, to the chants of "Boston's dead" in Philadelphia. Boston was truly aging at this point, and it seemed as though the torch had been passed to Philly, as the Sixers beat the Celtics by eight games for the Eastern Division title in '68 and built a 3-1 edge in the Eastern Finals.

Yet Boston fought back to win the series in a dramatic Game 7, but that merely set them up for a matchup with a Lakers team that was cruising. L.A. had swept the Western Finals, and was 38-9 since a midseason trade fortified its bench.

As Jerry West said in his autobiography Mr. Clutch:
    We were better rested, younger, hungrier, hotter.... For the first time, I felt we were as good as any team in the league. Maybe Philly was better but they were out of it. If we ever had a chance to beat Boston, this seemed to be it. If we ever should have been favored over Boston, this was the time. I was very hopeful coming in.
But the Lakers blew a 15-point lead in Boston in Game 1, and, with the series tied 2-2, lost Game 5 in OT. They would lose the series in six, and West would be left to reflect:
    What really hurt me then was that I felt we had thrown away two games in the series - the first game and the fifth game - and we had lost it at home. We could have won it. We really could have won it. Maybe not too many of the others, but this one.
The 1969 Finals is one of the great stories in NBA history, as the banged-up, over-the-hill Celtics rallied from a subpar 48-34 season to knock off a star-studded Lakers team - which had added Wilt Chamberlain in the offseason - in seven games as Celtics legends Bill Russell and Sam Jones ran off into retirement with one last title.

A couple of improbable shots helped Boston steal two games which saved the series for them.

In Game 4, Sam Jones - a man with a resume of clutch shots that's at least as long as Robert Horry's - dropped this off-balance jumper behind the picket fence at the top of the key, to give Boston an 89-88 win at the buzzer and even the series at 2-2:

And then, of course, Don Nelson, ostensibly 400 pounds lighter than today, helped stave off a furious Lakers rally with one of the friendliest bounces in basketball history as the Celtics remarkably won Game 7 in L.A.:

And then, 1984, you probably know this one. A seven-game epic that helped launch the NBA to another level, yet it really easily could have been a four-game sweep. Down 0-1 at home, the Celtics saved their season by literally and figuratively stealing Game 2 behind Gerald Henderson:

Magic was dreadful in the clutch. After Henderson's steal tied the game, Magic dribbled out the clock in regulation, as the Lakers never got a shot off and the game went to OT. Then, in the final seconds of a tied Game 4, he made a bad TO on a post entry pass, and the Celtics were able to score another dramatic OT win which again kept them in the series:

Then there was Larry Bird's epic performance in the sauna of the Game 5 "Heat Game" at the Garden, and an eventual championship in seven. Once again with help from the leprechaun.

As Larry himself said in his 2008 conference call with Magic:
    Well, obviously in '84 when the Lakers were controlling -- we got beat in the first game, went into overtime in the second, felt we got lucky to win the game, got blown out in the third game. We had to change our tactics, try to play a rough game, a halfcourt game, against them. Just watching how all the guys really turned the clock on them, played a different style, played a rougher style to change the series, I thought that was pretty incredible on our part. A lot of people didn't like how it turned out. But we had to do whatever we could to stay in the games because they were running us out of the building just about every night. For us to win the '84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me the way they dominated us early in the series.


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