Wednesday, June 04, 2008

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

With the first Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals of the internet era upon us, I've really enjoyed some of the looks back at the matchups between the teams from the '60s, such as the yeoman work done by Basketbawful, both in his Worst of the Celtics-Lakers series and his compilation on Deadspin, and SI stories like Dick Friedman on Game 7 in 1966 and classics from the SI Vault from 1963 and 1969. Also, outstanding work as usual from Forum Blue and Gold in offering a thorough look at the history of the rivalry.

I certainly agree with the consensus that the Lakers have been the best team in the league in this year's playoffs, and should be considered the favorite in this series. But what'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. Let's take a look at a few of those....

The 1963 Finals are hard to get a read on. As the 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 went 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 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.

As outstanding as the Lakers have looked at times in this year's playoffs, the Spurs still had their opportunities to steal Games 1 and 4, yet could not capitalize.

Maybe this whole series will come down to whether the Celtics can do so - if they can repeat history and steal one if the opportunity presents itself, and maybe that will be the difference in another unexpected Finals win over the Lakers.

Sounds dramatic, but I say no. Lakers in 6, a new dynasty begins, Phil overtakes Red, and the franchise's 15th title pulls them to within one of Boston.


At 10:17 AM, Blogger rsn said...

let me be the first to note that you called a celts-lakers finals even before these playoffs started. this will be the first finals i watch in a long time, mostly to see highlights of the rivalry that made me a sports fan-atic when i was a kid. and i believe kg and kobe were the first straight from HS players to make an impact on the NBA (since Darryl Dawkins).

thanks for assembling these clips. they brought me back down memory lane. would be interested to see where your viewership ranks '80s celts/lakers on alltime basketball rivalries -- have you polled that already on TPA?

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