The Way We Were, Part II: Celtics-Lakers, 1985Part I of this series looked back at the greatest individual NBA rivalry of the early 1980s (hint: it was not Bird-Magic) as a prelude to examining the 1984 NBA Finals, the first of three showdowns between Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. The Lakers blew several golden opportunities to take commanding leads in the 1984 Finals and that made for a long offseason of discontent for Magic, who Celtics star Kevin McHale sarcastically dubbed "Tragic" in reference to several late game gaffes committed by the Lakers' point guard. In 1984-85 there could be only one goal for the Celtics--become the first team since the 1968-69 Celtics to win back to back championships--and there could be only one goal for the Lakers: return to the Finals and finally topple the Celtics, a franchise that enjoyed an 8-0 Finals record against the Lakers.
While fans eagerly anticipated a Celtics-Lakers rematch, one other story captured a fair amount of attention that season: a spectacular rookie named Michael Jordan was reminding everyone of the aerial exploits of a young Julius Erving. Jordan played for a weak Chicago team that had only won 27 games the previous season and even his formidable skills were only good enough to add 11 victories to that total but he ran away with the Rookie of the Year award by averaging 28.2 ppg (third in the NBA behind Bernard King and Bird), 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg and 2.4 spg; he led the Bulls in each of those categories, plus free throw percentage (.845), leaving people to wonder what he could accomplish if he had a better supporting cast. While watching Bird and Magic duel for the 1985 title, who could have imagined that Jordan would eventually win more championships than either of them?
The interesting thing about looking back at these championship series in detail is that there is an inevitable tendency to think that the great players of the past never committed turnovers, never missed shots and never made mental mistakes--but, as Part I made very clear, Bird, Magic and several other future Hall of Famers hardly played perfect basketball in the 1984 Finals. Championship play--not just in basketball but in any competition--is defined not by perfection but by heart and will and determination and the ability to maintain focus in spite of previous errors, bad calls and other real or imagined obstacles. We like to think of championship teams as well oiled machines that personified perfection but the reality is that in order to win a championship you have to battle, you have to scratch, you have to claw--it's a dirty, rough business, not something that is nearly as pristine as it looks after NBA Entertainment carefully packages the highlights into a DVD.
That point can be underscored most clearly by bringing this discussion full circle and zooming ahead from Jordan's rookie season to briefly glance at Jordan's last championship run. I'm sure that when most people remember Jordan they recall his high flying exploits but I think that the game that best exemplifies the champion he became is game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals when his Bulls defeated the Indiana Pacers 88-83. If you are looking for basketball beauty then this game would not even enter the discussion: the Bulls shot 29-76 (.382) from the field but they won primarily because they battled their way to retrieve 22 of those misses. Jordan shot 9-25 from the field but he had five offensive rebounds. Scottie Pippen shot 6-18 from the field but he had six offensive rebounds. The Bulls did not win that game by being pretty or creating a lot of highlights or even by being efficient; they won it through sheer effort and determination. Anyone who would try to do some kind of statistical analysis of that game--and that Bulls team--would be missing the whole point: champions do whatever it takes to win, whether or not it looks good in the boxscore. Think of Al Pacino's famous "Inches" speech in "Any Given Sunday": "The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the...difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!"
So when you look at the numbers from the 1984, 1985 and 1987 Finals and when you read about the mistakes that different legendary players made at various times in those series, don't think any less of them. Championship basketball is simply not always going to be pretty.
In 1984-85, the Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA, 63-19--and the Lakers were right behind them with a 62-20 record. The Lakers had no serious challengers in the West, while it seemed like the Celtics had a pair of worthy teams to deal with in the young Milwaukee Bucks (59-23) and their old rival the Philadelphia 76ers (58-24), who had added rookie Charles Barkley to the 1983 championship nucleus of Moses Malone-Julius Erving-Andrew Toney-Maurice Cheeks. The Lakers cruised back to the Finals, ringing up an 11-2 record in the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile, the Celtics won a surprisingly competitive first round series versus the 36-46 Cleveland Cavaliers despite the fact that the two teams scored exactly the same number of points in the four games. The Detroit Pistons gave the Celtics a good battle in the Eastern Conference semifinals, splitting the first four games before the Celtics closed out the series with back to back wins; these were not yet the "Bad Boys" Pistons but rather a high scoring team that averaged 116.0 ppg in the regular season, third in the NBA. In the next couple years the Pistons would add Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and John Salley and transform themselves into a tough, defensive-minded team capable of seriously threatening the Celtics' Eastern Conference supremacy.
The Celtics did not have to face the second seeded Bucks because they were swept by the Sixers. The final playoff matchup between Bird's Celtics and Erving's 76ers turned out to be one sided as the Celtics stormed to a 3-0 lead before closing the series out in five games. Now the Celtics had the opportunity to defend their crown--and the Lakers had a chance to avenge their painful defeat from the previous season.
For such a highly anticipated showdown, the first game turned out to be very anti-climactic: in what became known as the "Memorial Day Massacre," the Celtics routed the Lakers 148-114. Six Celtics scored at least 13 points, paced by 26 each by Kevin McHale and Scott Wedman, who shot 11-11 from the field, including four three pointers. Bird had 18 points, nine assists and six rebounds, while Magic had 19 points and 12 assists but only grabbed one rebound. The 38 year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had finished fourth in the MVP voting but he looked like he had aged about 20 years as he slowly moved up and down the court while the Celtics raced past him; he finished with just 12 points and three rebounds and later personally apologized to each of his teammates for his poor performance. Lakers Coach Pat Riley later said, "He made a contract with us that it would never happen again--ever. That game was a blessing in disguise. It strengthened the fiber of this team. After that, Kareem had this look, this air about him."
It might seem strange that two great, evenly matched teams could be involved in such a blowout but Dick Stockton--who called several NBA Finals for CBS during the 1980s--noted during yesterday's ESPN special rebroadcast of game six of the 1987 NBA Finals that 10 of the 19 Celtics-Lakers Finals games in the 1980s were decided by more than 10 points, something that he attributed to one team asserting its will and its tempo early in the game and then not letting up.
Abdul-Jabbar played marvelously in game two (30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists, three blocked shots) as the Lakers beat the Celtics 109-102 and seized home court advantage. Magic added 14 points and 13 assists, while Bird led the Celtics with 30 points and 12 rebounds. "All he (Abdul-Jabbar) read in the papers was how old he was," Celtics reserve M.L. Carr said. "That made him mad. If there had been a newspaper strike, we would have won." Riley offered a more serious assessment: "He is the greatest player who has ever played the game in my opinion. I know he is constantly scrutinized for his deficiencies but he got the big rebounds and made the big shots and that is what he is all about."
The 1985 Finals employed the now familiar 2-3-2 format instead of the older 2-2-1-1-1 setup. When the series shifted to Los Angeles the Lakers fully returned the favor from game one, blowing out the Celtics 136-111. Abdul-Jabbar became the leading playoff scorer in NBA history, finishing with 26 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. James Worthy led the Lakers with 29 points, while Magic narrowly missed a triple double with 17 points, 16 assists and nine rebounds. Kevin McHale (31 points on 10-13 field goal shooting, 10 rebounds) was the only Celtic who played well; Bird shot just 8-21 from the field and ended up with 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists. In the 1984 Finals, the Celtics repeatedly beat the Lakers to the punch, literally and figuratively. This time around, the Lakers matched the Celtics' physical play in kind and the Celtics, who had mocked the Lakers for complaining about their roughhouse tactics, now had their own complaints, with Celtics Coach K.C. Jones going so far as to say that this series would be remembered as the "cheap-shot-and-dirty" Finals. Riley would have none of that: "We're playing Celtic basketball. When they play like this, it's called hard work. When we do it, we get called a dirty team" (when the Pistons eventually responded in kind to the Celtics' physical play in the Eastern Conference playoffs they too were branded a dirty team). Lakers assistant Dave Wohl (who ironically works for the Celtics now) put it this way: "They expected us to crawl in a hole but we're not going to. It's like the bully on the block. He keeps taking your money. Each day he takes 25 cents. Finally, you get tired and you whack him. You find out that you should have done it four years ago. Our guys just got tired of being the little kid on the block." Scotty Stirling, the NBA's vice president of operations, warned both teams prior to game four that fines and suspensions would be issued by the league if they did not clean up their acts.
Just like in the 1984 Finals, the Lakers now had a golden opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead--and, just like in 1984, they lost a close fourth game. Bird scored 11 fourth quarter points as the Celtics rallied from a 92-85 deficit to go up 99-96 after his steal and jump shot. The Lakers forged a 105-105 tie but the Celtics had the ball on the last possession and a double-teamed Bird passed to Dennis Johnson, whose buzzer beating jumper won the game. McHale had game-high totals in points (28) and rebounds (12), Dennis Johnson added 27 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds and Bird had 26 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 21 points. Magic had a triple double (20 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds).
Although Bird and Magic were the headliners in the series, the biggest matchup nightmare for the Lakers was McHale, who averaged a series-high 26.0 ppg on .598 field goal shooting. McHale called the low post the "torture chamber" and he was victimizing every Laker who tried to guard him. After McHale scored 13 points in the first quarter of game five, Riley bit the bullet and switched Abdul-Jabbar on to him, shifting a power forward over to guard center Robert Parish. McHale only had 11 points the rest of the game, while Abdul-Jabbar not only starred defensively but also poured in a game-high 36 points on 16-28 field goal shooting in addition to snaring seven rebounds and passing for seven assists. Worthy had 33 points on sizzling 13-17 field goal shooting, while Magic orchestrated the fast break attack to perfection with 26 points, 17 assists and six rebounds as the Lakers won 120-111. Coach Jones kept shortening his rotation as the series progressed and in game five his top four players each scored at least 20 points while playing between 44 and 48 minutes: Dennis Johnson went the whole 48 minutes and nearly matched Magic's production (22 points, 17 assists, three rebounds), McHale finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds in 46 minutes, Parish had 26 points in 44 minutes and Bird added 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 44 minutes.
The Celtics had never let another team celebrate a championship in Boston--until game six of the 1985 Finals, which the Lakers won 111-100. This was sweet revenge not only for Magic but also for Abdul-Jabbar--whose Milwaukee Bucks lost to Boston in the 1974 Finals--and Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who lost to the Celtics in the Finals six times as a player without tasting victory a single time (he won his only championship as a player versus the Knicks in 1972). McHale led both teams with 32 points and 16 rebounds but he fouled out with more than five minutes left. Abdul-Jabbar also fouled out but not before he poured in 29 points. Worthy scored 28 points on 11-15 field goal shooting and Magic had his second triple double of the series (14 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds).
Bird, who had won his second regular season MVP in a landslide decision over Magic, shot just 12-29 from the field, ending up with 28 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. He was battling injuries to his right elbow and index finger but refused to use those ailments as an excuse for having a subpar series (23.8 ppg on .449 field goal shooting, 8.8 rpg, 5 apg): "Kevin was the only player on top of his game this series. I didn't play to my standard. I missed too many shots. When you lose, you're a failure. Your goal is to win a championship and if you don't win it, you're a failure. Today, we played like a bunch of guys who failed."
The man of the hour was Abdul-Jabbar, the oldest player in the NBA who looked every bit of his 38 years in game one but who bounced back to average 25.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 5.2 apg while shooting .604 from the field in the series. That performance earned him his second Finals MVP 14 years after he had claimed his first as a very young Milwaukee Buck. Riley said, "You are never going to see another one like him. He is a superior athlete--the best of our time."
Magic averaged 18.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg in addition to setting a record that still stands for assists in a six game Finals (84; 14.0 apg); in 1984 he had set a record that still stands for assists in a seven game Finals (95; 13.6 apg) but nothing short of a victory over Boston in 1985 could ease the pain of remembering the previous year's loss: "You wait so long to get back," Magic said after the 1985 Finals concluded. "A whole year. That's the hard part. But that's what makes this game interesting. It's made me stronger."
Riley exulted, "This is the start of the Laker mystique. We broke the dynasty. There goes Boston--the mystique, the con and the deception. When we get our championship rings, we're going to have a diamond set on a parquet floor. We never again will be humiliated and tormented like they did to us last year."
Tomorrow in Part III: After a one year hiatus, the Celtics and Lakers write the final chapter of their 1980s rivalry with a showdown in the 1987 NBA Finals.
1984-85 NBA Leaderboard
Best Regular Season Records
1) Boston Celtics, 63-19
2) L.A. Lakers, 62-20
3) Milwaukee Bucks, 59-23
4) Philadelphia 76ers, 58-24
5) Denver Nuggets, 52-30
1) Larry Bird (Celtics)
2) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
3) Moses Malone (76ers)
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers)
5) Terry Cummings (Bucks)
1) Bernard King, 32.9 ppg (Knicks)
2) Larry Bird, 28.7 ppg (Celtics)
3) Michael Jordan, 28.2 ppg (Bulls)
4) Purvis Short, 28.0 ppg (Warriors)
5) Alex English, 27.9 ppg (Nuggets)
1) Moses Malone, 13.1 rpg (76ers)
2) Bill Laimbeer, 12.4 rpg (Pistons)
3) Buck Williams, 12.3 rpg (Nets)
4) Hakeem Olajuwon, 11.9 rpg (Rockets)
5) Mark Eaton, 11.3 rpg (Jazz)
1) Isiah Thomas, 13.9 apg (Pistons)
2) Magic Johnson, 12.6 apg (Lakers)
3) Johnny Moore, 10.0 apg (Spurs)
4) Norm Nixon, 8.8 apg (Clippers)
5) John Bagley, 8.6 apg (Cavaliers)
Roland Lazenby's excellent 1996 book The NBA Finals: A 50 Year Celebration is the source for some of the quotes and background information in this post and it is truly a great read not just about the Lakers and Celtics but also about the first half century of NBA history.
Information about various records and statistics can be found in the 2008 Finals Record Book, which is made available to members of the media covering the 2008 NBA playoffs. Other statistical information can be found in various editions of the Sporting News Official NBA Guide and the excellent website Basketball-Reference.com.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM