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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Kobe Bryant's Missed Shots and the Torrent of "Psycho-Basketball Analysis" That They Unleashed

Knowledge, wisdom, understanding like King Solomon's wealth
You're a player but only because you be playin' yourself...
Always fakin' moves, never makin' moves--"Ya Playin' Yaself," Jeru the Damaja, 1994

I am mad at Kobe Bryant. All he had to do in game one of the NBA Finals was hit a few more shots that he normally makes and then sensible basketball observers would not be subjected to reams of "psycho-basketball analysis" from people who don't understand psychology or basketball--but Bryant shot 9-26 from the field instead of 12-26 or 13-26 and thus the so-called, self-proclaimed experts have figured out everything about life, basketball and the 2007-08 NBA MVP: Ray Allen is a Kobe-stopper, Bryant should have driven to the hoop more often, Bryant forced shots because the Boston crowd was cheering for Paul Pierce, Bryant stopped trusting his teammates, Bryant is to blame for high gasoline prices, blah, blah, blah. You want to know how twisted this whole scenario is? I fell in to the same trap in the first sentence of this post, blaming Bryant for the fruits of other people's ignorance. Is it his fault that people write and say stupid things after he misses some shots? Of course not. These critics, these so-called analysts--they're all just playing themselves because they have no knowledge, wisdom or understanding.

If Ray Allen is such a Kobe-stopper then why did the Celtics repeatedly tilt the floor defensively toward Bryant? Why did they send a big man over from the weak side to deter Bryant from driving into the paint? Why did the Celtics rotate several different primary defenders on to Bryant during the course of the game? Elite defenders like Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince usually have the primary duty on Bryant for most of the game, though they of course also receive plenty of weak side help. The reality is that Allen's job during the period of time when he is the primary defender on Bryant is to do his best to make it difficult for Bryant to get into the paint (knowing that he has help behind him and thus can play Bryant tightly), not go for pump fakes, not foul and contest Bryant's shots to the best of his ability. Allen did all of those things pretty well in game one but the bottom line is that Bryant missed a lot of shots that he normally makes, shots that he has made during his entire career and especially during the first 15 games of this year's playoffs.

Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point. All great scorers are expected to shoot the ball 20-plus times a game and shots that would rightly be termed "forced" if someone else took them are not forces if they are shots that the great player has a reasonable chance of making or if the shot clock is winding down and there are no other good options left. Was every single shot that Bryant took in game one an absolutely optimal shot? Of course not. Any player in the history of the NBA who shoots more than 20 times a game will naturally end up taking some less than optimal shots. The only significant and relevant thing to say about Bryant's shot selection in game one is that the vast majority of the shots that Bryant took were shots that he can reasonably be expected to make. Also, the theory that he was forcing shots simply does not hold up when one recalls that he passed up two wide open three point attempts in order to spoonfeed Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for layups. Assists from Bryant accounted for three of Gasol's six made field goals and other Bryant passes to Gasol led to free throw attempts for Gasol or wide open shots that Gasol missed. Frankly, Bryant forced more passes than shots in game one, because a couple of his turnovers came from trying to deliver the ball in tight quarters.

The idea that Bryant should drive into the heart of the Celtics' halfcourt defense is asinine. Of course, Bryant should drive when he has opportunities to do so, either in the half court or in transition--and he did both of those things in game one. However, if he drives into the paint against a set defense he will end up committing a charging foul, turning the ball over or getting a lower percentage shot than the midrange jumpers that he elected to take. Bryant drove on several occasions in the wake of screen/roll plays and those drives led to high percentage scoring opportunities either for Bryant or one of his teammates. In other situations, Bryant countered the aggressive defense of his primary defender by using fakes, quick dribble moves and spin moves to create enough separation to get open midrange jumpers. The bottom line is that he made the right plays for the most part but he did not make enough shots. Bryant and the Lakers need to shoot .450 or better from the field to win this series. It is interesting that no one seems to have figured out that a major reason that Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and others were able to get open looks is the attention that Bryant drew; when considering Bryant's effectiveness it is important to not just look at his field goal percentage but also the field goal percentage of his teammates. For instance, after one Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play, Bryant turned the corner and five Celtic defenders had at least one foot in the paint, so he passed to Sasha Vujacic, who got fouled behind the three point line when Kevin Garnett ran back out to him. If Bryant were not such a big threat then Vujacic's defender would simply stay home and Vujacic would get much fewer open looks. Of course, it is a lot easier for the so-called experts to simply anoint Allen a Kobe-stopper; that takes a lot less energy and effort than actually watching the game with some understanding of what is happening.

As for the idea that Bryant started playing differently in response to Pierce's return to action after his brief absence due to a knee injury, here is what Bryant did in the possessions right after Pierce came back in the game at the 5:04 mark of the third quarter:

4:51: Bryant drives past Allen, gets into the paint and shoots a running hook that goes halfway down and comes out.

4:26: Gasol slips the screen with Bryant and cuts to the hoop, but Pierce steals Bryant's bounce pass to him.

4:13: Instead of shooting a three pointer with a defender running at him, Bryant feeds Odom for a layup.

3:40: As mentioned above, Bryant runs a screen/roll with Gasol, collapses Boston's defense and his pass to Vujacic leads to a foul and three made free throws.

3:12: Bryant gets a defensive rebound, passes ahead to Derek Fisher and receives a return pass that he finishes with a fast break dunk.

2:28: After Fisher aimlessly dribbles around for 18 seconds, Bryant receives the ball with six seconds left on the shot clock, fakes the Kobe-stopper out of his shorts and drills a turnaround baseline jumper over Allen and Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett just before the shot clock expires. That shot puts the Lakers up 71-69, even though they had been outrebounded by double digits up to that point.

Pay attention to the next two entries, because they were the turning point in the game:

1:33: Odom receives the ball on the right wing, drives into traffic, does not see that the much smaller Rondo is checking Bryant due to a rotation and Odom attempts a weak reverse layup that is blocked by P.J. Brown. Hubie Brown often says that in the NBA if you miss a layup the other team will score within a few seconds. Sure enough, the Celtics get the rebound, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer. The Celtics never trail again.

1:10: Gasol sets a screen for Bryant, rolls to the hoop and Bryant hits him in stride with a pass. Garnett meets Gasol at the rim and Gasol throws up a soft, underhand shot that he starts at his waist and that has no chance of going in or drawing a foul. The Celtics again rebound the miss, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer.

Yet some idiot asserts that Bryant forced shots in response to Pierce's return and gullible fools accept this as gospel.

Side note: I definitely don't think that Pierce was faking or even milking his injury. The wheelchair seems a bit over the top in light of how quickly he returned to action but it was not as over the top as when Dwyane Wade was wheeled off for a shoulder injury. NFL linebacker Chris Spielman once vowed that if he ever had to be helped off of the field he would retire--and when that happened he was true to his word--but most athletes don't think that way any more. Also, teams tend to be more cautious, so with Pierce in so much pain right after the initial blow it is understandable that the medical staff did not want him to put weight on that leg. That said, I think that Pierce's return was fueled by adrenaline and that the rest of the series will be a much tougher go for him. A 68 win Celtics team in 1973 saw their championship dreams come up short when John Havlicek injured his shoulder and the 2004 Lakers fell to the Pistons after Karl Malone suffered a knee injury not unlike Pierce's, so there is certainly precedent for an injury playing a role in deciding which team wins the title.

It should be readily apparent from the plays that I have already described that Bryant hardly stopped trusting his teammates in game one. In fact, he created numerous scoring opportunities for them throughout the contest. The Lakers don't have to make radical changes to win game two; they simply have to convert a higher percentage of open shots. Also, Gasol and Odom need to be more active on the boards and Fisher, Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic must play better perimeter defense against Pierce, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell.

OK, enough about Bryant's missed shots and all the nonsense that has been said about his performance. The highlight of game one happened about an hour before tipoff when Ahmad Rashad talked with Julius Erving and Bill Russell. The always eloquent Erving spoke about how winning a championship would mean so much for Garnett, Pierce and Allen because it would prevent them from being included in the answer to the trivia question about great players who never won a title. Erving could certainly relate to their desire to avoid that fate; although he won two ABA championships, Erving's 76ers lost in their first three Finals appearances before adding Moses Malone and rolling to the 1983 title when Erving was 33. Rashad compared Boston's acquisition of Garnett to the Sixers' signing of Malone but Erving astutely pointed out some key differences: Garnett came to a Boston team that had been lousy in 2007, while Malone was the final piece for a Sixers team that had won two Eastern Conference championships in the previous three seasons and had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the other year. As for the Lakers, Erving praised Bryant for embracing the idea that less can be more, involving his teammates in the action early while conserving his energy to be a closer late in the game.

In the early 1980s, Russell was a color commentator during CBS' NBA broadcasts and he had a unique gift for saying a lot in very few words. Here are some of Russell's thoughts about Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett:

Russell on Kobe Bryant: "I'm a big fan of Kobe and I have been for a long, long time. What he's doing is he's asking his team to help him. We all talk about him helping (his teammates). He's asking his team to help him because I think he will describe his career as a winner--that will be his definition, not how many points he got but was he able to help his team play in a way to help him achieve his goals."

This is so true and it was the source of Bryant's much publicized frustration last summer: he knew that he did not have the right teammates around him to help him return the Lakers to the championship level. What has happened since then is an infusion of talent (Gasol, Fisher) plus a heightened sense of dedication by the younger players to match Bryant's work ethic and intensity. As Odom said recently of Bryant, "You try to compete against him, and there's no competing against him. If we have a 10 a.m. practice, Kobe is there at 8:45 preparing to be the best. And some of that has rubbed off on me and my teammates, and that's why I'm sitting here (at the NBA Finals) talking to you today."

Russell on Kevin Garnett: "He has always played with enthusiasm, intelligence and dedication." Russell also said that he used to call Garnett "the loneliest man in the NBA. He's putting everything on the line every night with no results."

Russell's prediction about this series: "Nobody can actually predict what is going to happen. One thing great players bring is presence. Some of these players are great and some of them aren't authentically great. The authentic players will perform at a high degree of efficiency. Who will that be?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 AM

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Celtics Ride Strong Second Half Defense to 98-88 Game One Victory

In the heavyweight match of the Celtics' league-leading defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense, score round one for the defense; the Celtics held the Lakers to 37 second half points, survived an injury scare involving Paul Pierce and emerged with a 98-88 victory. Pierce had to be carried off of the court at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after spraining his right knee but he returned just 1:45 later and a few minutes after that he nailed two big three pointers to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead that they never relinquished. Pierce finished with 22 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, including 15 third quarter points on 5-5 field goal shooting. Kevin Garnett tied Kobe Bryant for game-high honors with 24 points and Garnett also had a game-high 13 rebounds. Ray Allen shot just 5-13 from the field but he played a good floor game (eight rebounds, five assists) and still scored 19 points on the strength of 7-8 free throw shooting. Oft-criticized point guard Rajon Rondo had a nice all around game with 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Kobe Bryant scored 24 points and had six assists but he shot just 9-26 from the field as the Celtics did a good job of keeping him out of the paint and limiting his trips to the free throw line (6-6). Derek Fisher (15 points, six assists) played well, Pau Gasol (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists) was solid if not spectacular, but Lamar Odom (14 points, six rebounds) faded in and out. The Lakers got very little production from their much vaunted bench, which contributed just 15 points on 5-13 field goal shooting and not only played poor defense but committed 11 fouls that contributed to Boston's seven point advantage from the free throw line.

The Lakers started the game with some misdirection offensively; while it would be natural to expect them to feed the ball to Bryant--the leading scorer in the playoffs--they instead put him on the weakside and ran some screen/roll plays with Fisher and Gasol and Fisher and Odom. The first one resulted in a jumper by Gasol, while Odom missed a layup after the second one. Defensively, the Lakers used the same strategy employed by Boston's Eastern Conference opponents, using Rondo's man to roam around and cause disruption. The Lakers took a 6-2 lead as the Celtics shot 1-3 from the field and committed three turnovers in the first 2:38. The Celtics quickly settled down and took their first lead (7-6) on a Rondo jumper.

Bryant got off to a slow start, shooting just 2-8 from the field. All eight of his shots were jumpers and none of them were bad shots, as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson confirmed in his interview with Michele Tafoya after the quarter; those are the same shots that he made in the first 15 playoff games as the Lakers won the Western Conference. Sure, the Celtics would prefer that Bryant shoot jumpers as opposed to getting into the lane but those are also shots that Bryant and the Lakers expect to convert.

Meanwhile, Garnett had a strong first quarter, scoring eight points on 4-7 shooting and grabbing four rebounds. There was much speculation about how the Lakers would guard Paul Pierce but they simply used starter Vladimir Radmanovic on him and sent double-teams to dissuade Pierce from getting into the paint. When Radmanovic picked up his second foul at the 5:01 mark of the first quarter and went to the bench Jackson elected to replace him with Sasha Vujacic instead of Luke Walton. Bryant shifted to small forward and drew the responsibility of checking Pierce. That matchup did not hurt the Lakers at all--Pierce had three first half points on 1-4 field goal shooting--but Vujacic had serious problems guarding Allen, who scored five quick points to put Boston up 19-14. The Celtics led 23-21 at the end of the quarter.

Sam Cassell checked in for Rondo in the second quarter and he made three shots in a row versus Fisher, simply shooting over the smaller Lakers point guard. The Lakers solved that problem by switching Bryant on to Cassell. The Celtics led 40-37 at the 5:14 mark when Pierce picked up his third foul and went to the bench for the rest of the half. On the Lakers' next offensive possession they ran an action that I expected them to use more frequently, a screen/roll play involving Bryant and Gasol. Gasol slipped the screen, dove to the hoop and Bryant fed him a great pass for an easy dunk. As ABC's Mark Jackson noted, that was a play that Celtics Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Robert Parish used to run all the time; the great thing about it is there are so many adjustments that the offense can make depending on what the defense does. I think that the Lakers can get more high percentage shots out of this set than anything else. A couple possessions later, the Lakers ran this set again, the Celtics double-teamed Bryant and he fed Gasol a great pass through traffic for another dunk. The difference between how the Celtics guarded Bryant and how they guarded LeBron James a couple series ago could not be more glaring: when James came off of screens the Celtics played off of him, leaving him nowhere to drive and nowhere to pass, resulting in a lot of missed jumpers by James (and some turnovers when he tried to force passes). In contrast, the Celtics sent both defenders to aggressively trap Bryant, but he strung them out until Gasol popped free. Honestly, I cannot understand why the Lakers would not run this action virtually every time they are in a half court set unless there is some glaringly obvious mismatch to exploit elsewhere.

Later in the quarter, Bryant caught the ball on the right baseline and he was wide open behind the three point line; if he were James the Celtics would obviously let him shoot that shot but instead Garnett ran at him and Bryant waited patiently before passing to an open Gasol, who got fouled and made both free throws to put the Lakers up 49-44. Although some people assert that Bryant "trusts his teammates more" this season, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy kept it real: "You get trusted when you produce." Van Gundy noted that last year Bryant would have shot the three pointer in a similar situation because the alternative would have been to pass to Kwame Brown and Van Gundy added that Bryant would have been absolutely right to shoot it in that case. Those six points by Gasol are examples of scoring opportunities created by Bryant's shooting ability even in a game during which Bryant shot poorly; the Celtics know that Bryant is a good shooter and whether or not he is shooting well at a given time they have to respect his shot and that opens the floor up. The Lakers led 51-46 at halftime.

Despite Bryant's eight points on 3-10 field goal shooting in the first half, the Lakers were in good shape because Bryant was creating easy opportunities for Gasol (12 points on 5-7 shooting), Fisher was taking advantage of his open shots (13 points on 3-5 shooting) and the Lakers shot 50% from the field while only committing four turnovers. Their offensive execution was trumping Boston's defense and physicality. Garnett had 16 points on 6-9 shooting plus six rebounds but no other Celtic was really doing much damage. However, that five point advantage that it took the Lakers 24 minutes to build disappeared in the first :45 of the third quarter as Pierce scored a layup and then converted a four point play after Radmanovic fouled him on a successful three point shot. Bryant hit a jumper to put the Lakers back on top (53-52) but Pierce and Garnett answered with a couple jumpers of their own. The Lakers went back to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll and this time Bryant got into the paint, drew the defense and passed to Radmanovic for a wide open three pointer to tie the game at 56. Right after that, Radmanovic got his fourth foul and Vujacic came in to replace him, so Bryant again shifted to small forward. Bryant made a very tough turnaround jumper and Van Gundy declared, "That's an impossible shot to defend."

After the teams alternated missed shots, turnovers and fouls, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and fed Gasol for a dunk. The Lakers seemed to be in great shape after another Bryant-Gasol screen roll play resulted in a Bryant bank shot to put the Lakers up 62-58. Celtic center Kendrick Perkins landed on Pierce during that play and Pierce lay in agony on the court before being helped to the locker room by several teammates. With the Lakers leading and the status of the Celtics' go-to offensive player uncertain it looked like the Lakers had a great chance to take command of the game. Instead, Bryant missed a couple jumpers and Vujacic played horrible defense on Allen, giving up a wide open three pointer that tied the score at 62 (Rondo had previously split a pair of free throws). Odom then missed two free throws, Fisher missed a jumper and Allen made two free throws after drawing a foul on Vujacic. The Celtics led 64-62 and the Boston crowd roared as Pierce literally skipped back from the locker room and checked into the game. Note that the Celtics went in front while Pierce was out of the game; afterwards, someone asked Coach Jackson if Pierce coming back to the court had inspired the Celtics and Jackson got a look on his face that suggested that this was the dumbest thing he had ever heard: Jackson replied that what mattered was not that the crowd cheered when Pierce returned but rather that Pierce later hit some big shots. The Lakers actually regained the lead with Pierce on the court and Bryant's ability to distort the defense was the primary reason why. First, there was a transition situation with Garnett running alongside Odom but Garnett left Odom when Bryant received the ball at the three point line, enabling Bryant to feed Odom for a layup. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough that if that were James behind the three point line Garnett would have simply let him shoot (and most likely miss). Then, after an Allen score the Lakers ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll, five Celtics collapsed into the paint to contain Bryant and he passed to Vujacic at the three point line. Garnett ran out to Vujacic and fouled him. Vujacic's free throws pulled the Lakers to within one and then Bryant converted a fast break dunk on a feed from Fisher and made a turnaround jumper to put the Lakers up 71-69. After P.J. Brown blocked an out of control shot by Odom, Pierce got free in transition and made a three pointer. Then Gasol slipped the screen, received a feed from Bryant and missed a layup, leading to another transition three pointer by Pierce. That put the Celtics up 75-71 and they never trailed again. Those missed layups by Odom and Gasol that resulted in Pierce treys were the turning point in the game; that was essentially a 10 point swing--four points that the Lakers did not get and six points that they gave up that Pierce would probably not have scored in a half court situation with Bryant guarding him (Pierce did most of his damage against other defenders). The Lakers are not going to beat Boston on the glass, so they must convert a high percentage of their easy scoring opportunities. The Celtics led 77-73 at the end of the third quarter.

Jackson left Bryant in at the start of the fourth quarter, something that he has done a few times in close playoff games when he has not felt comfortable giving Bryant the rest that he usually gets at that time. Bryant opened the quarter by making a jumper to cut the lead to 77-75 but the Celtics went on a 9-3 run to take their biggest lead of the game. Bryant missed a jumper and made a bad pass for a turnover during that stretch. Jackson, whose 1992 Bulls once made a double-digit comeback in a Finals game versus Portland with Michael Jordan on the bench and Scottie Pippen on the court with four bench players, then decided to give Bryant a three minute rest. That is a counterintuitive move that most coaches would not have the guts to make but the Lakers responded well to this challenge, getting some stops and scoring four points to shave the lead to 86-82. Jackson put Bryant back in the game after a timeout and with the Lakers having just two seconds to get off a shot. Bryant missed a jumper and Pierce scored in the post after the much smaller Fisher got switched on to him. The Lakers only trailed 88-82 with 5:23 left but they made just one field goal the rest of the way. After his great first half Garnett almost completely disappeared in the second half, missing eight field goal attempts in a row at one point--but his massive two handed put back dunk over Gasol ended that streak and gave Boston a 94-86 lead with 1:32 left. On ABC's replay, you can clearly see Gasol waiting for the ball to come to him and not boxing out Garnett, who simply stepped in front of the rim, jumped up and went after the ball while Gasol reacted way too late.

After the game, Coach Jackson said that the story was a "tale of two halves," adding, "They did a much better job on the boards and that was the difference in the ballgame." The Lakers shot 50% from the field and led 51-46 at halftime but they scored just 37 second half points on 33% shooting and finished the game with a 41.6 field goal percentage. The Celtics enjoyed a 46-33 rebounding advantage, which obviously is not good for the Lakers but something that they could have survived if they had continued to shoot well; of course, that puts a lot of pressure on their offense but that is the formula that they used to storm through the Western Conference playoffs.

Bryant said, "They played a lot more physical than we did and that is something we have to address. It was a good experience for us. A nice little kick in the ass." Asked about his shooting, Bryant replied, "I had some great looks but they just didn't stay down for me...Those little midrange jumpers that I get, I have to knock them down...I just missed some bunnies, some really, really good looks and I'll be thinking about them tonight."

Looking forward to game two, there are four main questions:

1) What is the status of Paul Pierce's knee injury?
2) Will the Lakers be able to convert a better percentage of their open shots?
3) Can the Lakers narrow their rebounding deficit or will they simply have to make up for it in other areas?
4) Who besides Bryant can play good defense for the Lakers against the point guard, small forward and shooting guard positions?

I suspect that Pierce's injury will bother him more as the series progresses and that it will have a tendency to tighten up after halftime, which is lengthier during the postseason. The Lakers need to raise their field goal percentage above .450, which would have meant making three more shots in game one; considering how many of their shots went halfway down and came out, that is very doable. By playing more aggressively and making up in hustle and speed what they lack in bulk the Lakers should be able to limit the Celtics to a rebounding advantage of four or five a game. As for the Lakers' perimeter defense, they will live and die with Rondo making jumpers but they will have to get better defense from some combination of Fisher, Farmar, Vujacic and Radmanovic versus Pierce, Allen and Cassell. The way that the Lakers had to keep switching Bryant on to someone to cool him off is reminiscent of what happened in the 2004 Finals, when whichever Detroit guard was being checked by Gary Payton had a field day while Bryant contained the other guard.

The tendency after each playoff game is to overreact and think that the winning team will not lose a game and that the losing team cannot possibly win. This series is a battle between Boston's strengths in rebounding and defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense; what most commentators will probably neglect to mention about this game is that the Celtics only shot .421 from the field and committed 13 turnovers compared to just eight turnovers by the Lakers: the Lakers' defense is better than many people think and it will not take a dramatic offensive improvement by the Lakers to win game two and thus seize homecourt advantage. Make no mistake, though, losing game one should not be easily dismissed, because game one winners end up winning the series nearly 80% of the time; the onus is on the Lakers to win game two but they did enough positive things in game one to show that they are certainly capable of doing just that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Way We Were, Part III: Celtics-Lakers, 1987

In Part I of the 1980s Celtics-Lakers Finals trilogy, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics defeated Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers 4-3 in 1984. The Lakers avenged that defeat with a 4-2 victory in the 1985 Finals in Part II and at the time it certainly seemed likely that those teams would meet again in the 1986 Finals--but fans would have to wait an extra year for the third and final chapter in this saga.

In 1985-86, the Celtics added Bill Walton--the 1978 regular season MVP and 1977 Finals MVP--to provide frontcourt depth and the injury prone center enjoyed the healthiest season of his career, averaging 19.3 mpg while appearing in 80 games, far surpassing his previous career-high of 67 games. Walton won the Sixth Man Award after shooting .562 from the field and averaging 7.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.3 bpg. The Celtics' frontcourt rotation was ridiculously good, consisting of Hall of Famers Larry Bird--who won his third straight MVP--Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Walton plus former All-Star Scott Wedman, who provided an offensive spark off of the bench that season, averaging 8.0 ppg in 17.7 mpg. Of course, the backcourt was not too shabby either, with 1979 Finals MVP and perennial All-Defensive Team member Dennis Johnson at one guard and sharpshooting future All-Star Danny Ainge at the other guard. Jerry Sichting shot .570 from the field in 19.5 mpg as the first guard off of the bench. Not surprisingly, the Celtics cruised through the regular season, amassing one of the greatest records of all-time, 67-15. They were particularly dominant in the friendly confines of the Boston Garden, setting a record that still stands by winning 40 out of 41 home games. They won their last 31 home games of the season, which is still the current NBA record for such a season-ending streak, and when they won their first seven home games in 1986-87 they set a record for consecutive home wins that stood for nearly a decade.

The Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs but that series is remembered not for Boston's dominance--the Celtics won game one by 19 and game three by 18--but rather for a breakout performance by second year sensation Michael Jordan. After winning the 1985 Rookie of the Year award, Jordan missed most of the 1986 season due to a broken foot. Against the team's wishes, he came back late in the season, playing limited minutes and helping the Bulls qualify for the playoffs. He scored 49 points in the first game--but that was just a prelude to his game two performance when he scored 63 points as the lowly Bulls pushed the powerful Celtics to two overtimes before bowing, 135-131. Jordan broke Elgin Baylor's 24 year old record for most points in a playoff game (61, which is still the Finals record). Interestingly, Baylor missed most of the 1962 season due to his armed forces commitment and he later said that being fresher helped him to have such a great game; no one else has scored more than 56 points in an NBA playoff game. After Jordan went over, around and through various Boston defenders, Bird famously said, "He's God disguised as Michael Jordan." In the Eastern Conference semifinals the Celtics brushed aside Dominique Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks 4-1 and then they destroyed the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Lakers easily posted the best record in the West (62-20), they swept San Antonio in the first round and then they beat Mark Aguirre's Dallas Mavericks in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. In the Western Conference Finals they faced the Houston Rockets, who were led by the "Twin Towers," Hakeem Olajuwon and 1984 Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson. The Rockets seized homecourt advantage by winning game two in Los Angeles, they captured both games in Houston and they wrapped up the series in game five on Sampson's twisting shot at the buzzer. There would be no repeat for the Lakers and no rematch for the Celtics. The Finals proved to be anticlimactic as the Celtics won the first two games at home, earned one victory in the middle three games in Houston and closed out the series with a convincing 114-97 game six win at home. Bird had perhaps his best Finals game ever in that contest, finishing with 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds after nearly having a triple double at halftime. He won the Finals MVP, averaging 24.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 9.5 apg in the series. McHale (25.8 ppg, .573 field goal shooting) was the leading scorer in the Finals for the second year in a row; Bird led the Celtics in scoring twice in his five Finals appearances and was the leading overall scorer in the Finals once (1984).

The 1986 Celtics were undoubtedly Bird's greatest team and one of the best teams of all-time--and the 1987 Lakers were most likely Magic's greatest team and one of the best teams of all-time. If there is one regret about the 1980s NBA it is that there was not some way to have the 1986 Celtics face the 1987 Lakers in the ultimate battle of champions.

Magic once said that the best thing about his rivalry with Bird is that they each made the other play his best game. Perhaps it was inevitable that after Bird and the Celtics stormed through the NBA in 1986 that Magic and the Lakers would have a virtually identical run in 1987, posting a 65-17 record and winning 37 of 41 home games. Bird and Magic were not the first NBA players who added something new to their games each offseason but because they faced each other in the Finals three times in an era during which media coverage of the league expanded tremendously even casual fans knew about how they transformed their games: Bird added the three point shot as a deadly weapon and, with range no longer a factor, he perfected a deadly stepback move that made him almost unguardable during his prime; one offseason he really stepped up his cardio training, hit the weights and his body looked more toned than ever. Meanwhile, Magic steadily improved his free throw shooting and he added the three point shot to his repertoire in the latter stages of his career. However, the most famous addition to either of their games happened prior to the 1986-87 season when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar taught Magic how to shoot the skyhook. Magic modified the move slightly and he used it to good effect that season--and very famously in game four of the Finals--as Abdul-Jabbar accepted a lesser role and was not his team's leading scorer for the first time in his career. Magic averaged a career-high 23.9 ppg, led the NBA in assists for the fourth time in five years and won his first MVP award, beating out Jordan and Bird. The Lakers made a key midseason acquisition by picking up Mychal Thompson, a former 20 ppg-10 rpg player who could play power forward and center; he took the place of the departed Bob McAdoo, who had been a key bench player for the Lakers since the 1981-82 season.

The Lakers annihilated the Western Conference in the playoffs, posting an 11-1 record with scores that included 128-95, 140-103, 133-108 and 133-102. The sole loss came in game four of the Western Conference semifinals after they had already taken a 3-0 lead over the Golden State Warriors. Golden State guard Eric "Sleepy" Floyd--a career 12.8 ppg scorer who averaged 18.8 ppg that season--simply went nuts and had one of the most improbable playoff performances in NBA history, racking up 51 points as the Warriors won, 129-121.

The Celtics' road to the 1987 Finals was much more arduous. Their season began with tragedy when Len Bias, the second overall pick in the draft, died of heart failure after overdosing on cocaine; the Celtics had hoped that he would infuse their frontcourt with youth and athleticism for years to come. Although they finished with the second best record in the league (59-23) the frontcourt depth that had been so key in 1986 was wiped out by injuries to Walton (who played just 10 games) and Wedman (who played in only six games). The Celtics had to rely on their starters more than ever and they also had to deal with strong challengers in Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee. In the first round they again faced the Bulls and had to contend with Jordan, who had just set the non-Wilt Chamberlain single season record by scoring 3041 points (37.1 ppg). The Celtics held Jordan slightly below his average (35.7 ppg) and won 3-0. Then they had a long, hard series against Milwaukee, losing on the road in overtime in game three and then winning on the road in double overtime in game four. Milwaukee retaliated by capturing game five in Boston and it took the Celtics the full seven games to dispatch the Bucks. Things only got tougher in the Eastern Conference Finals when the Celtics faced a Detroit Pistons team that lacked their star power but was built specifically to combat the physicality of their frontcourt. The Celtics won the first two games at home but the Pistons scored two routs in Detroit to even the series. The Pistons led 107-106 and had possession of the ball late in game five when Bird made one of the most famous plays in NBA history, stealing Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass and feeding a cutting Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. The Pistons bounced back to win game six at home but dropped a 117-114 decision in game seven at the Boston Garden.

The Celtics had made it back to the Finals but they were truly the walking wounded, with the most notable injuries being the foot fractures suffered by McHale and Walton, each of whom played anyway in the playoffs and later had fusion surgeries. As Walton said on Tuesday during ESPN's special rebroadcast of game six of the 1987 Finals, the lesson here for young players is don't play if you have a broken foot. Walton never played in another NBA game after the 1987 Finals. McHale played for six more seasons but never reached the All-NBA First Team level that he performed at in 1986-87, when he averaged 26.1 ppg and became the only player to shoot at least .600 from the field (a league-best .604) and .800 from the free throw line (.836) in the same season.

Not surprisingly, the well-rested Lakers jumped out to a 9-0 lead in game one of the Finals, led 69-54 at halftime and coasted to a 126-113 victory. Magic had 29 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and no turnovers. James Worthy had a game-high 33 points on 16-23 field goal shooting and he narrowly missed posting a triple double (10 assists, nine rebounds). Bird led the Celtics with 28 points and seven rebounds.

The Celtics kept pace in a high scoring first quarter in game two, only trailing 38-34, but the Lakers blew the game open in the second quarter with a 20-0 run. Michael Cooper accounted for all 20 points by scoring or via assist as he tied a Finals record with eight assists in one quarter. Cooper also shot 6-7 from three point range in this game, finishing with 20 points and nine assists. Remarkably, in the third quarter Magic also had eight assists; he ended up with 24 points and 20 assists. Byron Scott tied Magic for game-high honors with 24 points as five Lakers scored at least 20 points in a 141-122 victory. Bird led the Celtics with 23 points.

If you think the phenomenon of players performing better at home than they do on the road in the playoffs is something new, consider what happened in game three in Boston: Scott's production plummeted to four points on 2-9 field goal shooting, while Worthy--who scored 56 points on 26-38 field goal shooting in the first two games--had just 13 points on 6-18 shooting. Magic (32 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Abdul-Jabbar (27 points, seven rebounds) tried to carry the load for the Lakers but the Celtics prevailed because of strong performances by their five starters, who scored 107 of the team's 109 points in a six point win. Bird led the way with 30 points, though he shot just 10-24 from the field. He also had a game-high 12 rebounds and four assists. There had been some understandable talk before this game that the Lakers might sweep the Celtics and afterwards Bird admitted that the Celtics had thought about this: "We're just too good a team to be swept. This was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for game four. Now it's going to be easy."

The 1987 playoffs produced two of the signature moments in NBA history. The first was Bird's steal in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. The second was Magic's game-winning shot in game four, a dagger that he termed the "junior, junior skyhook." For most of the game it did not seem like the score would be close enough for a last second shot to make a difference; the Celtics built a 15 point second half lead but then the Lakers rallied and went ahead on a lob from Magic to Abdul-Jabbar with less than 30 seconds to play. Bird answered with a three pointer to put Boston up 106-104. Abdul-Jabbar split a pair of free throws but the Celtics were not able to control the rebound, so the Lakers had one final chance. After a timeout, Magic received a pass on the left wing, drove to the middle of the lane and hit one of the most famous shots in NBA history, a hook lofted over the outstretched arms of Boston's Hall of Fame frontcourt. There were still two seconds left and Bird got free for a corner three pointer that could have won the game but he missed--and the game, the series and the rivalry tilted in Magic's favor. Magic finished with a game-high 29 points plus eight rebounds and five assists. McHale led the Celtics with 25 points (shooting 10-14 from the field) and 13 rebounds. Bird had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists but he shot 7-19 from the field.

"You expect to lose on a skyhook," Bird said after the game. "You don't expect it to be from Magic." He knew that the Celtics had squandered a great opportunity. "We turned the ball over twice (late in the game). We missed a rebound after a free throw. We really can't blame anyone but ourselves...A lot happened in the last minute and a half. Robert (Parish) gets the ball taken away from him. I throw the ball at Kevin's feet. They miss a free throw and we don't get the rebound. How many chances do you need to win a game?" Bird realized that the odds of the Celtics winning the series were not good. "I know when we're up 3-1 I always say it's over. It's not a good position. There's no question we're in trouble. We're not a good road team. I don't know if we can beat them twice out there. But we'll give it a try."

Naturally, the Celtics did not want the Lakers to celebrate a championship in Boston. All five Celtic starters scored at least 20 points in a 123-108 victory that shifted the series back to Los Angeles. Dennis Johnson led Boston with 25 points and 11 assists, while Bird had 23 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists though his shot was again off (7-18). Magic led the Lakers with 29 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds but Worthy (12 points on 6-19 shooting) and Scott (seven points on 3-10 shooting) once again struggled on the road.

The Celtics survived a slow start to take a 32-25 first quarter lead in game six and they still led 56-51 at halftime. However, they were done in by a disastrous third quarter during which the Lakers outscored them 30-12. That proved to be too much to overcome and the Lakers clinched the title with a 106-93 victory. During game six, CBS ran a graphic titled "Bird's '0 for' starts": he shot 0-6 from the field to start game three, 0-3 to start game four, 0-4 to start game five and that trend continued with an 0-3 to start game six. He eventually scored eight points in the first quarter but he ended up with just 16 points on 6-16 shooting. He also had nine rebounds and five assists. Bird averaged 24.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 5.5 apg in the series while shooting .445 from the field. Dennis Johnson led Boston with a game-high 33 points and he added 10 rebounds, tying McHale for game-high honors. Abdul-Jabbar scored 32 points on 13-18 shooting, a remarkable performance for anyone, let alone a 40 year old. However, the night belonged to Magic, who finished with 16 points, 19 assists and eight rebounds to clinch his third Finals MVP. Magic only shot 7-21 from the field but he orchestrated the Lakers' fastbreak attack to perfection. Magic led both teams in scoring (26.2 ppg) and assists (13.0 apg) during the series in addition to averaging a team-high 8.0 rpg. He shot .541 from the field. Bird put it best: "Magic is a great, great basketball player. The best I've ever seen."

After the series was over, Dennis Johnson said to Michael Cooper, "Same time, same place, next year" and Cooper agreed--but it was not to be. The Lakers survived three brutal seven game series to win the 1988 championship, becoming the first team since Bill Russell's 1968-69 Celtics to repeat as champions--but the Lakers' opponents in the Finals were the Pistons, not Bird's Celtics. Bird played in his last Finals game in 1987 and the Celtics have not been back to the Finals since then--until tonight. Magic's Lakers lost in the 1989 Finals to the Pistons and then they fell to Jordan's Bulls in the 1991 Finals as Jordan captured the first of his six championships. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant revived Laker glory earlier in this decade by winning three straight championships (2000-02) and making a fourth Finals appearance in 2004. Will Bryant's Lakers and Kevin Garnett's Celtics author their own Finals trilogy or is this year's engagement strictly a one-time showing? As Cooper and Johnson found out, next year is never promised to you, so you have to make the most of each opportunity to win a championship.

1986-87 NBA Leaderboard
---------------------------

Best Regular Season Records

1) L.A. Lakers, 65-17
2) Boston Celtics, 59-23
3) Atlanta Hawks, 57-25
4) Dallas Mavericks, 55-27
5) Detroit Pistons, 52-30

MVP

1) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
2) Michael Jordan (Bulls)
3) Larry Bird (Celtics)
4) Kevin McHale (Celtics)
5) Dominique Wilkins (Hawks)

Scoring

1) Michael Jordan, 37.1 ppg (Bulls)
2) Dominique Wilkins, 29.0 ppg (Hawks)
3) Alex English, 28.6 ppg (Nuggets)
4) Larry Bird, 28.1 ppg (Celtics)
5) Kiki Vandeweghe, 26.9 ppg (Trail Blazers)

Rebounding

1) Charles Barkley, 14.6 rpg (76ers)
2) Charles Oakley, 13.1 rpg (Bulls)
3) Buck Williams, 12.5 rpg (Nets)
4) James Donaldson, 11.9 rpg (Mavericks)
5) Bill Laimbeer, 11.6 rpg (Pistons)

Assists

1) Magic Johnson, 12.2 apg (Lakers)
2) Sleepy Floyd, 10.3 apg (Warriors)
3) Isiah Thomas, 10.0 apg (Pistons)
4) Doc Rivers, 10.0 apg (Hawks)
5) Terry Porter, 8.9 apg (Trail Blazers)

Notes:
------

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:46 AM

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

You Got Rondo'd--New Reebok Videos

Paul Dalessio of Fleishman-Hillard passed along three Reebok videos that are pretty self-explanatory. Also, he notes that you can visit Reebok.com to download a free Rondo ringtone and wallpaper.






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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

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The Way We Were, Part II: Celtics-Lakers, 1985

Part 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

MVP

1) Larry Bird (Celtics)
2) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
3) Moses Malone (76ers)
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers)
5) Terry Cummings (Bucks)

Scoring

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)

Rebounding

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)

Assists

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)

Notes:
------

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pistons Flip the Script, Fire Saunders

In the wake of three straight losses in the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit Pistons President Joe Dumars is determined to do whatever is necessary so that his team can return to the NBA Finals. Dumars began that process by firing Coach Flip Saunders and boldly declaring, "Make no mistake, everybody is in play right now. There are no sacred cows here. You lose that sacred cow status when you lose three straight years...I think this team became way too content and did not show up with a sense of urgency to get it done. I can't sugarcoat it. It is what it is."

Saunders is not a bad coach--but he is not a great coach, either, and most teams that win NBA titles not only have talented rosters but they also have great coaches. As I have mentioned on many occasions and summarized in an article titled Requiem for the Pistons, there have been two main problems with the Pistons during the Saunders' regime:

1) Under Saunders' predecessor Larry Brown, the Pistons built an identity as a strong defensive team. Saunders' Pistons were not nearly as good defensively, especially when it mattered most: in the Eastern Conference Finals against elite teams. As I noted in the "Requiem" article, Saunders' Pistons were most known for "lacking focus, not playing up to their potential and taking off quarters, halves and sometimes complete games." Is that entirely Saunders' fault? Perhaps not, but ultimately the responsibility for a lack of focus and productivity falls on the shoulders of the CEO, the general, the man in charge. Here is another way to look at this. Greg Anthony has repeatedly made a very perceptive observation about Phil Jackson's teams: they never underachieve. Think about it: when Jackson has championship level talent he wins championships, year after year. However, when Michael Jordan suddenly retired, Jackson guided the Bulls to 55 wins--just two fewer than in the previous year--and had them within a horrible Hue Hollins call of making it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan's last minute departure left the Bulls no time to try to draft a replacement or sign a top free agent, so they ended up with Pete Myers as their starting shooting guard that year. Contrast that with Saunders' situation: he inherited a team that had won a championship and made it to the Finals in back to back years. Do you honestly think that if Jackson had taken over such a team that it would never get back to the Finals?

2) Ben Wallace did not fit in with the "liberation offense" that Saunders wanted to run and that certainly played a factor in the Pistons electing to let him sign with the Bulls. Saunders believed that he could increase the team's offensive efficiency by so much that it would compensate for any slippage in defense in the wake of Wallace's departure (perhaps Saunders also thought that the Pistons would still be great defensively even without Wallace). Saunders may run the best baseline out of bounds plays in the league and his offense--run by three All-Stars--may look great in the regular season against weak teams but it annually falls apart for extended stretches in the playoffs against elite teams. Defense wins championships, not "liberation offense." It may seem like this year's Lakers are turning that adage on its head a bit with their high powered offense but their formidable scoring differential and field goal percentage differential are indicators that they are not only scoring a lot of points but also slowing down their opponents' offenses.

It remains to be seen what other changes Dumars will make before the 2008-09 season. However, the formula for the Pistons to return to the NBA Finals must address the concerns mentioned above: the new coach must reassert Detroit's identity as a strong defensive team, the Pistons must find a way--either through a change in personnel or an adjustment in their defensive scheme--to make up for the shotblocking that Ben Wallace once provided and the Pistons must develop an offensive attack that can withstand the rigors of high level playoff basketball. As with the defensive problems, the latter issue may be addressed by making personnel moves--acquiring or developing a low post scoring threat and/or a slashing wing player who can create shots for himself and others--or by strategic changes that better emphasize the strengths of the team's players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 PM

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The Way We Were, Part I: Celtics-Lakers, 1984

This Thursday, the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers will begin writing another chapter in one of the most storied rivalries in sports history. However, because the previous chapter was completed in 1987, a large number of NBA fans were not even born the last time these teams met in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Lakers combined to win eight championships in the 1980s and they faced each other in the Finals three times. Those matchups represented a revival of a great rivalry from the 1950s and 1960s, when Bill Russell's Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons--including a record eight in a row from 1959-66--and defeated the Lakers each of the seven times that they played them in the Finals. In 1969, Lakers legend Jerry West won the first ever Finals MVP and he remains the only player from the losing team to capture that award; his 42 point, 13 rebound, 12 assist effort in a 108-106 game seven loss to Boston was truly extraordinary but even though he went on to win a championship when his 1972 Lakers defeated the New York Knicks he still says that he never really got over the disappointment of losing to Boston so many times.

Over the next three days, I will take a look back at the 1980s version of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, focusing on their head to head duels in the 1984, 1985 and 1987 NBA Finals. Let's kick things off by setting the wayback machine to 1984:

Although nowadays people act as if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dueled each other throughout the 1980s, the reality is that for the first four seasons of the decade they only played head to head twice a year in the regular season and did not meet in the playoffs. The big individual rivalry in the league at that time was Bird versus Julius Erving; they battled individually for recognition as not only the best forward but the best player in the NBA: Bird finished fourth, second, second and second in MVP voting from 1980-83, while Erving finished second, first, third and fifth in MVP voting during those seasons. Bird's Celtics played Erving's Philadelphia 76ers six times a year as they fought for Atlantic Division supremacy as a prelude to their annual showdowns in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Sixers sandwiched two victories over the Celtics (1980, 1982) around a heartbreaking 1981 loss in which they took a 3-1 series lead before losing the last three games by a combined total of five points. Bird's Celtics took full advantage of their first trip to the Finals by beating an upstart 40-42 Houston team, while Erving's Sixers twice lost to the Lakers in the Finals.

While Bird beat out Magic for the 1980 Rookie of the Year Award, immediately became a fixture on the All-NBA First Team and annually finished near the top of MVP voting, it could be argued that Magic was an underrated player in his first few seasons. Despite winning Finals MVPs in 1980 and 1982, Magic received no MVP votes in 1980, finished 10th in 1981 and ranked eighth in 1982 before moving up to third in 1983 and 1984. Magic's teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his record sixth MVP in 1980 and Magic did not overtake him as the team's scoring leader until the 1986-87 season, which could be part of the reason that MVP voters were slow to grant Magic much consideration. Still, Magic had a Finals performance for the ages in 1980--producing 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the game six clincher over Philadelphia when Abdul-Jabbar was unable to play due to a sprained ankle--and in the 1981-82 season he nearly averaged a triple double (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg) before wrapping up his second Finals MVP in his first three seasons with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in another game six clincher versus the 76ers.

In 1982-83, the Sixers acquired Moses Malone from Houston, stormed to a 65-17 record and swept the Lakers in the Finals; the Celtics were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so that was the first year that Bird and Erving did not face each other in the playoffs. That Sixers team is still one of the greatest single season squads of all-time but rather than the start of a dynasty that turned out to be the end of an era, capping off a seven year run during which Erving's Sixers won more games than any other NBA team, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals six times and advanced to the NBA Finals four times.

In retrospect, the 1983-84 season was a watershed moment for the NBA in many ways, both a passing of the torch and the start of the transformation of the league into a global sports juggernaut. For the first time since 1979, Erving did not make the All-NBA First Team and he finished out of the top five in MVP voting. His defending champion 76ers suffered a shocking first round playoff loss to the New Jersey Nets and that helped pave the way for Bird's Celtics to face Magic's Lakers in the Finals for the first time. Also, in February 1984, David Stern became the NBA Commissioner and his visionary leadership soon helped to guide the league into an era of unprecedented popularity and financial success.

The Celtics had a new coach--K.C. Jones replaced Bill Fitch--and a superstar with a new mindset; Bird was embarrassed by Boston's abbreviated 1983 playoff run and after the loss to Milwaukee he vowed to elevate his game to another level: "People say, 'As Larry goes, so go the Celtics.' So okay, next season I'll take on that pressure. I'll come back with more desire than ever. If it's got to start somewhere it might as well start here." Bird established career-highs (each of which he surpassed in subsequent seasons) in scoring (24.2 ppg), assists (6.6 apg) and free throw percentage (.888, best in the NBA) while leading the Celtics to a league-best 62 wins. He captured his first MVP in the official balloting conducted by the media, though he finished second to Bernard King in a poll of NBA players conducted by the Sporting News. Do you remember what a great three point shooter Bird was back then? If you said "Yes" then you either have a real bad memory or you are a liar: Bird shot 18-73 (.247) from three point range that season and the only time in his first five years in the league that he shot better than .300 (not .400, mind you, but .300) from three point range was his rookie season (58-143, .406). At that time, most teams only shot three pointers as last second heaves at the end of a quarter or in situations when they trailed late in a game; those half court flings and desperate shots lowered many players' percentages. The three pointer only gradually became a regular part of NBA offenses and the three point prowess for which Bird is legendary did not become a part of his game until 1984-85.

The Celtics beat the Washington Bullets 3-1 in the first round, survived a seven game battle with King's New York Knicks and gained revenge over the Bucks with a 4-1 victory in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Magic's Lakers posted the best record in the West (54-28) even though he missed 15 games, most of them due to an early season finger injury. Magic won the second of his four assists titles with a career-high 13.1 apg average and he shot a career-best .565 from the field while scoring 17.6 ppg, second on the team to Abdul-Jabbar's 21.5 ppg. The Lakers swept the Kansas City Kings 3-0, knocked off the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 and defeated the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals. At long last Bird and Magic had the opportunity to play a rematch of their 1979 NCAA Championship Game battle. Although the media understandably played up the Bird-Magic angle, the 1984 Finals featured a total of seven future Hall of Famers: Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. In addition, five other participants--Dennis Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman and Swen Nater (ABA)--made the All-Star team at least once during their careers. Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar and McAdoo each won at least one regular season MVP during their careers, while Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Maxwell each won at least one Finals MVP.

The Lakers seized home court advantage with a 115-109 game one win in Boston. Abdul-Jabbar led the way with 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and two steals. Magic contributed 19 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, while second year forward Worthy added 20 points and five rebounds. McHale led the Celtics with 25 points, while Bird had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five assists but he shot just 7-17 from the field and committed six turnovers.

The Celtics led 37-26 after the first quarter of game two but the Lakers rallied and eventually took the lead in the third quarter. It looked like Worthy would be the hero of the game; he finished with 29 points on 11-12 field goal shooting, converting an astonishing five three point plays as Boston's defenders struggled to deal with his lightning quick first step. With just 18 seconds left in what had been a back and forth second half, the Lakers led 115-113. McHale missed two free throws but a series of miscues cost the Lakers a chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead. After a timeout, Magic passed to Worthy, who looked like he was the last man on Earth who wanted to have the ball at that particular moment. Worthy lobbed a careless cross court pass that Gerald Henderson intercepted and converted into the tying layup. On the Lakers' next possession, Magic inexplicably dribbled the clock out, apparently unaware that the Lakers no longer had the lead. The Celtics took full advantage of their second chance and emerged with new life after a 124-121 overtime win. Bird had another subpar shooting game (8-22 from the field) but he led the Celtics with 27 points and 13 rebounds.

When you consider how that game ended--with gaffes committed by future Hall of Famers Magic and Worthy--it is amusing to hear commentators, many of whom played in the NBA and committed mistakes in big games, make sweeping declarations about what great players "always" or "never" do in clutch situations, as if great players always make the right play and never make mistakes. The reality is that over the course of his career, a great player will make many great plays and some not so great plays. No great player "always" comes through in the clutch and "always" makes the right play. Michael Jordan made a very profound point when he stated in a TV ad that he had failed thousands of times but that those failures were why he eventually succeeded; the great players learn from their mistakes, do not lose confidence and bounce back when they get another opportunity to perform in a critical moment.

If the Lakers were devastated by the sudden turn of events at the end of game two you sure could not tell based on how they played in game three; they routed the Celtics 137-104 as Magic set a Finals record with 21 assists. Seven Lakers scored at least 13 points, led by Abdul-Jabbar's 24. Bird scored a game-high 30 points on 9-16 field goal shooting but he took his most famous shot of the series right after the game, when he loaded up and fired with both barrels directed squarely at his teammates: "We played like a bunch of sissies. I know the heart and soul of this team and today the heart wasn't there, that's for sure. I can't believe a team like this would let L.A. come out and push us around like they did. Today I didn't feel we played hard." Isn't it interesting that when that message comes from Larry Bird it is cited as an example of his tough-minded leadership but if another player said similar things it would be considered "throwing his teammates under the bus"? It is fascinating how the media shapes our perceptions of events and personalities.

The Lakers led by as many as 14 points in the first half of game four but the Celtics had cut the margin to 76-70 when perhaps the biggest--and certainly the most famous--play of the series happened. Laker forward Kurt Rambis was cruising in for a layup when McHale clotheslined him and sent him sprawling to the floor. That would be a flagrant three foul today--yes, I know that there is no such thing as a flagrant three but if anyone committed a foul like that Commissioner Stern would instantly invent a flagrant three foul and administer swift justice. Riley later said that the Celtics were "a bunch of thugs." Maxwell offered this interesting take on the McHale play: "Before McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light and look both ways."

Although Boston played a beautiful brand of basketball with a lot of passing and cutting, people forget just how physical the 80s Celtics really were; the "Bad Boys" Pistons were put together specifically to be able to match the physical punishment that the Celtics dealt out and it is ironic that the finesse-oriented Bulls later emerged to vanquish them just like the finesse-oriented Lakers ultimately won two of their three matchups with the Celtics in the 80s.

Despite the Celtics' efforts to slow down the Lakers by any means necessary, the Lakers built a 113-108 lead with less than a minute left in game four. Then Abdul-Jabbar, who had scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, fouled out as Parish converted a three point play. The Lakers turned the ball over and Bird drained two free throws to tie the score. Then Parish stole Magic's pass but after Bird and McHale each missed shots the teams again battled into overtime. Bird's jumper with 16 seconds remaining gave the Celtics the lead for good. Bird shot just 9-24 from the field and had only two assists but he finished with 29 points and 21 rebounds. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 32 points, Worthy scored 30 points on 14-17 field goal shooting and Magic had 20 points, 17 assists and 11 rebounds while shooting 8-12 from the field--but this would not be remembered as a great game for Magic: he committed seven turnovers, including critical ones late in the game, and he missed two free throws with 35 seconds left in regulation. In light of Magic's late game miscues in games three and four, McHale later referred to him as "Tragic" Johnson.

The series shifted back to Boston for the critical game five and Bird authored one of the signature performances of his career, shooting 15-20 from the field, scoring 34 points and grabbing 17 rebounds as the Celtics cruised to a 121-103 win. It was a sweltering 97 degrees inside of the Boston Garden but Bird dismissed that as a concern, reasoning that most players grew up playing outside all day long in summer heat. Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 19 points but shot just 7-25 from the field, was not buying that logic. In response to a question about how difficult the playing conditions were, he said, "I suggest that you go to a local steam bath, do 100 pushups with all your clothes on, then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes. The game was in slow motion. It was like we were running in mud." Worthy led the Lakers with 22 points on 10-17 field goal shooting. Magic had 13 assists but scored just 10 points on 3-9 shooting.

Four Lakers scored at least 20 points as they staved off elimination on their home court with a 119-108 game six win. Abdul-Jabbar had a game-high 30 points, while Magic contributed 21 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. Bird shot 8-11 from the field and led the Celtics in points (28), rebounds (14) and assists (eight).

Heading into game seven, the natural assumption would be that Abdul-Jabbar, Bird or Magic would emerge as the star. Abdul-Jabbar scored a game-high 29 points on 12-22 shooting but Bird and Magic both had subpar shooting performances, 6-18 and 5-14 respectively. Bird finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three assists, while Magic had 16 points, 15 assists and five rebounds. The man of the hour turned out to be none other than Maxwell, who had won the 1981 Finals MVP by averaging 17.7 ppg and 9.5 rpg during a series in which Bird rebounded and passed well (15.3 rpg, 7.0 apg) but struggled mightily with his shot (39-93, .419). Before game seven, Maxwell declared that the team should hop on his back and he would carry them home and he did just that, leading the Celtics in scoring (24 points) and assists (eight) and adding eight rebounds in a 111-102 victory. Bird, who averaged series-high numbers in scoring (27.4 ppg) and rebounding (14.0 rpg), won the Finals MVP. Meanwhile, Magic had to endure a very long offseason during which he was roundly criticized for his various Finals miscues. He expressed disappointment in his play--particularly the missed free throws in game four--but seemed puzzled by the extent of the animosity directed toward him: "I sat back when it was over and I thought, 'Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time or didn't we?' This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was."

Magic would have to wait a very long year before he and his Lakers had an opportunity to avenge this painful defeat.

Tomorrow in Part II: The Celtics and Lakers post the two best records in the NBA in 1984-85 and the whole season seems like just a long prelude to their inevitable Finals rematch.

1983-84 NBA Leaderboard
---------------------------

Best Regular Season Records

1) Boston Celtics, 62-20
2) L.A. Lakers, 54-28
3) Philadelphia 76ers, 52-30
4) Milwaukee Bucks, 50-32
5) Detroit Pistons, 49-33

MVP

1) Larry Bird (Celtics)
2) Bernard King (Knicks)
3) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers)
5) Isiah Thomas (Pistons)

Scoring

1) Adrian Dantley, 30.6 ppg (Jazz)
2) Mark Aguirre, 29.5 ppg (Mavericks)
3) Kiki Vandeweghe, 29.4 ppg (Nuggets)
4) Alex English, 26.4 ppg (Nuggets)
5) Bernard King, 26.3 ppg (Knicks)

Rebounding

1) Moses Malone, 13.4 rpg (76ers)
2) Buck Williams, 12.3 rpg (Nets)
3) Jeff Ruland, 12.3 rpg (Bullets)
4) Bill Laimbeer, 12.2 rpg (Pistons)
5) Ralph Sampson, 11.1 rpg (Rockets)

Assists

1) Magic Johnson, 13.1 apg (Lakers)
2-3) Isiah Thomas, 11.2 apg (Pistons)
2-3) Norm Nixon, 11.2 apg (Clippers)
**note: Thomas and Nixon each had 914 assists in 82 games**
4) John Lucas, 10.7 apg (Spurs)
5) Johnny Moore, 9.6 apg (Spurs)

Notes:
------

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Los Angeles Versus Boston Preview

NBA Finals

Boston (66-16) vs. Los Angeles (57-25)

Season series: Boston, 2-0

Boston can win if…they can hold the Lakers' field goal percentage below .450, shoot at least .450 from the field and maintain a decisive advantage (greater than 10-plus ppg) in points in the paint.

Los Angeles will win because…they have the best player in the game in Kobe Bryant and anything that the Celtics try to do to contain him will either fail and/or open up easy scoring opportunities for Pau Gasol in the paint and the Lakers' various perimeter shooters.

Other things to consider: The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom trio works so well because Bryant has the skill set and mentality to be a big time scorer/closer while Gasol is well suited to being the second option and Odom is much, much better suited to being the third option than the second option. Gasol goes up too softly with his shot sometimes, but he has good hands, he can make an array of shots inside and outside of the paint and he is a good passer and rebounder; Odom gets out of control sometimes and either misses badly from point blank range or commits offensive fouls but when he gets most of his touches by slashing in from the weak side he is very effective. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play will be difficult for Boston to defend. Against Cleveland, Boston defended screen/roll plays that involved LeBron James by sagging off of James, daring him to shoot jumpers and making it difficult for him to complete passes. If the Celtics defend Bryant that way then he will bury a ton of jumpers; they will have to trap Bryant with Gasol's defender and then rotate another big man to Gasol. The Celtics are a good strong-side defensive team, so they may very well succeed sometimes at trapping Bryant and rotating to Gasol, but if the Lakers are patient and crisp in their execution then there should be wide open shots available on the weak side either for Odom slashing to the hoop or for three point shooters such as Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic.

The Lakers are a speed/finesse team that is being outrebounded 43.9 rpg to 40.5 rpg in the playoffs and they have been outrebounded in two of their three series wins. Pat Riley used to always say "No rebounds, no rings" but the Lakers have been so productive offensively (105.9 ppg on .478 field goal shooting) and so effective defensively (99.5 ppg on .433 field goal shooting) that their weakness on the glass has not been a problem. I expect Boston to outrebound the Lakers but in order to win the series the Celtics must convert that advantage into a lot of points in the paint--by scoring on putbacks and/or creating fast break layups in transition after defensive rebounds.

The Lakers are not known as a great defensive team but their point differential (6.4 ppg) and field goal percentage differential (.045) in the playoffs are better than Boston's (4.3 ppg and .026 respectively). Athletic teams/players can cause problems for the Celtics, as we saw in the first round with Atlanta and even in the Detroit series with the contributions made by Rodney Stuckey and Lindsey Hunter. The Lakers are a long and fast team that is very formidable in the transition game. The problem with the Suns and the Warriors is not that those teams are high powered offensively but rather that they are terrible defensively; the Lakers play at a fast tempo and score a lot of points but they don't give up a lot of easy shots defensively: Tim Duncan averaged 22.4 ppg versus the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals but he shot just .426 from the field and the defending champion Spurs collectively shot just .426. Duncan shot .495 and the Spurs shot .467 versus Phoenix in the first round.

ESPN.com's Bill Simmons is always blasting Doc Rivers' coaching but his critiques did not make sense in previous seasons when the Celtics were clearly not a very good team and they don't make sense now considering that the Celtics led from wire to wire in the regular season and have returned to the Finals for the first time since 1987. Just having talented players is no guarantee that a team will win; Flip Saunders inherited a Detroit team that had won a title and made consecutive Finals appearances yet he has never guided the Pistons back to the Finals. Rivers convinced All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to sacrifice individual scoring glory and concentrate on defense and Rivers also got the role players to buy into his defensive philosophy as well. It seems like Simmons not only has an ax to grind against Rivers but is not even paying close attention to the games, because Simmons recently asserted that the Celtics "live and die by jump shots"; as I predicted before the Eastern Conference Finals and documented throughout that series, the Celtics dominated the Pistons in the points in the paint category, so whatever one wants to say about Rivers' coaching it is not fair or accurate to say that the Celtics relied primarily on jumpers to beat the Pistons.

The strange thing about Allen in this year's playoffs is not just how poorly he has shot but how he seems at times to have lost confidence. If Kobe Bryant ever shot that poorly you can bet that he would still fire up his next jumper with supreme confidence. Allen is one of the great perimeter shooters of all-time, yet he has looked hesitant to shoot at times.

Did you notice how happy Pierce and the rest of the Celtics were to celebrate with the Eastern Conference Championship trophy? Phil Jackson all but mocked the idea of celebrating a Western Conference Championship and Bryant made it very clear that his only goal is winning the NBA title. Sure, Pierce and the Celtics later said much the same things but keep in mind that Pierce, Garnett and Allen have never reached the Finals before. They are very excited to get there and I think that their initial reactions to beating Detroit spoke more of relief and satisfaction than hunger to win the next series. I don't mean to say that they are not hungry to win a championship but merely to point out that it has been a tough, grueling road for them--both in their careers and in these playoffs--just to get this far and they don't really know what it takes to win a title. Jackson, Bryant and Fisher all have experienced success in the Finals on multiple occasions and that could be most beneficial to the Lakers, particularly early in the series. A very good Seattle team fell down 3-0 to Chicago in the 1996 Finals before the Sonics really adjusted to the intensity level of a championship series and in a weird way it could work against the Celtics that they have the first two games of this series at home: they will have to deal with all of the hoopla and expectations that come from being at home and if they are jittery for even one quarter that could be enough to cause them to lose home court advantage and thus have an uphill struggle for the rest of the series. Both teams will have been off for several days, so the rest/rust factor should be the same for each of them.

Finally, you may be wondering what Boston's 2-0 advantage in the regular season series means. Frankly, not much: Gasol was not a member of the Lakers for either game.

The first meeting was a 107-94 home win for Boston on November 23, 2007. That was the 12th game of the season for the Lakers (7-5) and the 11th game for the Celtics (10-1). Andrew Bynum--who is of course out of action now due to a knee injury--had just moved into the starting lineup for the Lakers and he finished with four points on 2-7 shooting plus nine rebounds. Odom also shot 2-7 from the field. The Lakers were still putting their rotation together, as Ronny Turiaf started while Luke Walton and Radmanovic came off of the bench. Bryant had a slightly subpar game, 28 points on 9-21 shooting plus four rebounds and three assists. This was the third game in four nights for the Lakers, all on the road. The Celtics had been home since a November 18 game in Orlando and had only played one other game in that time.

The second meeting was a 110-91 road win for Boston on December 30, 2007. The Celtics improved to 26-3, while the Lakers fell to 19-11. Bynum again had a quiet game (eight points, two rebounds). Trevor Ariza started at small forward for the Lakers. This was the throwback game in which the Lakers wore short-shorts in the first half. Bryant had his third worst shooting game of the regular season (22 points on 6-25 shooting from the field)--and it was his worst in a game in which he attempted more than 13 shots. Bryant has shot .500 or better in 10 of 15 playoff games, so the Celtics should not count on a repeat of that performance. The Celtics led by double figures for a substantial portion of the game. This was the Lakers' only loss in a five game home stand and their only defeat in a 12 game span from December 21 to January 14. The most impressive thing about this victory is that it was Boston's fourth game in five nights, all on the road; it was also the sixth win in what would become a nine game winning streak. Nevertheless, the Lakers were without Gasol, while Walton and Radmanovic only played sparingly, so this was simply not the team that Boston will be facing in the Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM

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