Thursday, May 29, 2008

Heading Toward The Inevitable?

I haven't posted at all about the NBA playoffs this year, but as the inevitability of a Celtics-Lakers Finals increases with each passing moment, I feel compelled to say a few words.

There was a time when I wasn't a card-carrying Lakers hater, and that time was back in the 1980s, when every season carried with it the promise of a Lakers-Celtics final. Back in those days it really couldn't get any better than that - Magic facing off against Bird, Kareem against Parish, Kevin McHale, James Worthy, Cornbread Maxwell, Danny Ainge, Kurt Rambis...and the list goes on. When L.A. faced Boston, you could count on an epic, and for three great series in the 1980s, both teams delivered.

While it seems strange to think in these terms today, there really is something to those "Bird and Magic saved the league" stories that you hear today. It may not be the entire truth, but it's certainly closer to truth than it is to legend. As late as 1981, when Boston played Houston in the Finals, the weeknight games were shown on a tape-delay basis; it was only with the Lakers-76ers series in 1982 that the Finals returned for good to prime time. And it wasn't until the 1984 Finals between L.A. and Boston that you knew the game was back in the zeitgeist for good. That year, what easily could have been an L.A. sweep turned into a 7-game Celtics triumph. The Lakers won Game 1 back in Boston, and then were poised to take Game 2 in overtime when an ill-advised pass from James Worthy (who was schooled in that series by Cornbread) ended up in the hands of the green, and the game was history. Game 3 was a Lakers blowout, and Game 4 started out looking like another, but the Celtics managed to stay close enough to steal a win at the end...and the rest was history.

In 1985 the series began with the famous Memorial Day Massacre in favor of the Celtics, after which papers across the country wrote Kareem's basketball obituary. Still having quite a bit of fire in his belly, Kareem took offense, and took over the series, leading the Lakers to a 4-2 series win, with a most pleasing victory to cap it off in Boston - the first time that had ever happened. This was, of note, the first Finals which featured a 2-3-2 home/away format, rather than the traditional 2-2-1-1-1. I'm still not sure I understand why they decided to do that, but it's stuck.

After the Celtics near-historic great season of 1986, they started to get old, but managed to hang on long enough to squeak past the Pistons one last time and make it to the Finals in 1987. They had no business being on the floor with the Lakers that year, but incredibly, came close to stealing another title. After falling behind 2-0 in L.A., they scrapped back to a 2-2 tie, and then were poised to take the series lead until Magic hit an improbable hook shot with seconds left to give the Lakers a 3-2 lead (in one of the all-time great games) and send the series back to L.A., where the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

And that was it, until now (I may be jinxing the Celtics here, but I can't see them losing the next two to Detroit). Will the country still care? There is no more Fabulous Forum, no Boston Garden, no Johnny Most, no Dancing Barry. Jack is still there, along with the ridiculous celebrities eating up tickets that would be much better used by real basketball fans. And in Boston, they now have a dance team, which to some is just one more sign of the apocalypse. So it isn't quite the same, but in the end I have to admit that it's preferable to San Antonio-Detroit. Now if only the two teams could find a transition offense, fans might actually have something to get excited about.

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