Monday, May 31, 2010

Lakers vs. Celtics: A history of pain for the purple and gold

As a Lakers fan, when I think about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, I concentrate on the 1980s. LA owned the decade, winning five titles while the Celtics only won three. Specifically, I focus on the 1985 and 1987 seasons, when the Lakers defeated the Celtics for the title. But those are the only two bright spots in the teams' storied rivalry. In the 1960s it was all about the Celtics breaking hearts in LA and back in Minnesota, where the Lakers once ruled the league. The teams met again in 1984 and a new generation of Laker fans learned how easy it was to hate the men in green. M.L. Carr's hideous towel replaced Red Auerbach's cigar as the symbol of everything that's wrong with the Celtics and the rivalry. Scratch that. Carr's white towel joined Red's cigar, as the old Celtic legend remained an integral part of the franchise and was right there in the locker room after Game 7, again lighting up while millions of Laker fans contemplated how the cigar and Red would look if they jammed the cancer-stick in a certain part of Red's anatomy.

Then, in 2008, the teams met again. And yet again Boston prevailed as pundits talked about the toughness of Boston and LA's soft players and all the old ghosts returned. Red's cigar was long gone and so was Carr's towel. But Paul Pierce's wheelchair and KG's glare replaced them. What will it be this year? I fully expect a Lakers victory. In 6. But what if Boston does it again? What if we again have to listen to people talk about how tough the East Coast team is? What will be the lasting image? Nate Robinson's antics? Rasheed screaming at someone? KG screaming at everyone? If the unthinkable does happen and the Celtics do raise an 18th banner, I guarantee I won't be watching the TV to watch the final moments.

This will be the 12th time the teams face each other in the finals. The Celtics have won 9 of the 11 matchups. Each one was maddening, every one depressing. But what were the worst Laker losses, the defeats that still sting decades later? A Top 10 list. Or, Bottom 10, depending on your perspective.

10. Game 6, 2008 Finals. The final score tells the whole story. Boston 131, Lakers 92. The Lakers trailed 3-2 entering Game 6 and I didn't have much confidence that they could win two in Boston. The Celtics had the best record in the league that year. Even though many people thought LA would win the series, Boston proved through the first five games that they were the better team. The Lakers seemed to have little hope of sweeping two in a row in Boston. But still, there was a chance. Right? Uh, no. The game was similar to the 148-114 Memorial Day Massacre in 1985. Except that happened in Game 1 and the Lakers turned that loss into their greatest victory. Game 6 in 2008 ended in humiliation, as did the series, as did the season. Like always, the classy Celtic fans tormented the Lakers team bus after the game. If that happens again, would it kill the bus driver to run over a few feet? Nothing fatal, just a little blow the Celtic fan wouldn't feel until the next day, when the alcohol has finally worn off.

9. Game 7, 1966 NBA Finals. The Lakers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force a decisive seventh game. Unfortunately, it was played in Boston where the Celtics simply didn't lose Game 7s. There was nothing particularly crushing about the game, other than the final result. There wasn't a lucky shot by Don Nelson or a steal by Gerald Henderson or a brain cramp by Magic Johnson. Just one more in a neverending series of losses that reaffirmed Boston's dominance over the league and the Lakers. This was Red Auerbach's final victory as a coach - Russell replaced him as a player-coach the following year.

8. Game 6, 1962 Finals. This series makes another appearance later in the list. This was one of the most exciting series in NBA history. It included Jerry West's buzzer-beating steal and layup in Game 3. And in Game 5, Elgin Baylor scored a playoff-record 61 points as the Lakers won in Boston to take a 3-2 series lead. Baylor's record lasted 24 years, until Michael Jordan broke it - also in the Boston Garden. The Lakers' jubilation lasted a single game. With a chance to end the series in LA, the Lakers got blown away, losing 119-105. If the Lakers win that game we never hear about Frank Selvy's shot in Game 7 and we might not have ever heard about a Celtics dynasty. And my dad would have had a happier childhood.

7. Game 4, 1969 NBA Finals. This remains the only series the Lakers ever lost after taking a 2-0 lead. Boston won Game 3. In Game 4, the Lakers led 88-87 in Boston. Sam Jones missed a jumper but the Celtics grabbed the offensive rebound. The Celtics ran a variation of the ol' picket fence play - RIP Shooter - and Jones hit an awkward-looking jumper over Wilt. The shot bounced in, giving the Celtics an 89-88 win. Jones misses, Lakers win the game and most likely go on to win the series. Or maybe not. Knowing the way these teams played, the Celtics probably would have rallied from a 3-1 deficit. Sigh. Here's Sam.

6. Game 4, 2008 Finals. The Lakers led 35-14 after the first quarter. The triangle offense made a mockery of the Celtics' dominant defense. The series was tied 2-2. The Lakers had all the momentum. They'd win Game 5 and then close it out in Game 6 in Boston, just like in 1985. That's what I was thinking, anyway. It was inevitable. Eventually the Lakers led by 24 points. Twenty-four. Then Eddie House and James Posey started hitting some shots, the Lakers started missing all of theirs, Garnett started screaming and every Laker on the court began melting. It was a nightmare. By the end of the third quarter the Celtics only trailed by 2. The Celtics clinched the game after Ray Allen pulled off a dribble-drive move he hadn't executed since filming He Got Game. Yet somehow it left Sasha Vujacic planted on the floor. The twenty-four-point lead had completely disappeared, as had the Lakers chances for a title. I threw a lot of things that night. But at least I didn't throw up.

5. Game 2, 1984 Finals. Hmmm, what's the most maddening part of this game? Worthy's lazy pass? Gerald Henderson's steal? Magic inexplicably allowing the clock to run out in regulation with the game tied, while Kareem stood planted in the post, waiting for a pass that never arrived? No, it's Johnny Most's call of Henderson's steal. Even now that voice - that infuriating, smoke-ridden, throat-damaged voice - drives me crazy. The Lakers led the series 1-0 and were going to take a commanding two-game lead, with the series headed back to LA. They led by two and had the ball. But Worthy lofted a pass crosscourt, a lob pass that Johnny Most himself could have run under and intercepted. Henderson stole it. His layup tied the game. Still, the Lakers had the ball and a chance to win it at the end of regulation. But Magic dribbled out the clock instead of throwing it down to Kareem. The Celtics won in overtime and eventually won the series in 7.

4. Game 7, 1984 Finals. The culmination of a depressing series. Another Game 7 in Boston, another devastating loss for the Lakers. Boston controlled the game throughout but the Lakers cut the deficit to three in the closing minutes. But Magic continued to struggle and had a key turnover. Magic was so bad in this series - in Games 2, 4 and 7 - that some people called him Tragic Johnson and said the series was proof he wasn't good in the clutch. He disproved that theory, beginning the following season. But the 1984 Finals forever haunted the Lakers. They blew the Celtics out in two games but blew a pair of games. Cedric Maxwell starred in Game 7, another night that ended with (possibly) rabid Celtic fans storming the Lakers team bus. Again, I'm only asking for one brave driver to back over a Celtic fan, causing a minor injury.

3. Game 4, 1984. The Kevin McHale game. McHale should have been brought up on assault charges after this game, instead he became the toast of Boston. As a 9-year-old, I'm not even sure if I was fully aware that McHale was "one of us," meaning a Minnesota native. He came from Hibbing, the land of Dylan. He's the best player ever from the state, a beloved figure, until the final years of his tenure as Wolves GM. But in 1984 I didn't care if he came from up north. All I knew was that he tried to kill Kurt Rambis. The Lakers blew the Celtics out in Game 3. Larry Bird ridiculed his team's effort. The Lakers had a 2-1 lead and were looking for a commanding 3-1 advantage. Game 4s - with the exception of 1987 - have never been real kind to the Lakers when it comes to series against the Celtics. Again Magic suffered in the clutch, missing big free throws and committing painful turnovers. M.L. Carr clinched it with his dunk and ridiculous dance. Agh.

2. Game 7, 1962 NBA Finals. The only time the Lakers had a single shot that would have killed off the Celtics. There was just one thing wrong with the shot, other than the final outcome. On a team with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the man taking the shot in the decisive game of the season was Frank Selvy. Selvy was a good player. In college he scored 100 points in a single game. But he was not West or Baylor. Still, he was the main reason the Lakers rallied from a 4-point deficit in the final minutes. He scored a pair of baskets to tie the game at 100. But with the score still tied, he took a pass from Hot Rod Hundley on the baseline and fired a jumper that bounced out. Of course it did. Sam Jones' shot bounces in. So did Don Nelson's. But Selvy's didn't. The Celtics went on to win in overtime, nicely setting the stage for a decade of dominance and Laker horrors.

1. Game 7, 1969. Any number of the games on this list could occupy the top spot. I put this one here because it sort of had everything that made the decade such a painful one for the Lakers. As I wrote above, it shouldn't have even come down to this final game. Lakers won the first two and seemed on their way to finishing the series off in five or six games. But it went seven. Still, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke maintained confidence in his team. Which is good. He then had thousands of balloons put into The Forum, in anticipation of a Laker victory and celebration. Not so good. The Celtics - behind Bill Russell, playing in his final game - jumped out to an early lead. They stretched it throughout the second half, eventually leading by 15. Wilt Chamberlain got benched by Laker coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who refused to put the dominant center in as the Lakers sliced into the lead. With the Celtics leading by 2 in the final minute, Don Nelson corralled a tipped ball and fired a jumper that bounced high off the rim and down, clinching the game and pushing Jerry West one step closer to madness. West became the only player on a losing team to win series MVP.

It had Celtics tenacity, Laker arrogance, Celtics luck, and Lakers tragedy. It was the Celtics-Lakers dynasty, captured in one crushing game.

I'm pretty sure nothing like that will happen in the 2010 Finals. But that's just a feeling, and a hope. History says otherwise.

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