Revisiting A Classic

The NBA Finals pit two formidable teams against each other, again. Long live, Lakers/Celtics circa 1960s.

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A couple of weeks ago, I bumped into Roberto, a college classmate on the street. Since we were both class of '82, this is a drop-everything moment: We live in the same Manhattan neighborhood, but our contact seems limited to annual chance encounters.

After catching up, our dialogue turned to sports, and Roberto made a pained confession. "My son....I don't know how to say it; he roots for Boston!" His anguished look asked, "Have I failed as a parent?"

My response was something about kids being notorious bandwagon jumpers and how soon, his son will be all about the Tampa Bay Rays, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Utah Jazz, but I was coming to an important realization about my old pal. He was among the elder of his siblings, while I'm the youngest of my family. Therefore, my first impression of Boston sports—basketball in particular—differed dramatically from his. It isn't of the seemingly whiter-than-they-needed-to-be, great Celtic teams of the '80s; it's of the Bill Russell-led squads of the '60s. Russell was a stern, thoughtful man, and when I began watching sports in 1968, many of my elders pointed to him as a role model. He was leading a mostly black Celtic team to title after title, and by that time, he wasn't just the dominant player; he was also their coach.

Russell's Celtics may be the greatest team in American sports history. From 1957-69, they won 11 titles in 13 years, a mind-boggling feat. They were the first championship team to field an all-black starting lineup, and this year's finals is an especially good moment to give that team their due.

As you've probably heard, the NBA Finals pit the Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers. Abundant media attention has gone to the rivalry between the two teams in the '80s when the Celtics, led by Larry Bird played the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led the Lakers three times in the finals. Those series were nice, and I watched every game with intense interest, but they can't come close to matching what the two teams did in the '60s.

From 1962 to 1969, the Lakers and Celtics met in the finals six times. Boston won all six meetings, but they had to earn their banners. Three of the series went seven games, two went six. Each of those seventh games was a classic. Boston won by three points in overtime in 1962. In 1966, the Celts nipped the Lakers by two points. Then in 1969, the Celts fought off a furious L.A. rally and won again by two points. They played three game 7's in seven years, and the cumulative margin of victory was a mere seven points. What Bird and Magic did was just a brief revival; the Celtics and Lakers of the '60s were the first golden age of basketball.

All of this comes to mind since this year's battle should be a classic. The Lakers arrive on a roll. They have won 12 of 15 playoff games against a formidable slate of Western Conference opponents. They have one of the best offenses in the game, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions, and since acquiring all-star center Pau Gasol from Memphis they have gone 27-9. All of that is an extraordinary portfolio, but it's topped off by league MVP Kobe Bryant playing as if he's first among equals on this team rather than a star with a supporting cast.

In most years, this Lakers team would be a runaway favorite to win it all, but the Boston Celtics had a regular season that equals any from their glory days. Led by all stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, they stormed through the league with a 66-16 record. And in true Russell tradition, they were the best defensive team in the league by a wide margin. They allowed only 98.2 points per 100 possessions (a standard I use instead of per game as teams play at a wide variety of tempos varying the opportunities to score; a slow paced team with a mediocre defense may actually give up fewer points per game than a fast break team with a solid defense).

Doubts about Boston grew in the postseason as they struggled to reach the Conference Finals needing seven games to dispatch markedly inferior teams from Atlanta and Cleveland. However, it was as if the real Celtics showed up against Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtic defense was intense and diverse in its tactics. After failing to win a road game in either of the first two rounds, they won twice at Detroit.

All week people have stopped me on the street wondering how Boston was going to stop Bryant. A good team defense is five players playing with intensity; when you have four guys D'ing up strong and a fifth taking it easy, the weak link will destroy the chain. Boston has played tough D all year and especially against Bryant. Kobe shot 45.9 percent from the field this season, but in two games against Boston the combination of Pierce, Tony Allen (who practiced on Tuesday after reports he'd miss the series due to a Achilles tendon injury), and James Posey limited him to 32.6 percent or a total of 15-48. In addition, Boston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the best defensive strategists in the game. Whenever the Celts try something that doesn't work defensively, he seems to fix it with alarming speed. His second half adjustments against Detroit in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals turned a 70-60 third-quarter deficit into an 89-81 win. Detroit is still wondering what hit them.

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