Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Changing Season

The modern era of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry can be traced, as with most aspects of today’s NBA, to the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1979-’80 season. But a more accurate carbon-dating of the league’s most famous billing will show that the rivalry didn’t really begin in earnest until 1984, when the teams met in the NBA Finals for the first time with Bird and Johnson.

Also overlooked in the Lakers-Celtics battles of the 1980s were the regular-season games, which were as well played and almost as wrought with tension as their playoff battles. The teams met for the first time in the 1983-’84 season on Feb. 8 at the Boston Garden.

The Lakers’ 111-109 victory was their first at the Garden in two years. The game also stood as an indicator of what was to come later that season in the watershed Finals between the teams. First and foremost for the Lakers was knowing that they could win in Boston, a fact that they would duplicate with a 115-109 victory in Game 1 at the Garden a few months later. (Los Angeles also won the other regular-season clash that season, 116-108, at the Forum on Feb. 24.)

There was also evidence in that first regular-season game of why the Celtics would win the Finals in an epic seven-game series.

The Lakers’ leadership dynamic was in a strange place that season. Johnson was coming into his own as a professional point guard (17.6 points and 13.1 assists per game), but the team still deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was evident in the first matchup of the season, with Abdul-Jabbar getting the ball down the stretch. With a strong fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar finished with 27 points and, at 37 years old, became the NBA’s all-time field-goal leader by passing Wilt Chamberlain’s mark. Abdul-Jabbar started the Finals hot with 31 points and eight rebounds in the Game 1 victory despite a migraine. However, the Lakers’ center faded as the series stretched to seven games, often shown sucking down oxygen on the sideline. The only contest in the Finals in which Johnson had complete control of the reins was the Lakers’ 137-104 blowout in Game 3 in which Magic had 21 assists and spurred the tempo to the tune of 51 fast-break opportunities. That game would portend the sea change in Lakers’ floor direction in the coming seasons.

Boston’s wagon was clearly hitched to Bird’s star. He started the teams’ first meeting by making his first five shots and finished with 29 points. But after attacking the Lakers’ Michael Cooper at the beginning of the game, Bird started settling for outside jumpers. Those long shots began falling short late in the going. It was clear that the Celtics would only go as far as Bird could take them. To that end, Bird earned his first NBA Finals MVP that season.

The supporting casts also would prove important. The Lakers’ Jamaal Wilkes was a key figure in the first regular-season victory, scoring in bunches and getting 25 points with one of the most unorthodox shooting releases in basketball history. Wilkes wouldn’t factor much in the playoffs, however, because of an intestinal ailment. Also getting hot in the first matchup was Kevin McHale, the Celtics’ sixth-man extraordinaire who scored 14 points in the second quarter. McHale was Boston’s X-factor in the Finals, turning the series with his aggressive play (including his infamous clothesline of Kurt Rambis in Game 4). The Celtics’ Gerald Henderson also gained some confidence against the Lakers in the first battle. He scored 16 points, five points above his average at that point in the season. In the Finals, Henderson etched himself into Celtics lore by making the game-tying layup in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 2, propelling Boston to an overtime victory.

The Lakers were doomed in the 1984 NBA Finals by mental mistakes. Johnson bungled clock management in the closing seconds of Game 2, calling a timeout that allowed Boston to set up its defense. The Celtics took advantage, with Henderson picking off an ill-advised James Worthy pass and getting his famous layup. Johnson then misjudged how much time was left and the Lakers didn’t get a shot off at the end of regulation. Johnson also missed key free throws in Boston’s Game 4 victory.

These fundamental breakdowns were foreshadowed in the first game between the teams that season. With the Lakers clinging to a 111-109 lead and whipping the ball around to run out the final seconds, Wilkes inexplicably tried a contested layup with four seconds left. The Celtics’ Cedric Maxwell blocked the shot and corralled the ball, but the officials somehow didn’t grant the timeout that the Boston players were signaling. The Lakers survived that game, but such mistakes always prove haunting in the playoffs.

Bird summed up the rivalry’s epochal season this way: “The Lakers, I felt, showed their true colors. I always thought they were soft, and they were that season.”

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