Celtics, Lakers…eh…blech

Posted: November 6, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Last Friday I turned on NBA League Pass and found my way to the Bucks-Celtics game, also known as the game 97 percent of South Dakota residents were following, even those who had previously sworn off the NBA sometime around 1971 because “no one plays defense like they did when Cousy played.” Former South Dakota State standout Nate Wolters plays for Milwaukee now. I tuned in to see how he was doing, but mostly I turned it on because I saw that a big Celtics lead had been cut to nothing late in the game.

Almost immediately I let out a chuckle, as I sat, alone, in my New York City apartment. Who were these people in the Celtics uniforms? Gerald Wallace, yes. And other names you’d recognize: Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee. But Vitor Faverani? Worse, when forming a group of five people to play at once they looked out of sorts, confused and just plain bad; some of them looked oddly shaped in their uniforms. Milwaukee, and Wolters, eventually won and all the while longtime Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsonh bemoaned the fact Boston hadn’t run like earlier in the game. It was fun.

It’s a strange time in the NBA’s greatest rivalry. This isn’t the ’60s when the Lakers and Celtics met nearly every year and the Celtics did win every time. This isn’t the ’80s when Magic and Larry squared off three times — and it felt like about five — and fought for control of the league while at the same time transforming it. And it’s not 2008-2010, when the teams met twice in the Finals, each team winning once, with each team’s fan base still claiming that if large centers — Andrew Bynum for the Lakers and Kendrick Perkins for the Celtics — hadn’t been injured, the results would have been different both times.

The Celtics are bad, and winless. The Lakers aren’t as bad and have two wins. But they’re probably in a spot that’s just as treacherous, a no-man’s area where they’re not good enough to win a title — or maybe even get a lower playoff seed — but not bad enough to have a better chance of winning the lottery. They have a lot of expiring contracts but questions about management, coaching and the future of Kobe Bryant. Through five games the Lakers have actually exceeded my low expectations, blasting the Clippers in the opener, being decimated by the Warriors and Mavs on the road, losing a close one against the Spurs and winning a tight one against Atlanta. Pau Gasol is looking a bit better than past seasons but Steve Nash still looks like he could suffer a shattered hip on every trip up the court. The Lakers have the type of bench players — young, energetic — who play well at home and fall apart on the road. They’ll play tough at Staples Center and lose a bunch of 20-point games away from it. When Kobe returns? I still think he’s going to be really good, as good as any two-guard in the league including James Harden. But it’s doubtful he can lift the team to anything more than, say, a 6 seed. (And I realize even that’s overly optimistic.)

But these two franchises — who have dominated the NBA for more than 50 years — have actually experienced this before, when both teams struggle and new powers take over.

In 1993-94 the Lakers went 33-49 and Boston 32-50. For the Lakers, Randy Pfund started the season as coach but Magic Johnson finished it. Magic’s coaching career proved short-lived — a 5-11 record — and his most famous act was smashing a player’s phone in the locker room. Their opening-night roster looks like a series of typos. James Worthy, in his final season, came off the bench. Vlade Divac started. Joining Vlade? Tony Smith, a rookie Nick Van Exel, Trevor Wilson and Antonio Harvey. Sam Bowie — yes, the one with the fractures — came off the bench. Remarkably LA beat Phoenix in the opener as Van Exel scored 23 in his debut. Van Exel would be part of the team’s resurgence in 94-95, when the Lakers made it to the second round of the playoffs. Magic returned — as a player and, presumably, with his own phone — in ’96 but the team didn’t live up to expectations. Still, the worst times were behind them and that ’94 season was the worst.

Not so for Boston. Boston won 35 in ’95, then 33, 15, 36, 19, 35 and 36 games. A lost decade, when all Celtics fans could do was talk about Game 7 of the 1969 Finals or the passing prowess of the 1986 team. In ’94, Dino Radja, Dee Brown and Sherman Douglas led the team in scoring. Robert Parish (!) still averaged a respectable 11.7 at the age of 40.

Strangely, the Celtics and Lakers played each other a week apart. The Lakers won 100-97 in LA on February 27 and the Celtics won in Boston 109-99 on March 4. It’s quite possible these were the two least-anticipated games in Celtics-Lakers history (during other periods when one of the teams was bad, the other was good, giving some buzz to the games). Vlade had 28 when LA won, while Radja exploded for 36 and 15 boards in Boston’s victory.

This season’s two meetings between the teams might eclipse those ’94 battles in terms of fan and league-wide apathy. They play in Boston on January 17 and in LA on February 21. Circle the calendar. You’ll want to make sure you’re doing something else.

  1. both teams have lost so much talent. the rivalry has had a great rekindling the past 5 years, but at this point it’s pretty much just for posterity.

    • shawnfury says:

      I guess the good news is 08-10 proved that even after 20 years the rivalry can be strong if both teams are strong. So maybe it flares up again in, oh, 2026.

  2. Jerry says:

    At least Nash isn’t using a walker yet. And just think how dominant he will be when he starts playing in an old man league. I wonder if one could blame this on free agency? Would the great teams of the 60’s and 80’s stayed together or would too many of them looked for the big paycheck?

  3. shawnfury says:

    I don’t think there’s any doubt they wouldn’t have stayed totally together. Maybe the Lakers sign Worthy to a max deal in 87 but it means having to get rid of Cooper. Or Lakers are way over salary cap and, like Kobe next year, Kareem’s contract is up after 1986 and they say there’s no way they’re signing him to anything big. What’s he do? And surely Greg Kite leaves for free agent glory after his 0-point-but-blocked-Magic performance in Game 3 of the ’87 Finals brought him a bunch of glory.

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