I can’t believe I have to go through this again.
The Lakers versus the Celtics. They go together like no other two teams in sports. They’re like ham and eggs, like Lucy and Ricky, like Tiger and pudgy twenty-something blondes. Together they have won 32 of the 63 previous NBA championships. That’s more than half. Incredible. It would be like if the Cowboys and the Steelers had won 22 of the 43 Super Bowls. All of basketball takes a back seat to these two storied franchises. Yeah, they go together all right.
Unfortunately for Laker fans, it’s also like passing a kidney stone. Because the Lakers/Celtics rivalry is not only the greatest rivalry in sports, it is also the most one-sided. In eleven previous meetings, the Beantowners have come out on top nine times. Seriously, with the excitement I’m feeling at the prospect of another epic Lakers/Celtics clash I’m beginning to think I understand what it’s like giving birth, gals. First you look forward to it, then it’s utter torture, and then you look forward to it again, right?
Last time might have been the worst. In 2008 the Lakers were the favorites, but Boston won in six games. More accurately, they EMBARRASSED the Lakers. The 24-point lead the Lakers squandered in Game Four was the biggest margin ever coughed up in a finals game, and the 39-point pistol whipping they endured at the hands of their hated arch rival was the worst beating any team has ever absorbed in a clinching finals game in NBA history. And with my brother Jeff being quintessentially the greatest Celtics fan in America—and oh-so-eager to point out every nauseating tidbit of Celtics mastery and minutiae along the way—it was like being forced to relive a particularly depressing chapter of my childhood even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.
But before I get into the ramifications of another possible purple-and-gold surrender to the evil green-and-white Celtics empire, I feel compelled as a sports scribe to rehash the two conference finals series, both just concluded.
Didja see ‘em? Pretty compelling stuff, people. Lots of emotion, drama, effort, intensity, and dare I say, literally, bloodshed. If you didn’t like the Celtics/Magic and Lakers/Suns series you don’t like basketball. Simple as that. The Lakers were brilliant in Game Six on Saturday. They hadn’t won a playoff game in Phoenix in three years, but this time they led virtually from start to finish; although they did almost succeed in blowing an 18-point lead due to a mind-numbing mental breakdown by the Lakers’ Slovenian cutie-pie, Sasha Vujacic. In case you missed it, Vujacic was being needled and egged on by the Suns’ Goran Dragic (also from Slovenia), and he just snapped, hitting Dragic in the face with an intentional elbow in full view of the officials. Apparently these two Slovenian fellows hate each other. All series they had been waging their own private little war. It’s like in high school, in history class, where we learned that right before World War One the Balkans region was considered “the powder keg of Europe”, and then some Archduke was shot to death in Bosnia and one thing led to another and alliances were formed and treaties were broken and troops were mobilized and soon the world was at war. Well, in the Slovenian Civil War that was Game Six, what happened was that due to Vujacic’s unconscionable lack of poise Dragic made two free throws as a result of the flagrant foul call, then the Suns were given an extra possession of the ball by rule, Dragic made a layup, then another layup on the next possession, giving them essentially six free points leading to a 13-2 run and all the momentum in the world. The Phoenix crowd was losing its mind. An epic Laker collapse seemed certain. Well, the Suns got to within three before falling short. If they had lost, Vujacic would surely not have been allowed to ever again reside in Los Angeles. After the game, when Kobe Bryant was asked what he thought of Vujacic’s gaffe he replied, stone-faced, “I wanted to kill him.” When pressed to elaborate on the matter, he reiterated, “I just wanted to kill him.” And an hour later in the press room, when asked if he still felt like killing Vujacic he paused, finally summing up with, “He’s still breathing.” And he never smiled. No, the Black Mamba was not amused. Too much at stake these days….
Kobe, by the way, was magnificent. Perhaps never in the history of the NBA playoffs has a player shot the ball so brilliantly in the 4th quarter with the game and series on the line. I myself can certainly never recall anything to touch it. Jumper after jumper he would soar into the air, shooting the ball off balance, sometimes double-pumping, sometimes one-handed, from impossible angles, with one, two, even three suns draped all over him, and the ball just kept finding the bottom of the net . It was like baskets raining from Heaven. Without him at his absolute best, the Lakers lose this game. And maybe little Sasha loses his life. Kobe saved his hide.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were dominant. They beat the Orlando Magic in six games, and might have even improved on that if in Game Five three of their players hadn’t had to leave the game with injuries (two with concussions) and another wasn’t thrown out with two technical fouls. Boston’s Glenn “Big Baby” Davis had several teeth knocked out by a Dwight Howard elbow to go with his concussion. This was a brutal series. And I have to say, I don’t like it. I don’t like the way the game of basketball has become firmly entrenched as a vicious contact sport. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe basketball was designed to be a game of grace and skill, touch and talent. Not a wrestling match, or a life-and-death struggle in the gladiatorial mud pits of Ancient Rome. And while I lack the time and energy to get into a critical denunciation of NBA referees, I will say that I hate how Howard—the dirtiest and most out-of-control elbow-throwing undisciplined reckless violence dispensing player in the NBA—is protected by the officials. If I was an NBA referee, Dwight Howard would never see the 2nd half of any game. He would foul out by halftime, every time.
Which brings us back to the Lakers versus the Celtics. Many of you are not even old enough to recall just how bad this match-up has been for Angelinos. Oh sure, you may remember the 1984 finals, Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson, how the Celtics beat a heavily favored Lakers squad because of Gerald Henderson’s last-second steal in Game Two and Kevin McHale’s brazen clothes-line tackle of Kurt Rambis in Game Four, but you’re probably not aware of what happened in 1969. With the possible exception of the embarrassment of 2008, the 1969 Lakers/Celtics final was the very definition of Celtics dominance and Celtics luck. Yes, I said luck. The luckiest play in sports history that nobody knows about was at the end of Game Four of the ’69 Finals, when the Bill-Russell-led Celtics, down by one point with seven seconds to go, got the ball into the hands of future Hall-of-Famer Sam Jones, who had just missed one long jump shot but now was again lifting himself into the air, off balance, off the wrong foot, to fire up a desperation toss at the buzzer….which went in. That’s bad enough. But when you consider that the ball hit the rim, then the backboard, and then dropped in….well, God must be a Celtics fan. It turned a 1-point Lakers win into a 1-point Celtics miracle, it tied the series at 2-2 rather than the Lakers going up three games to one, and the tired, aging Celtics went on to win in seven games. Jones and Russell never played another game. They retired having beaten the Lakers in the finals all seven times they had faced them. They had beaten them forever and for all time.
To give you an idea of just how lucky and how devastating the Jones shot in Game Four of the ’69 Finals was, consider this: Remember how upset you were a few days ago when the Suns’ Jason Richardson banked in a lucky 3-pointer with a few seconds to go in Game Five to tie the score? Well, consider that that ridiculous prayer of a shot only tied the score, and the Lakers would go on to actually win that game, on Ron Artest’s improbable put-back of a Kobe air ball. It was the Lakers who were lucky on that occasion. Conversely, Jones’ prayer hit the rim and the backboard, before finally bouncing in. And it won that game. Making it a two-game swing. That shot was the whole ‘69 series. And it was essentially the whole rivalry summed up in one ridiculously lucky moment.
If I sound bitter it’s because I am. Back then your cynical Sports Philosopher was the wide-eyed Sports Teen, and he never got to go up to his big brother at the end of a Lakers/Celtics series and say, ”Nah-nah-nah naaahhhh-nah….”. Because the Celtics always won. Perhaps it scarred me. Sure. ‘Course it did.
All this is why the pressure is all on the Lakers. If the Celtics lose, it’s not really a big deal. They did win the title two years ago, and their overall legacy is secure. But if the Lakers lose, it’s a very big deal. It means that Kobe and coach Phil Jackson will forever be oh-and-two against the Celtics when it counted. It means that two years ago was not a fluke. It means the Celtics would be 10-and-2 against the Lakers all time. It means the Lakers couldn’t close the deal as the favorite and blessed with home-court advantage….again. And it means they own us, just that much more than they did before the series, which was pretty much total ownership to begin with.
Anyway, this is what we’re up against. All the pressure is on the Lakers, and us Laker fans. And I’ve got it worse than any of you, because my brother is none other than Jeff Eastland of Stafford County, Virginia, the blarney-spewing self-proclaimed official archivist and court jester of Celtics drivel. If the Celtics win, he’ll be letting me have it all the way till the next millennium.
Any wonder I don’t wanna go through this again???
We’re in for two weeks of hell, Laker fans…. I wonder if there’s any recorded instance in childbirth history of labor lasting two weeks.
meet….The Sports Philosopher!
Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and a reluctant Laker fan— in no particular order. Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’. Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories. Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the treasured links below: