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1984/85/86 Celtics & 2008/09/10 Celtics: A look at the past to see what’s ahead.

September 12, 2009

I’ve stolen this line from Gregg Popovich’s book before (one of my favorite coaches), and I’ll do it again: Pop has said over and over again that the toughest thing to do in the NBA is repeat as champions. Look at his track record and you’ll believe him: 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 NBA Champs. One of the league’s best coaches and dominating players couldn’t do it back to back, then how many teams can?

A team has to be great to win. In a playoff structure of best of 7 series, the better team will prevail. It’s just too difficult to get lucky 4 times out of 7. After the team wins, reality sets in. You’ve played more games than every team except 1. Those little injuries incurred during season don’t have as much time to heal. You are wrapped up in the hype of being champs, while others only grow hungrier while watching and after being deprived of the feast that follows a championship season. It’s not that champs get complacent, but other teams get hungrier. How many same teams (NO roster changes) have won back to back?
The happenings of the 1984, 1985, and 1986 Celtics remind me a lot of the 2008, 2009, and hopefully the 2010 Celtics.
I was too young at the time to know or remember what happened to the 1984/85/86 Celtics. Instead of aggregating statistics and devouring what others wrote about this team, I was learning how to walk, speak, eat solid food, and poop without a diaper. The Celtics won their 15th NBA title in 1984 in a 7 game series against the Lakers. Over and over again, so many older Celtics fans refer back to this season with such meaning and fondness. It would be the first time Magic and Bird met up again with a championship at stake since 1979. The series itself wouldn’t just be another notch in the Celtic Championship Belt, but instead one that would help refuel a long-standing rivalry between two definitive franchises in the NBA. This was the series that had Gerald Henderson’s famous steal in game 2, McHale’s clothesline on Rambis, Bird continuing to show why he was the league’s MVP, and the rushing crowed rioting the parquet floor before game 7 was even over. The Lakers were stacked, with players such as Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Byron Scott, Bob McAdoo, McGee, and Rambis. But across the court was an equally stacked lineup in green: the starting five offered DJ, Henderson, Bird, Maxwell, and Parish, while the bench had McHale, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman, and ML Carr. The Celtics’ starting lineup was touted as one of the best of the decade, and could even slip into one of the top lineups in the history of the league.
In 2008, we saw Rondo, Ray, Pierce, KG, and Perk come together to be one of the more dominant line-ups we’ve seen in years. Three future hall of famers put aside their individual needs and statistics in favor of team ball. Two younger players learning to fill a role and a hole that would be an ever-improving supporting cast to the Big Three. The 2008 team looked like the 1984 team because they were just that: a team. This was not a championship team that had 1 player carry the entire team. You just can’t win these days with that formula… just like you couldn’t win in the 80s (or 70s, or 60s, or 50s) with just one player. Players needed to come together to play as a team in order to win.
Why did the 1984 and the 2008 teams win? Because they passed on low-percentage shots that would give individual glory in favor of a higher-percentage ones that would get the job done. Ball movement wasn’t a talked about as a game philosophy, it was something that was routinely practiced. Players dedicated themselves to defense even if it meant less in the gas tank on the offensive end– but it didn’t matter because multiple guys could put points on the board. Intensity was brought to every play like a buffet, not chosen as a-la carte moments. Sacrificing the body and playing hard was necessary because it was the only way to win.
One another familiarity in the 1984 and 2008 teams: the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were talented in both years, but were simply not better than their Celtic counterparts respectively. But the year after the Celtics won (1984 + 2008), the Lakers were able to win (sidenote: was it as satisfying for the 2009 Lakers to win a championship even if it wasn’t the Celtics)
Then 1985 happened, just like 2009 happened. Both teams had changes to the bench and had to deal with injuries to starters. Although the 1985 Celts made it back to the finals, where they fell short in defending their title. The 2009 team fell short as well, but 2 rounds earlier.
It was clear that in the 1985 off-season that Celtics GM Jan Volk and the front-office needed to get additional help for the bench. The core of this team was still one of the best in the league, but it needed depth. With Maxwell on the decline and multiple injuries, the team needed a big that could bang on the low post. That help came in a trade with LAC that sent Maxwell away and brought Bill Walton to join starters DJ, Ainge, Bird, McHale, and Parish. Walton was an aging veteran that had won a title a decade before as the frontman for Portland. But he had experience. He had championship experience. Walton had a high basketball IQ. He would become the 6th Man of the Year in 1986 after averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 block to go with his stalwart defense.
Does this sound familiar? It was 100% crystal clear that the 2009 Celtics off-season would be a mission to find depth for the bench. Danny knew this. We knew this. More importantly, our target big man off the bench would need to be a good low post player. We needed a player that could play defense. One with a high basketball IQ. A veteran with experience. One with championship experience. Who did we court? Rasheed Wallace. Who did we sign? Rasheed Wallace. Who could become the league’s 6th Man of the Year in 2009-2010? Rasheed Wallace. ‘Sheed could be the answer to the 2010 Celtics like Walton was the answer to the 1986 Celtics. Again, we look at the past to see what could lie ahead.
The core of our team, similar to 1986, is only stronger than it was in 2008… like in comparison to 1984. 1986 versions of DJ, Ainge, Bird, McHale, and Parish were better than their 1984 versions. Nothing has been written about the 2009-2010 Celtics yet…
But our 5 starters know that they have to be better than their 2008 selves. It is not a matter of choice, but one of necessity. Rondo, Ray, Pierce, KG, and Perk come back as one the most feared and revered starting fives in the league. With ‘Sheed, Baby, and Eddie coming off the bench, our depth is restored. And thus the rightful order in the association has an unbelievable chance to be restored as well– with the Celtics as the reigning champions in the NBA.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Brett Favre permalink
    August 25, 2011 2:11 am

    Nice article. I’d still love to know more about why the 85 Celts lost to the Lakers. It seems like injuries were a factor, but I haven’t found all the specifics.

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