How Lakers-Celtics paved the way for the Cavaliers-Warriors

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By the time the Los Angeles Lakers met the Boston Celtics for the third time in the NBA Finals in the 1980s, defensive stopper Michael Cooper had enough with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and the rest of the Celtics.

“It’s respectful to acknowledge the person that you’re playing, but I’m not taking you out to dinner,” Cooper said, thinking back on those days. “I’ll spit in your food before I eat with you.”

Lakers vs. Celtics. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. East Coast vs. West Coast.

It’s the rivalry against which all others are measured, the one essentially responsible for the modern NBA evolving from a fringe sport that put its championship series on tape delay to a global sensation built around the most recognizable athletes in American sports. And as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors prepare to face off in the finals for the third straight season, the two teams that have grabbed a stranglehold on the rest of the league over the last three seasons are drawing comparisons to the game’s greatest matchup.

“I think basketball-wise it’s going to be great,” said Celtics Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, now an analyst for NBATV. “That is going to lend itself to people talking about it years from now. But really, (the Lakers-Celtics) was the birth of the NBA and the average fan across the country was that Larry-Magic time. It was completely unique unto itself.”

McHale was directly involved in one of the defining moments of the rivalry, when he clotheslined Lakers forward Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup during Game 4 of the 1984 finals in Los Angeles. It’s a play that lives in Celtics lore, the gritty, Northern Minnesota forward blasting the Showtime Lakers right in front of Jack Nicholson. The play touched off a mini-brawl between the two teams and helped spark a Boston comeback that evened the series that the Celtics went on to win in seven games.

“We knew how dirty they could get. I loved it back then,” said Cooper, who now coaches the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA. “In today’s game, he would’ve got a two or three-game suspension. Back then, it made it fun. Rambis’s neck wasn’t broken? OK, get up. Kevin got dunked on a couple times and we made a big melee out of it. You come out and live to play another day.”

The more often the teams met on the big stage, the more heated the rivalry became. Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell gave James Worthy a choke sign after he missed a free throw. Bird went toe-to-toe with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It’s the kind of edge and nastiness that is often said to be lacking in the modern NBA with the high salaries and player movement. But last year’s series – won by Cleveland in seven games – had its share of tension, from LeBron James‘ dismissive scoff at Stephen Curry after blocking his shot in Game 6 to Klay Thompson suggesting James “got his feelings hurt” to James stepping over Draymond Green in Game 4, a confrontation that led to Green’s suspension and the turning point of the series.

“I’m hoping there’s some real fiery competitiveness and some dustups and guys willing to fight each other for it,” McHale said. “I think that’s fine. There should be that feeling.”

The Lakers and Celtics met three times in four years, with Los Angeles winning in 1985 and 1987. The only thing that prevented four straight meetings was a Houston Rockets upset of the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals, something that McHale laments to this day. The Celtics desperately wanted the Lakers because they knew Magic and Worthy and Kareem would push them to their competitive limits.

“I think the Lakers were one of those teams that you knew you could play well and still lose. We had a good enough team where if we played well, normally it just took care of itself,” McHale said. “We’d win. If we played well, the outcome was determined just by our play. Against the Lakers, you could play really well and still lose.”

When two teams play that often at the highest level, there are no more secrets, no tricks to be pulled, no gimmicks said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, whose Detroit Pistons faced the Lakers in back-to-back finals in 1988 and 1989.

“The intensity level is off the charts, just in terms of the team competition and also the individual competitions on the court,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBATV. “Both of you really do know each other so well. You know all of their tendencies, all of their habits, all of their plays.

“Then it becomes a game of concentration. Who can concentrate for that two-and-a-half hour period without making a mistake?”

For the most part, the Cavs and Warriors have tried to downplay any talk of acrimony or tension, with Curry saying this week “you can call it a rivalry, but it’s still in development.”

In many ways, when Game 1 tips off on Thursday night in Oakland, California, a new generation of NBA fans will get to understand what it felt like to watch the Lakers and Celtics battles from the 1980s that their fathers and grandfathers still rave about.

But McHale remembers sitting in his office as an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the mid-90s and finally reflecting on how far the league had come. Salaries were skyrocketing. The game’s influence was growing overseas and the NBA Finals – the ones that were shown on tape delay during McHale’s first championship with the Celtics in 1980 – were now must-see, primetime television.

All that success couldn’t have happened without Larry, without Magic, without those three epic showdowns between the Lakers and the Celtics.

“It was like somebody seeing color TV for the first time,” McHale said of being a part of that history. “There was a whole different vibe that had nothing to do with the game. It was the NBA just growing. It’s different. That was like watching the moon walk. There’s never another thing like that. That was just amazing.”

 

Phoenix Suns with quality solar eclipse joke on Twitter

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With the cooler-than-I-expected solar eclipse on Monday came a lot of bad solar eclipse jokes on Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does. Especially the NBA Twitterverse. We knew a lot of “where on the flat earth will Kyrie Irving watch the eclipse?” jokes were coming.

There were a couple of good ones, however.

Appropriately, the Phoenix Suns won the day.

One personal favorite here, an old meme that never goes out of style.

Report: Other small-market teams championing Pacers’ tampering allegation against Lakers

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The NBA, at the Pacers’ request, is investigating whether the Lakers tampered by making impressible contact with Paul George.

Bob Kravitz of WTHR

In fact, there’s word that other small- and mid-market team officials have reached out to the Pacers and told them, “Good for you. Fight the good fight.”

Small-market teams whine too much about the disadvantages they face, but tampering isn’t really a market-size issue. Remember, under Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers were known as the only team that didn’t tamper.

The Lakers have advantages because George is from the area, and Los Angeles offers immense marketability. That’d be true whether or not they contacted George or his agent before he officially became a free agent.

I understand the desire to take down the big, bad Lakers – especially now that they appear poised to become truly big and bad again. But it’s hard to find a team that can cast a stone at them from anywhere other than a glass house.

Report: Clippers hiring ex-Cavaliers executive Trent Redden

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The power dynamics within the Clippers are shifting, and the ground apparently hasn’t settled yet.

Doc Rivers has been stripped of his presidency. Jerry West became a consultant. Lawrence Frank now holds the most prestigious title in the front office, and newly hired Michael Winger will report to him. Also falling under Frank in the organizational chart? Trent Redden.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

Longtime Cleveland Cavaliers executive Trent Redden will join the LA Clippers’ front-office staff as assistant general manager, league sources said on Monday.

Redden was ousted in Cleveland with David Griffin. He’ll help the Clippers simply by providing another capable executive. They’ve long needed to add front-office employees (and pay for them).

But Redden also exacerbates the issue of Frank’s underlings having far more front-office experience than him. As the Clippers try to establish their new setup, we’ll see whether that creates complications.

Warriors’ Steve Kerr: I expect to coach all season and for many years ahead

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Warriors coach Steve Kerr has missed significant time the last two seasons due to complications from back surgery.

Could those issues derail his career?

Kerr, via Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“I fully expect to coach all year,” Kerr says in a no-nonsense tone. “That’s my expectation. And for many years to come.”

On the most basic level, it’d be good if Kerr feels well enough to coach. The headaches sound miserable, regardless of his job.

But it’d also be ideal if the NBA didn’t lose one of its best coaches just as he’s getting started. The 51-year-old Kerr might wind up the greatest coach of all time. Obviously that’s a long way off, but he has that potential – health permitting.