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.”

 

Thompson’s playmaking a steadying force for defending champs

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Klay Thompson danced unabashedly in China after winning another NBA championship, and it got shared all over social media. He smoked a stogie on the rooftop, letting loose to reveal another side of himself.

“I didn’t plan for that video to go viral,” Thompson said matter-of-factly. “I was just having fun. I’ve always been myself and having fun while doing it and learning to enjoy every day, because it goes by so fast.”

Coming to that mindset, however, has been a process for the seventh-year Golden State guard, who acknowledges for so long he put extreme pressure on himself to be the best.

The quiet, more under-the-radar Warriors All-Star of the bunch, Thompson has provided a steadying hand early on for the reigning NBA champions who are favored to capture a third title in four years.

“I used to stress a lot more at the beginning of my career about my performance,” Thompson recalled. “Now, it’s not like I don’t stress, but I play more carefree and I’m more able, if I play as hard as I can I’m satisfied with the results. … I used to compare myself with all players and want to be the best so badly, but now it’s all about winning and having fun and realizing basketball is more of a team sport than anything.”

After a recent practice, Thompson dazzled right alongside a couple of visiting Harlem Globetrotters, spinning the ball on his finger, rolling it up and down his arms, off his knee and then a foot soccer-style before swishing a short jumper.

“I should’ve been a Globetrotter!” he yelled.

It’s a new look for this hang-loose, beach-loving Splash Brother.

The approach is working for the Warriors.

“He still carries the threat. You have to honor him,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s great at making the right play. Their whole team is. I think he’s trying to fit in with their whole buy-in that ball movement and passing is greater than any one man carrying the bulk of it.”

Still, his numbers are stellar. Thompson has had a fast start this season, which previously hasn’t been the case.

Thompson credits the familiarity with teammates and a comfort in coach Steve Kerr’s offense.

“He’s taken another step in his game. Just the experience that he’s had in his career, every year he’s gotten better and I think this year he’s shown how at the end of the season he carried it over to the beginning of this year,” backcourt mate Stephen Curry said. “Historically he hadn’t started seasons well but this year he’s locked in. He’s obviously shooting the ball well and playing great defense, but I think the biggest thing is his playmaking in situations where he’s drawing a crowd. He’s making great decisions setting guys up and just playing under control for the most part this entire season.”

Life off the court is great for Thompson, too, and that helps him be stress-free on it.

Look closely, and it’s easy to see he has come out of his shell.

On a day off last week, he golfed a popular public course close to Oracle Arena. Thompson signed someone’s toaster last spring, and it became a superstition.

In July, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Oakland Athletics game, then drove an IndyCar in September while serving as Grand Marshal of a series stop in Sonoma.

Thompson shares his training tricks on social media and posts photos with his bulldog, Rocco.

He recently donated $75,000 to relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating Northern California wildfires, committing $1,000 per point for a three-game stretch during which he scored 69 points – but added to that total.

He is a spokesman for chocolate milk and an obscure – in the U.S. anyway – Chinese shoe company. He signed an $80 million, 10-year extension to wear the sneakers.

“Life’s good,” Thompson said. “I never thought I’d get paid millions of dollars to wear shoes and apparel. I’m very proud to be a part of Anta. … It’s so cool that I’m big in China. I never thought I’d be on billboards and posters in China.”

Thompson has found a balance during the offseason to stay sharp, mixing up his workouts with outdoor activities he enjoys.

“It took years for me to figure out how to prepare the best I can for the season. I finally learned in my sixth year,” he said. “You’ve got to stay in shape almost year-round because as you get older it’s harder to get back into shape. It’s easier to get out of shape than it is to get back into shape. I do other things besides basketball to stay in shape in the offseason. I think that just keeps my mind fresh.”

He hopes to do a formal swim from Alcatraz, or even a triathlon. He swims in the ocean – “my favorite place in the world” – whenever he can. Freestyle is his strength, butterfly not so much. He plays hours of beach volleyball or just throws the football around and runs routes through the sand.

At work, he has been a model of consistency. Thompson is determined to be a better passer, creating for teammates whenever possible. He also usually guards the opponent’s top perimeter scorer.

Thompson is off to his best shooting season ever, with career highs of 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.6 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think his playmaking has been the best it’s been in his career,” Kerr said. “He’s really doing a good job of putting the ball on the floor and moving it on, drive and kick game, finding the centers in the pocket for little floaters. … It’s been his best passing season so far.”

Thompson used to get teased for his lack of assists, and it remains a running joke.

“I got thick skin,” Thompson quipped, “honestly I don’t really care.”

That carefree approach has taken time, and the Warriors are better for it.

 

Report: Mark Cuban in process to buy Mavericks’ G-League team

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There will come a day, in the not too distant future, when every NBA team will have an owned and affiliated G-League team. It will be a place for them to develop young players — guys they drafted but need more run than they’d get in the NBA, guys on two-way contracts, and just players they like and want to give a chance. The NBA is more and more becoming a development league — and if the one-and-done rule is replaced with something akin to the baseball rule for players going to college, having a strong G-League team will matter even more.

Which is why the news that Mark Cuban is about to buy the G-League team already affiliated with the Mavericks makes sense. Marc Stein of The New York Times broke the news.

While the name of the guys signing the checks will change with the Texas Legends, little else will.

It’s just another sign of the future in the NBA.

Isaiah Thomas is up for a Cavaliers vs. Celtics playoff clash

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Isaiah Thomas says he has moved on from the trade this summer that caught him off guard, shipping him from Boston — where he was a fan favorite — to Cleveland.

Sort of. Like a lot of sudden relationship ends, Thomas says he’s moved on, but it doesn’t sound like he totally has yet. Look at what he told Sam Amick of the USA Today in an interesting Q&A.

“I’ve put it behind me, and I’ve continued to try to do that… But other than that, every day that I’m in the gym or that I’m on the court or in the weight room or doing whatever I have to do to get back to who I was, and get back to being 100 percent healthy, yes I do use it as motivation.”

Thomas has yet to set foot on the court as a Cavalier, spending the start of the season rehabbing a hip injury. He’s expected back next month.

It’s very early in the NBA season, we’re not at 20 games or even Thanksgiving yet, but it has become evident that the Cavaliers have some legitimate defensive concerns, and that the Boston Celtics are a legitimate threat to them.

That would set up a series between Thomas’ old team that he’s still a little angry at, and his new team in Cleveland. And Thomas is good with that.

“Oh, that would be lovely. That would be the story that God made, and it probably will work that way. It always does. It always works – I’m not going to say in my favor, but it seems to always work out no matter what the circumstance is. That would be a special moment. If they make it there, and we make it there, and then we clash, and then you never know what’s going to happen. But I’ll be ready for whatever happens.”

Not enough NBA players use the word “lovely” anymore.

But I’m with Thomas, I want to see that series, too.

Cavaliers’ Derrick Rose out two more weeks due to sprained ankle

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With Isaiah Thomas still rehabbing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, when he is available (he’s only played in half of Cleveland’s games). More Rose has not been good for Cleveland’s defense, and it’s forced Tyronn Lue to play Kevin Love more at center just to have enough shooting on the floor, so there are driving lanes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Now we will have to see what Lue and the Cavaliers do without Rose for a couple more weeks. Rose will be out for a couple of weeks with his sprained left ankle, the team announced Friday afternoon.

“Due to continued symptoms, the ankle will be immobilized in a boot for the next week and he will also undergo an extended treatment process over the next two to three weeks.”

Rose has averaged 14.3 points on 47 percent shooting this season in Cleveland.

With Rose and Thomas out, Cleveland has gone with Iman Shumpert technically as the point, although LeBron handles the playmaking duties. He brings some size to the position, but he can’t defend quick point guards well (not that Rose could). This new lineup has won the Cavaliers a couple of games in a row, although that has been far more about their offense making runs rather than their struggling defense (last in the NBA) stepping up.

It’s been tough to get a feel for this Cavaliers team and what they really are this season, in part due to all the injuries. This simply adds to that mess.

The Cavaliers take on the slumping Clippers Friday night.