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.”

 

Report: Clippers teammates rolled eyes at Paul George’s postseason calls for togetherness

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Paul George and Montrezl Harrell reportedly had a heated exchange on the bench during the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets.

Apparently, that wasn’t an isolated incident.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Paul George had a disappointing series against Denver, and had several moments that left him in compromising positions with his teammates — beyond just his production. Multiple teammates had verbal spats with George throughout the postseason, citing in their exchanges a lack of accountability from him.

In the postgame locker room Tuesday night, George was preaching to teammates to remain committed, for all the players to return to the team this offseason and stay ready to make another run. It was met by some eye rolls and bewilderment, sources said, because George did not back up his words with action in the series and the team has multiple free agents with decisions to make.

George wanted more time with his teammates. They already had enough of him.

This had been a simmering problem – George and Kawhi Leonard getting preferential treatment, their teammates resenting it. Harrell sounded particularly bothered by the dynamic.

Losing exacerbates issues like that, and getting upset by Denver was a big loss. Both George and Harrell faced oncourt and offcourt stressors – only further contributing to squabbling.

Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Clippers should try to keep him. He’s a good player, and they wouldn’t gain much cap flexibility without him.

But the 26-year-old might also want to explore the market and secure the most lucrative deal. It’d be reasonable for him to resent a teammate pressing him just to take the Clippers’ offer – especially if Harrell felt George wasn’t as committed to the team in the first place.

George and Leonard have earned preferential treatment. Leonard in particular has shown he benefits from load management.

However, that can annoy teammates. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan. It just means that downside should be accounted for.

It’d be nice if Leonard were more vocal or George rubbed fewer people the wrong way. But their basketball talent means dealing with their shortcomings. It’d be nice if George’s eye-rolling teammates realized that, too.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers bears responsibility for managing this tension. A this best, he connects well with players and gets everyone pulling for the same goal. That’s his job as the Clippers try to make the next step.

Miami’s Meyers Leonard adjusting to going from starter to out of rotation

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Meyers Leonard was bent forward at the waist, standing a few feet away from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra on the Heat sideline, screaming with every bit of the volume that his deep and booming voice can generate.

This is his role right now for the Heat.

His only role.

Leonard is in a tough spot these days; a full-time starter during the regular season, he is now out of the rotation as the Miami Heat have made their run to the Eastern Conference finals. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow — yet to his credit, he hasn’t acted the least bit bitter about his current reality.

“My team knows this, and our coaching staff knows this,” Leonard told The Associated Press. “I would do anything to be out there. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m not competitive as hell. I wish I was impacting the game on the floor. I’m not, but as a person and as a player, I want what’s best for everybody.”

So for now, the 7-foot, 260-pound, chiseled center is the tallest, strongest and best-paid assistant coach in these playoffs. He calls out what he’s seeing on every possession, pulls aside teammates for quick one-on-one chats when necessary, and on off days he’s getting his on-court work in just in case he’s needed to play.

Leonard has started 49 of his 51 appearances with the Heat this season, more starts than he made in his seven seasons with Portland combined. But in the playoffs, he’s logged a total of nine minutes, all in one appearance.

“Meyers is one of the most special people I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and to be around,” Spoelstra said. “He is just an incredible human being and teammate. He has all our hearts. We will do anything for him because he is so pure.”

Leonard, more than anything else, got unlucky at the worst possible time.

He badly sprained his left ankle in early February and wasn’t anywhere near being ready to return to the lineup when the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then when team facilities shut down as a precaution, Leonard’s rehab process had to be amended as well.

That was the first issue. The second was Miami became a different team a few days after he got hurt, pulling off a trade to bring Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to the Heat. Crowder has become a starter, and Spoelstra told Leonard before Miami resumed play in the NBA’s restart bubble that he was taking the rotation in a different direction.

It was tough on Leonard mentally. He was struggling when he got to the bubble because of his ankle, then spent days wrestling about whether he should stand for the national anthem or kneel with his teammates, and on top of all that he essentially lost his job as well.

“There’s just two things that I won’t ever let be questioned and that’s character and work ethic,” Leonard said. “Every day when I walk through the door, I’m going to be a great guy, a great teammate. It’s not fake. So I’m trying to make my impact now from the sideline.”

There are a few starters who aren’t in the same roles that they were for the four teams remaining in this NBA season. Avery Bradley opted out of joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble. Will Barton — who led Denver in minutes per game this season — has a knee injury and has missed the Nuggets’ entire postseason run. Gordon Hayward has missed much of Boston’s playoff stint while recovering from a sprained ankle. Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season, is in Miami’s second unit now.

Leonard saw the Heat change, and his role change with it. He didn’t sulk, lash out or complain.

“It’s not easy, being in this kind of situation, going through the injury he went through and having the hiatus where he didn’t get the full opportunity to rehab it,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s making the most of it, and if he gets his opportunity, he will be ready.”

Leonard also sees the reason why he should be helping the Heat however he can right now. He’s never been this close to an NBA championship; the Heat lead the Celtics 2-1 in the East finals, with Game 4 on Wednesday night.

He’ll be ready to scream some more then, too.

“I am, in the best way possible, the most jealous of watching our team’s success,” Leonard said. “I literally said this to my wife the other night. I said, ‘Elle, we are six wins away from a ring.’ That is so damn special.”

Anthony Davis yelled “Kobe” after he sank game winner

Anthony Davis Kobe
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The Lakers played in the Kobe-designed Black Mamba jerseys on Sunday night, when Anthony Davis did about the most Kobe thing possible — he drained a buzzer-beater game-winner.

When Davis did it, he yelled “Kobe.”

The Los Angeles Lakers have talked a lot this season about honoring the legacy of Kobe with their play and effort this season, and coach Frank Vogel did after this game.

“That’s a shot Kobe Bryant would hit,” Vogel said. “AD flying to the wing like that, catch and shoot with the game on the line, the biggest moment of the season, nothing but net? That’s a Mamba shot.”

The Lakers are now 3-0 in those black Mamba jerseys these playoffs. Expect to see them again.

NBA world reacts to Anthony Davis’ game-winner for Lakers

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It might go down as the shot of the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets had battled back from 16 points down to take the lead behind a brilliant performance from Nikola Jokic, who had the team’s final 11 points. Throw in a Jamal Murray block and the Nuggets were up one with 2.1 seconds left.

Then Anthony Davis happened.

The Lakers won the game (going up 2-0 in the series) and the NBA world took to Twitter to react — including a lot of NBA players.