Clap Clap ClapClapClap/Eugoogly: Celtics vs. Lakers, ’08
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 18, 2008
All I wanted was a series. I mean, I had some other things I kind of wanted to see. I wanted to see Ray Allen, possibly my favorite player on either team, redeem himself after a terrible Cleveland series and a shaky Detroit series. I wanted to see some legend-worthy performances from Kobe Bryant, easily the most fascinating player on either team, to prove he was worthy of the adulation poured upon him up to that point in the season. I wanted to see a couple close games, a couple grind-’em out wins, and a couple embarrassing blowouts. I wanted to see quality, game-changing minutes for Brian Scalabrine and D.J. M’Benga. Some of those things ended up happening, and some of them didn’t. But really, all I wanted was something exciting, something significant, something to live up to the history that’s been shoved down my throat for the last three weeks, and to a lesser extent, the whole season. All I wanted was a series.
And really, I didn’t care too much who ended up on top. Chuck Klosterman, and likely many other fans of the dynasty teams in the 80s, has often suggested that to not have a rooting interest in the Celtics / Lakers rivalry is roughly equivalent to not having a soul, and maybe he has a point. But coming into this fresh, I legitimately liked both of these teams about equally. The heart, the hustle and the high basketball IQ (I know, I hate this phrase too, but it does start with the letter ‘H’) of the Celtics, and the thrilling, fluent, purple-in-dress-and-style zip of the Lakers–to have to choose between the two would be like having to choose between Blur and Oasis for me. It’s all basketball–it’s all love, baby. And I just wanted to see it play out as brilliantly as possible.
Now I just feel cheated. I mean, I don’t begrudge the Celtics their win, or their spectacular performance–these are all such high-character, likeable (by NBA standards, anyways) guys, and they so genuinely care not only about winning, but about each other, and even about their coach. And really, you can’t say that the Lakers deserve much more than they got for what they put in to this series–they showed some heart in that seemingly impossible Game Two comeback that they very nearly pulled off, but after that, they seemed lazy, selfish and discombobulated. By just about any standards, the Celtics turned out to be the superior team in this series, and that’s perfectly cool with me.
But it just didn’t feel special to me. It was a messy, sloppy series, almost completely bereft of the kind of magic I would have expected from such a dynastic rivalry. At only two points in the series was there the kind of beauty I expected to be stretched over six or seven games–that Paul Pierce third-quarter comeback with the two straight three pointers after the injury that looked like it could end the series before it even began (of course, if I knew that just about every Celtic was going to do the “oh noes I’m injured BUT HERE I COME BACK STANDING OVATION YAHHHH!!” thing before the series was over, that might not even have counted), and in the fourth quarter tonight, where the Celtic energy was so electric that even Eddie House and Tony Allen were throwing down backwards-slam alley-oops.
The rest? Well, there were mostly times when it felt like it should have been more exciting than it was. When Kobe took over with his 36 in G3, it didn’t feel like the league’s best player playing on an untouchable level, it just felt like a good shooter having a better game than he should have been forced to have. When the C’s came back with the biggest comeback in finals history in G4, it didn’t feel shocking and inspiring, it just felt confusing and kind of surreal. I guess maybe I should have expected it–when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable wall, of course things are going to get flustered–but this finals just wasn’t that much fun to watch. It’s hard to explain, but I get the general feeling that for people who weren’t die hard Lakers or Celtics fans, there was a feeling of malaise over this series for them too. It’s bizarre.
Then again, maybe this is all just a lesson in how history gets spun. I already knew that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s was blown ridiculously out of proportion on an objective level, even by the players themselves–in reality, the Sixers faced the Lakers in the finals as many times as the C’s did (three), and the C’s beat the Rockets (twice) more times than they did the Lakers (once). And while everyone remembers the classic moments from the two teams’ three series together–Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in ’84, Magic’s baby skyhook in ’87, so on–maybe most of the other games in those series were actually extremely underwhelming too, games where Bird and Magic went a combined 13-42, where Kareem got into foul trouble early and Parish disappeared on offense, games where Byron Scott and Danny Ainge were hoisting up nothing shots like Sasha Vujacic and Sam Cassell. Maybe the whole thing never felt as exciting and fateful at the time as it did twenty years in retrospect. And maybe twenty years from now, all we’ll remember from this series is Paul Pierce and the Comeback Game. Maybe that’s just how sports works.
Most interesting to me is what this means for the future, especially for the Lakers. It seems like years ago now, but at the beginning of this series, it looked like not only were the Lakers going to take this one in a walk, but that it would be the start of a Laker run of championships that could last another four or five years. What’s more, people were starting to elevate Kobe from being the best player in the game to being one of the all-time greats, even invoking MJ’s rarified name in potential comparisons. Now, just a couple weeks later, the Lakers seem like an outclassed, second-tier basketball team, and Kobe seems like he’s basically undone all the progress he’s made since the ’04 Laker meltdown. Of course, a lot of this isn’t actually true, or is at least somewhat exaggerated, and with the (hopeful) return of Andrew Bynum next year, they’ll probably be able to elevate their frontcourt to be able to better hang with bigger, more physical teams next year. But for Kobe and Phil Jackson at least, it’s going to be an interesting, and significantly undewhelming summer.
The hardest thing about this for me, when all is said and done, is that the NBA season is finally over. All throughout the season, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have chosen this time to get into the sport, as it seemed like every day brought with it new excitement, new drama, new possibilities. The blockbuster trades, the epic Western Conference race, the turnaround seasons–it was very nearly socially dehabilitating how much I fell in love with pro basketball this year. Now, I know summer is supposed to be the time of baseball, and I’m definitely thrilled for the rest of the season, but I just don’t know if it can match the excitement, the unbelievable urgency the NBA presented with this season. I pray it can, though, because it’s going to be a long five months of reading trade rumors and rookie speculations otherwise.
In the meantime, congrats to the Celtics. You guys deserved it, certainly, and I just hope that now you have the deceny to get old real quick and let some other dudes in the East get a shot at it next year.