Twenty-three years ago, in Game One of the 1985 NBA Finals, the Celtics administered the worst whipping ever in a Finals game to the Lakers. A year removed from the riveting 7-game 1984 Finals, Celtics fans anticipated a quicker resolution, and the opening game gave no reason for doubt. The final score of the "Memorial Day Massacre" was 148-114, but the game wasn't-as-close-as-the-score-indicated.
But a funny happened on the way to the repeat championship (at that time, no team had won back-to-back championships since the 1967-68 and 1968-69 Celtics, and it was seen as an extremely difficult feat; since that time, of course, the NBA has had five(*) different "teams" win six different sets of at least two championships in a row: Lakers (1987, 88); Pistons (1989, 90), Bulls (1991-93), Rockets (1994, 95), Bulls again, (1996-98) and the Lakers with a totally new group (2000-02))
The Lakers rebounded from the humiliation of Game One in 1985, with Kareem Abdul Jabbar (a year removed from the meltdowns(**) in Games Five and Seven in 1984) apologizing to his teammates privately for his 'effort' in Game One. LA went on to win the Championship by beating the Celts in the old Garden in an impressive six games; it was the first time that an opposing team had ever won a championship on the parquet. Kareem reached personal redemption by scoring 36 and 29 points, respectively, in Games 5 and 6 (with the Lakers winning both) on his way to being named Finals MVP.
Fast forward 23 years to last night, as the young Lakers suffered one of the most devastating defeats in NBA Finals history. After building leads of 24 points in the first half, allowing the Celts to slip back into the game late in the second quarter, and then ending the half with a flurry (including a Jordan Farmer running three-pointer as time ran out), the Lakers appeared in control.
As late as half-way through the third, the lead was still at 20, when Doc Rivers went small (House, Garnett, Posey, Allen, and Pierce) and the vise was tightened defensively. By the end of the third, Brown's dunk over Kobe cut the lead to 2, and the Celts were back in business.
The fourth quarter was one of the defining moments in the careers of Pierce, Garnett, Allen (who turned back the clock like Kevin McHale in the 1992 playoffs, with his blow-by (off the dribble, no less) of Sasha Vujacic with 0:16 left), and frankly, Kobe. Four days after famously abusing and embarrassing his teammates during Game Two, Kobe (while going 4-8) disappeared in the fourth; we probably won't hear much more criticism by Kobe on Sunday night.
The Lakers are young, and perhaps thinking of next year when they will add a (presumably healthy) Andrew Bynum and mid-level exception to the mix. Like a freshman-laden NCAA team, they are dreaming of multiple trips to the "Final Four" and are sure that a championship will follow.
The Celts, on the other hand, are laden with the NBA equivalent of fifth-year seniors. KG, Allen, and Pierce have labored in the backwaters of the NBA for the past decade. Their collective moment for redemption -- ironically, like Kareem in the twilight of his career -- is now; don't expect the Lakers to be boarding the plane for Boston on Sunday night.
(*)-The Bulls would win two sets of multiple championships, but both times with squads built around Jordan and Scotty Pippen; the Rockets' inter-regnum was of course during the Jordan gambl-- er, baseball sabbatical.
And speaking of the time Jordan spent with the Birmingham Barons, why would anyone think that the NBA is ever engaged in conspiracies for marketing purposes? Right, David Stern?
Mr. Commissioner, are you there?
(**) - Between 1984 and 1985, the NBA moved from a 2-2-1-1-1 format to a 2-3-2 format, meaning Game Five in 1985 was played in LA, rather than in Boston.