Whenever the Lakers and Celtics play each other in an NBA Finals, us fans are bombarded with all these images of the great Lakers-Celtics battles of the past. The obvious implication is that this is Showtime vs. Beatown all over again, just like it was all throughout the 80s.
It's the great Celtics of the '60s against the star power of the Lakers of years past. And since us NBA fans love history, we gobble this stuff up, trying desperately to find some link between this series and the past.
There's just one problem: this isn't a typical Lakers-Celtics series. The names on the front of the jerseys might be the same, but the teams are so, so different. There's nothing about this Lakers team that resembles the Showtime clubs in any way. There's nothing about this Celtics team that resembles the tremendous half-court efficiency of those old Celtics teams. Kurt Rambis aren't walking through that door either.Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, James Worthy, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish are not walking through that door. M.L. Carr and
No, this series has a completely different tone, one that should remind NBA fans of another great NBA rivalry of year's past. One that involves red and blue, not green and yellow.
That's right. If there's any great rivalry the 2010 NBA FInals should remind people of, it's the Bulls-Pistons rivalry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you think about it a bit, it's pretty uncanny how all the storylines line up. The Bulls-Pistons rivalry was basically a battle between a great team without one star player and a transcendent individual desperately hoping his criticized supporting cast can step up their games. It was a battle between a ferocious defense and an offense that, in theory, is equal-opportunity, but in practice is not. It was a battle between old, prideful champions and a group of upstarts hoping to get the past the one team that they can't beat. It was a battle where the games themselves weren't always pretty, but the intensity was palpable in the building.
Sound familiar yet? As of right now, the 2010 NBA Finals has been a battle between Kobe Bryant and a Celtics team that has no clear MVP. It's a battle between the best defense of the decade and an offensive system that normally works, but hasn't in these Finals. The games themselves have been ugly, but also incredibly intense. Finally, while the Lakers have a title, and the old Bulls didn't, the Lakers also haven't been able to overcome the Celtics whenever the two teams have played.
The cast of characters should be familiar too. I was thinking about this a lot today, and I think you can compare pretty much everyone in this series to a player involved in the Bulls-Pistons rivalry, from the bench players all the way to the core pieces. In fact, let's do that right now.
(Note: I couldn't come up with a comparison for Ron Artest, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen, so I guess this isn't perfect. Maybe y'all can help out here).
Nate Robinson is Vinnie Johnson: No, Vinnie was never as crazy or as rejected as Robinson, but in these NBA Finals, Robinson's instant offense, energy and ability to give Rajon Rondo a break are reminiscent of the type of qualities Johnson brought to the championship Pistons. There were times when the Pistons would clear out and just let Johnson go to work, especially when their offense wasn't working. In this series, it's been Robinson who has received those opportunities for the Celtics.
Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are B.J. Armstrong: Back in the early 90s, Armstrong was a talented young guard that wasn't always willing or able to adapt to Phil Jackson's Triangle offense. As such, he was tough to rely on consistently, and for a while, he was one of the major reasons the Pistons' bench dominated the Bulls during the rivalry. Today, Farmar and Brown are both players who have talent, but haven't always figured out how to adapt their skills to the Triangle, and as such, they've routinely been outplayed by the Celtics' bench. It remains to be seen whether either player steps up like Armstrong did in the 1991 Playoffs, when the Bulls finally disposed of Detroit.
Glen Davis is John Salley: Okay, maybe it's more accurate to say Davis has Salley's game combined with Mark Aguirre's, um, posterior. But like Salley, Davis has been a terror off the bench, providing energy and rebounding in short spurts to help the Celtics win. Once upon the time, the Bulls were so worried about how Salley killed them off the bench that they considered moving Horace Grant to the bench just to deal with him. In theory, this is what Lamar Odom should be doing for the Lakers, but it's not working. Davis has been the hidden key for the Celtics, just like Salley was the hidden key for the Pistons way back when.
Speaking of Odom...
Lamar Odom is Horace Grant: No, Grant never possessed Odom's ball-handling and versatility, but both players are guys who came up short in their roles as undersized power forwards for their teams. We forget this now, but back in the late 1980s, Michael Jordan had major questions about Grant. The two absolutely hated each other, especially after Grant got the starting job once Jordan's buddy Charles Oakley was traded, and Jordan often wondered whether the Bulls needed a bigger, more experienced power forward. Back in 1989, Jordan pushed for the Bulls to trade for Buck Williams, mostly because he didn't believe in Grant. Via Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules:
Jordan ... lobbied extensively during the 1988-89 season for a trade that would bring New Jersey's Buck Williams to the Bulls. Jordan didn't particularly care for Horace Grant, Krause's other pick in the 1987 draft, never believing Grant would develop into a responsible player, and lobbied hard for Williams, who was represented by Jordan's agent, David Falk. But the Nets were still angry over the [1987 Orlando] Woolridge deal; Woolridge had gone into drug rehabilitation and then left the team as a free agent after two seasons, so they weren't making it easy on the Bulls. Also, [GM Jerry] Krause had a deep reluctance to trade first-round picks, so Williams eventually went to Portland.
To the best of my knowledge, Kobe Bryant hasn't badmouthed Odom like this, but the criticism of Odom still remains. Can he be a responsible player who comes through when he's pushed around? So far, in 2008 and again this year, the answer is no. Grant eventually got it done in pushing the Bulls past Detroit; can Odom do the same in the last two games of this series?
Andrew Bynum is Bill Cartwright: Obviously, this isn't a perfect comparison, since Cartwright was the old guy on the Bulls and Bynum is the young guy on the Lakers. But like Cartwright was for the Bulls, Bynum is the hidden key for the Lakers. If he's playing well, the Lakers have the size to combat Boston. If not, the Lakers are in trouble. Just like Cartwright, Bynum is the only real line of defense against Boston's physicality.
There's also another thing the two share in common: they both played hurt. Bynum's problems have been well-documented, but we forget that Cartwright's knee was a huge problem in the 1990 playoffs. As noted by Smith in his book, Cartwright was hurting so badly that he couldn't even sit straight on team buses. His production suffered tremendously, but he still found a way to play through the pain. It remains an open question whether the Bulls might have been able to beat the Pistons if Cartwright was 100-percent healthy. If the Lakers lose this series, the same question will be asked about Bynum.
Kendrick Perkins is Rick Mahorn: There's not much to say here. Both were physical enforcers without much offensive ability. Let's move on. (And yes, I know Mahorn left the Pistons after the 1989 season, but we're still running with this).
Derek Fisher is John Paxson: Back in the late 80s and early 90s, John Paxson was only one player Michael Jordan really liked. While everyone else came up small, Paxson continually hit big shots, providing the perfect backcourt partner to MJ. Paxson was limited, but he knew his role, did it well and still managed to find a way to be a physical, intense defender. Today, that describes Derek Fisher perfectly. He's Kobe Bryant's perfect backcourt partner, a guy who hits big shots, plays his role and manages to be a far better defensive player than he should be. It's safe to say that he's the only player on the team Kobe fully trusts, just like Paxson was the only guy MJ really trusted. Fisher is also the guy that every former coach gushes over; the one who every commentator claims they'd love to have on their team. They said the same things about Paxson back in the day.
Rajon Rondo is Dennis Rodman: For someone who has arguably been the Celtics' MVP during the playoffs, this might seem like a bit of a slap in the face, because Rodman was very clearly a role player when he played for the Pistons. But the truth is, the comparison is apt. Like Rodman, Rondo makes several plays every game that only he can make. But as far as he's come this year, this NBA Finals has shown that he still hasn't quite harnessed all of his unique skills. The potential is there, but the production hasn't always been. The Lakers are playing off him, and he isn't always making them pay.
Back in 1990, the same thing could be said for Rodman. He was already the best defensive player in the game, but he also was still trying to harness all of his unique skills. In other words, like Rondo, Rodman was Detroit's X-factor, capable of changing games, but also capable of being nullified. Phil Jackson used to order Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen to face-guard Rodman, defending him differently from any other player in basketball. This isn't to say the Bulls stopped Rodman, but they definitely neutralized him. Twenty years later, like he did with Rodman, Phil Jackson has devised a strategy that's mostly kept Rondo in check. They haven't stopped him, but they definitely have limited him.
Kevin Garnett is Bill Laimbeer: Obviously, KG's pedigree is better than the hated Laimbeer's, but in 2010, Garnett pretty much occupies the same role Laimbeer did. He's the most hated player on the Celtics, the one with just as much bark as bite. He occupies the high post, shoots mostly jumpers, and generally annoys the key player on the other team. In this case, it's Pau Gasol, who we'll get to in a minute. Garnett is also the heart and sole of the Celtics, much like Laimbeer was the heart and sole of the old Pistons. For better or for worse, when we think of the Celtics, we first think of Garnett and his antics. Back in 1990, when we thought of the Pistons, we first thought of Laimbeer. Sorry KG, but it's true.
Ray Allen is Joe Dumars: No, Allen isn't the consistent defender Dumars was, but in this series, he's defending Kobe Bryant about as well as Dumars guarded MJ. Yes, Kobe has gotten his points, but Allen is making him work harder than anyone has all season. He's had help from his back line a lot, but like Dumars, Allen has also been left on an island a lot of the time. He's not the tallest, quickest or strongest guy to defend Kobe, but he's arguably been the most effective, just like Dumars was back in the day.
The biggest difference between the two is that Dumars was usually able to get his points, particularly in the 1990 series, whereas Allen is in a major offensive funk. But there are also still two games left, and Allen's offense has already won Boston one game in this series. If Allen can come up big in one of the final two games of this series, this comparison will be even more accurate.
Doc Rivers is Chuck Daly: For many, the thought of Doc Rivers potentially being a two-time champion is pretty crazy. Rivers had a number of bad years, when it was unclear whether he was getting the most out of his team. But the Celtics, like the Pistons in the 80s, stuck by Doc, and he eventually rewarded their faith by getting the most out of a team with so many different personalities. Like Daly, Rivers' strength is not in his tactics, it's in his ability to motivate and manage large egos. Detroit's ferocious defense was mostly the product of assistant coach Brendan Malone, just like Boston's defense can mostly be credited to assistant Tom Thibodeau. But without Rivers and his big-picture skills, the Celtics don't jell. If the Celtics do indeed finish off the Lakers, that's how Doc will be remembered, just like we now remember Daly as the one coach able to win with such a crazy set of characters.
Phil Jackson is Phil Jackson: I know, crazy, right?
Paul Pierce is Isiah Thomas: We remember Isiah as one of the best point guards of his generation, but by 1989, he was not putting up the same kinds of numbers he did in 1985. Why? Part of it was age, but most of it was because he finally had better teammates. Thomas didn't need to do everything for the Pistons to win: he could rely on his teammates and close games late when they needed him. In other words, the story of Thomas' career is basically this: he put up great numbers on mediocre teams, then sacrificed shots and touches once he got better teammates in order to become a champion. History remembers him fondly, but he had to make those sacrifices to create his legacy. Because he did, we remember him as a champion and as a player who survived so many iterations of the Pistons to get there.
If you think about it, this also describes Paul Pierce perfectly. Pierce is the original Celtic on this team, just as Isiah was the original Piston back then. He's lived through so many versions of the Celtics, gone through so much losing, and has eventually come out ahead on the other side. To get there, though, Pierce had to overcome his own demons, his crappy teammates, feuds with coaches and players and a fanbase that didn't always support him. But just like Thomas, Pierce got his reprieve with an infusion of talent, and in return, he sacrificed shots and points to help bring it all together.
We forget this now, but the Pistons often won games without Thomas doing much. They didn't always need him, even in the tightest of games. But when they did need Thomas, he rarely disappointed. Today, it's the same with Paul Pierce. The Celtics didn't need him in Game 2, nor did they need him in Game 4. But in Game 5, with the Celtics desperately needing a win to give themselves a chance to win the series, Pierce was the guy who led the way. He set the tone early, and the rest of the team followed. Pierce doesn't do it every game, nor should he, but when it needs to get done, he does it. Just like Isiah did.
Pau Gasol is Scottie Pippen: This is probably the most obvious comparison (save for the last one), and it is the story to watch in these last two games. To be fair, Gasol has already accomplished more in his NBA career than Pippen did in 1991. He's an NBA champion, arguably the most skilled big man in basketball and has already proven he can be the number one option on a different playoff team. But while he hasn't exactly been awful against Boston, he has not been good enough. In the 2008 Finals, he came up small, and despite all the talk of how he's gotten much stronger, he hasn't been significantly better this time around. His lack of production in Game 5 in particular is ultimately what cost the Lakers the game, and he has to improve if the Lakers want to win.
Back in 1990, the same stuff was said of Pippen. He was the key for the Bulls. Detroit had no answer for his versatility and his ability to change the tempo of the game. In theory, asking Rodman to check him was problematic because it took Rodman away from the glass. Mentally, though, Pippen wasn't quite there, and I say this without taking his unfortunate migraine in Game 7 of the 1990 series into account. He was often stifled by Jordan, and often drifted through games. Therefore, the Pistons knew the only chance they had to stop Pippen was to get inside his head, so they battered and beat him up, flustering him to the point where he wasn't able to produce. It worked ... until Pippen matured, took some pride and absolutely destroyed Detroit in the 1991 sweep.
Sound familiar? It should, because that's basically been Boston's strategy against Gasol. In theory, Gasol is too quick and too skilled for anyone on the Celtics to guard him. He's improved his jumper to the point where it's almost automatic, and if Boston closes out on him, he's fully capable of driving past them for layups. The problem, though, is that he still drifts mentally. He's disappeared far too often in this series, and he's also had stretches where he hasn't been nearly aggressive in the post. Boston knows this, and so they've continued to batter him physically, much like they did in 2008. Gasol's response to these tactics in Games 6 and 7 will ultimately be what decides this series. If he overcomes them, the Celtics have no answer, just like the Pistons had no answer for Pippen in 1991. If not, Boston will win this series.
(Which of course means that ...)
Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan: No, Kobe isn't as good as MJ, not even close. But he's also doing this all alone, and he's getting frustrated about it. He's often breaking the offense because he doesn't trust his teammates, and even though he's scoring, it's playing right into Boston's hands. Is this Kobe's fault or his teammates'? The fundamental question dominates this series, just like it dominated the Pistons-Bulls rivalry.
Also consider: Kobe's 2010 playoffs is very similar to Jordan's 1990 playoffs. Kobe entered the NBA Finals after a series where he was great even by his standards. It's safe to say that Kobe probably hasn't had an extended stretch in his career like the one he had against Phoenix. But we forget that the same can be said for Michael Jordan in the series before his battle with the Pistons. The Bulls' second-round opponent that year was Philadelphia, a surprise contender that finished just two wins behind the Bulls in the regular season. There was definitely a chance for the 76ers to win the series, just like the Suns were a trendy pick this year. In response, Jordan just destroyed the Sixers, almost singlehandily eliminating them in five games. As Sam Smith wrote:
And now, facing the Pistons in 1990, [Jordan] was coming off a series against the 76ers in the second round of the playoffs that was unbelievable even by his own amazing standards. The Bulls won in five games as Jordan averaged 43 points, 7.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds. He shot nearly 55 percent in 42.5 minutes per game. He drove and he dunked. He posted up and buried jumpers. He blocked shots and defended everyone from Charless Barkley to Johnny Dawkins.
"I never played four consecutive games like I did against Philly," he said of the first four, in which he led the team in scoring in thirteen of sixteen quarters."
In other words, there was talk that Jordan, despite his amazing pedigree, was better than ever. There was talk, after the Suns' series, that Kobe was also playing better than ever. Both players, however, have been frustrated in their attempts to overcome their rival. It's not Kobe's fault, of course, but if the Celtics are able to win one of these next two games, his legacy will take a huge hit. He'll face questions about whether he'll ever be able to defeat his real rival, just like MJ did all throughout the 1990/91 season. Jordan eventually overcame his demons and got past Detroit. Will Kobe do the same and get past Boston?
These last two games will provide the answer, but regardless, the path is one we've seen before. It's a path dotted in blue and red, not green and yellow. It's a path dotted in a different rivalry, not one between these two franchises. I only hope the end of this series continues to live up to the legacy of that great Bulls-Pistons rivalry.