When the NBA's regular season ended six weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics—perennials in a garden strewn with wilting annuals—stood atop their respective conferences. But all winter the whisper of change could be heard in the wind. Sure enough, when the conference finals ended last weekend, the Celtics had been uprooted, and the Lakers very nearly were, too.
L.A.'s quest to become the first NBA team since 1969 to win back-to-back championships was still alive after it eliminated the surprisingly unawed Dallas Mavericks in seven games to win the Western Conference. The Lakers prevailed only because they protected with bulldog tenacity the home-turf advantage that they had gained by finishing with the league's best regular-season record.
In the East, however, the Celtics lost twice to the Detroit Pistons at Boston Garden and finally succumbed in a six-game series that could just as easily have ended in four. Detroit's dominance was absolute, and its spot in the finals is deserved. Still, won't it seem a little strange to watch the Pistons, a team that had not made the finals since 1956 (the franchise was in Fort Wayne then), play for the whole enchilada? Will the Celtics be missed? "Romantically, yes, I'd say they will," says L.A. coach Pat Riley.
What this year's finals lack in romance they make up for in photo opportunities, pitting Magic Johnson of the Lakers against his bosom buddy, Isiah Thomas of the Pistons. Such good friends. Such good point guards. Such good smiles. They talked by phone on Friday afternoon, hours before Thomas's Pistons eliminated the Celtics 95-90 in Game 6 and one day before Johnson's Lakers whipped the Mavs 117-102 in Game 7 of that series.
"But from now on we have to keep our distance," said Magic on Saturday. "We understand that. There's no friendship now. When you're going for the championship, you take no prisoners."
Which was precisely the Pistons' game plan in their systematic dismantling of Boston. As Game 6 neared its conclusion, to the delight of the 38,912 fans at the Silverdome, the Celtics were like so much green and white confetti scattered throughout the arena. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, both of whom had bad backs, and Robert Parish, who played only six minutes before leaving with a bruised left knee, were in pain. Larry Bird was in the middle of a nightmare, missing jump shots, layups—everything—en route to a 4-for-17 shooting performance for the game and a 40-for-114 (.351) showing for the series. Kevin McHale, though he did score 33 points, was in a prison of arms, legs and torsos created by the Pistons' relentless double-and triple-teaming.
Detroit had built an 88-71 lead with 5:27 left, but the Celtics cut that to four points with only six seconds to go. By then, however, the Pistons had repelled the charge. With 50 seconds remaining and Detroit ahead 93-86, K.C. Jones, who had announced his retirement last month, pulled Bird, McHale and Johnson. It was his last official act as coach of the Celtics.
Assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers is now in the Celtic driver's seat, and before him lies a crossroads. With the players Boston has now, there is no reason to believe that it will beat the Pistons (or, for that matter, Atlanta) next year or the year after or the year after that. Rodgers said bravely on Friday night that he plans "no substantive changes."
Before the Detroit series the age of the players and how many minutes they played were never of concern to the Celtics. Bird, 31, invariably turned his look of disgust—and he has a good one—on anyone who even questioned whether Boston was worn down. "Shoot, I'd like to play all the minutes," Bird was fond of saying, and the other members of the Fab Five assented. Even last year, when fatigue and injuries wrecked the Celtics' chances in the finals against the Lakers, little thought was given to a new game plan for 1987-88. The starters carried the load throughout the regular season and then increased it in the playoffs, when they logged an astounding 83.6% of the playing time. By comparison, Detroit's first-teamers had played 67.2% of the playoff minutes through last weekend.
Eventually, and inevitably, Boston's starters—whom Thomas calls "maybe the best starting five ever assembled"—wore down. Consider the following two snapshots, one from Game 5 and one from Game 6. In the first, Dennis Rodman, Detroit's unpredictable reserve forward, helps teammate Bill Laimbeer battle for a second-quarter offensive rebound. After Laimbeer taps it in, the Celtics get upcourt quickly, and Ainge goes in for a layup. Surprise! Rodman is there to block it.
In Game 6, Ainge again appears to have an uncontested second-quarter layup. But here comes Detroit's 6'11" jack-in-the-box, John Salley, into the picture. Swat! He knocks Ainge's shot aside. Salley ended up blocking four other shots in the game.
The Celtics have no one to do those kinds of things, those unexpected, game-turning, intimidating things. And neither Salley nor Rodman is a starter.
After the Game 6 defeat, thoughts of mortality crept into Celtic conversations for the first time. "I see no reason we won't have the same starting five next season," said Ainge, "but I'll tell you, we won't be averaging 40 minutes again." Ainge, the youngest Celtic starter, will be 30 by the end of next season, and in his seven-year career he has played in 511 regular-season and 112 playoff games, giving up his body in many of them, as he did in the Piston series. But against the Pistons he shot just .314 (22 of 70) from the floor and connected on just 8 of 24 three-point attempts.
McHale, 30, was the steadiest Celtic in the series. His .563 accuracy from the field was the main reason Boston's shooting (.411) was not completely disgraceful. But the nonstop slam dance he engaged in with any number of Pistons around the basket left him exhausted. "I think you'll see a lot more of the young guys next year," said McHale, who would seem to be the most marketable Celtic—assuming Bird is untouchable—should Boston decide to make an off-season trade for draft choices or younger players. "We're not capable of playing 48 minutes anymore," said McHale.
Then there was Bird, feet immersed in ice, towel draped over his tired legs, trying to make sense of it all—his cold shooting, his team's inability to penetrate Detroit's frenetic defense, the sting of failing for the second straight year to win the championship, which, he says, is "the only thing I play for." Bird was certain of one thing, though. "Our team needs some help, no doubt about it," he said. "Playing 48 minutes is fun, but it's not going to get it done next year."
Boston president Red Auerbach, whose hands have molded Celtic fortunes for four decades, was more sanguine when asked whether the Celtics' lack of depth was the key factor in the series. "Right now the thing is not to panic," said Auerbach. "What, are you going to change your whole theory because of one loss? What if we had won this game and the series? Would everything be O.K. then?
"Hey, other clubs play only seven men. The Lakers play seven. I used to play six, seven guys. Maybe our bench would've played more this season if it wasn't so young. These kids have to sit and learn, just like K.C. Jones and Sam Jones had to sit for me. That's the way we do it. Anyway, it's not like we weren't in this game. If [James] Edwards [who had 15 points] and Vinnie Johnson [who scored a team-high 24] aren't hitting, it's a different game."
But those examples, Red, only underscore the necessity of depth. Neither Johnson, a fireplug shooting guard, nor Edwards, a 7'1" center acquired from Phoenix on Feb. 24 specifically for his offensive capabilities, is a starter. Factor in Salley, Rodman and the starting five, and the Pistons boast a nine-deep rotation. It is a stretch to credit the Celtics with anything better than a six-deep rotation. Six deep in today's NBA and you're deep-sixed.
Robbed of part of its future by the death of first-round draft choice Len Bias in June 1986, Boston may either have to swing a major trade or make a move in the free-agent market to keep pace with Detroit and Atlanta. At the very least the Celtics must bolster their bench. The consensus is that little-used swingman Reggie Lewis is a keeper. He can run the floor and jump. And 7-foot Brad Lohaus will probably be around next season, too.
The failure to develop a bench was the one constant criticism of K.C. Jones, as decent and honorable a man who ever strode a sideline. McHale was asked after Game 6 what he'll miss most about Jones. "K.C. himself." replied McHale. "All of him." In five seasons Jones coached Boston to five Atlantic Division titles and two championships.
Anyway, there was little any coach could have done to stop these Detroit tigers. Firmer of resolve and wiser of game plan after last year's seven-game loss to the Celtics, the Pistons, as Dennis Johnson put it, "played every phase of the game the way coaches tell you to." Well, that's not quite accurate. Their offense was inconsistent at times and will need fine-tuning if it is to challenge an underrated Laker defense.
What Detroit showed against Boston was strength of character. In Game 5 the Pistons fell behind by as many as 16 points early in the second half before rallying to win 102-96 in overtime. Visitors to Boston Garden are not supposed to do that. The Pistons came out tentatively again in Game 6 and led only 48-46 at halftime. But in the second half Detroit lit so many flash fires that Boston simply couldn't stamp them all out. Vinnie Johnson made six of eight jumpers. Adrian Dantley sank three shots in a row in the fourth quarter. Thomas cast aside a 1-for-7 first-half shooting performance and forcefully directed the offense.
More than most point guards, Thomas walks a tightrope as he tries to create his own shots while making sure that Dantley, the moody scoring machine, gets his share. Thomas has done both well in the postseason. When Game 6 was over, Thomas looked dreamy-eyed as he talked to reporters. "It's impossible to describe how I feel," he said. "My reality has met my dream."
Thomas, however, has a long way to go before his reality compares with that of his good buddy Magic. Seven times since his rookie season of 1979-80 Magic has led L.A. into the finals, and four times he has come away a winner. Now Magic dreams of back-to-back championships. He had a get-it-done, hard-eyed look about him in the Dallas series. Before Game 7, Magic asked Riley if he could check Roy Tarpley, the Mavericks' rebounding maniac. "Pat wanted to keep Tarpley under 10 rebounds, and I told him the way to do that is to put me on him," said Magic. So Magic played him for much of the game, and Tarpley got only seven rebounds.
"Banging, bumping," said Johnson. "Physical play, that's what I like." Magic, that's exactly what you're going to get from the Pistons.
Take it from one who knows. As Bird climbed wearily to his feet in the locker room on Friday night, someone asked him if he was a little tired. "A little tired?" said Bird with a rueful smile. "No, I'm a lot tired."