It’s fitting that this week’s #86Celtics story is about a disappointing performance by the Lakers. Then again, it would’ve been fitting at any point this season. Or last season. Or the season before that.
But recent Lakers’ disappointment is different from what they experienced 30 years ago. Back in 1986, the Lakers were the defending champs. They won 62 games in the regular season, which was five fewer than Boston, but the Lakers and Celtics still won the West and East by 11 and 10 games, respectively, and entered the playoffs on a collision course.
In round one, the Celtics swept the Bulls while the Lakers swept the Spurs. In round two, the Celtics knocked off the Hawks in five games while the Lakers took care of the Mavs in six. Next it was on to the Conference Finals, where the Celtics drew the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers had a date with the Houston Rockets, and Larry and Magic were four respective wins from their third straight NBA Finals showdown.
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“I'm not sure that Boston isn't on another planet from us mere mortal teams. I wish everyone realized how hard it is to score inside against them.”
That was head coach Don Nelson immediately after the #86Celtics destroyed his Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, and destroyed is the operative word. The Celts won Game 1 by 32 points. They won Game 2 by 11. Game 3 was the closest of the series — only a four-point Celtics win — and then Boston wrapped things up with a 13-point victory in the clincher. Larry Bird finished with 30 points in Game 4 and made a then-career-high five three pointers.
“I think I was unconscious,” he said after the game.
So the Celtics were headed to the Finals, where it was always assumed they’d find a rematch with L.A. But in real time, that’s not how things were playing out. Despite the fact that the Lakers beat the Rockets four of five times in the regular season, and despite the fact that they handily beat Houston at the Forum in Game 1, Los Angeles had fallen behind 3-1 in the series. The Lakers had no answer for Houston’s Twin Towers (Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon). Two nights after the Celtics eliminated the Bucks, the Lakers headed home for Game 5, hoping to extend their season. But in the end, Houston just kicked their ass. And I mean that literally. With five minutes left and the Lakers up 103-99, Olajuwon and Lakers forward/future GM Mitch Kupchak dropped the gloves for a brawl that ended with Kupchak on his knees and The Dream dragged down into a pile on the Lakers bench.
Olajuwon and Kupchak were ejected but, despite the uneven trade off, the Rockets climbed back to the tie the game and had a chance to win it with one second left.
Cue one of the most ridiculous buzzer beaters in NBA history.
Sampson’s game-winner robbed the league of a dream Finals match-up. It robbed the Celtics (now playing their best basketball of the season) a chance to feast on the purple and gold. And even all these years later, there’s an unfulfilling vibe surrounding would what become the Celtics' 16th championship season. Or maybe unfulfilled is too strong, but at the very least there’s a sense the title would have been more fulfilling had they steamrolled the Lakers. I mean, it’s not a disservice to the 2004 Red Sox to say that it’s cooler that they went through the Yankees en route to the World Series championship, right?
Right. But even though fate didn’t come through on the complete fairy tale ending, the #86Celtics still had their way with the Lakers.
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There’s nothing entirely scientific regarding what I’m about to say, but one of the rarest things you’ll see on any given night in the NBA is for one team to win all four quarters of the same game. For instance, on Tuesday night there were 11 games on the NBA schedule. Seven were decided by 13-plus points. Still, the Cavs (in a 29-point blowout) were the only team to win all four quarters. For more examples, the 2016 Warriors have swept all four quarters in only 6 of their 69 wins. Remember the 2013-14 Celtics? Of course you do. That was Brad Stevens’ first year in Boston and that team was horrible. They finished 25-57. But for all the suffering, they lost all four quarters only four times all year.
The four-quarter-sweep is so rare because, first of all, NBA players are pretty good. Even the worst teams are stacked with so many relentlessly talented athletes that at some point, even if it’s one 12-minute window, one team usually gets the best of the other. Not to mention, in order to win all four quarters a team has to win the first three. If they win the first three they’ll probably start the fourth with a decent lead. And if they start the fourth with a decent lead, there’s a decent chance the game devolves into garbage time -- and then all bets are off. In that sense, teams so rarely win all four quarters because they don’t have to, but when it does happen it’s indicative of a systematically dominant performance.
It’s a victory delivered with purpose.
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The #86Celtics swept all four quarters seven times during that historic regular season. Again, that’s one more than the 2016 Warriors have so far. The 1996 Bulls did it seven times, too. So that seems like the standard range for the best teams in NBA history.
One of the Celtics sweeps came on a Wednesday night at the Garden. January 22, 1986. This was the Boston’s first crack at the Lakers after losing in the 1985 Finals, so there was all sorts of resentment and animosity on top of what had already built up over the previous half-decade. Bill Walton was playing his first Celtics/Lakers game but he didn’t need any warm up. For one, he was always fired up to play against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Also, as you remember, Walton tried to join the Lakers that summer, but L.A. didn’t want him. They claimed he was done. So Walton came out with something to prove that night, and it’s fair to say that he did. He finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and SEVEN blocks in 16 minutes.
Now read that line again with the assurance that there are no typos.
Bill Walton scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked SEVEN shots in 16 minutes against the Lakers. He was an absolute beast. I mean look at this. Look at the power:
Look at the emotion:
Meanwhile, Larry Bird was Larry Bird. He finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals. It wasn’t his best game of the season, statistically or otherwise, but as someone who’s spent the last three months watching old #86Celtics footage, I’m telling you there was something different about the way Bird carried himself against the Lakers. Not that he didn’t always play hard, but it just looked like he was playing harder -- and I think this little clip does it justice. Watch how high he tries to jump on the jump ball. Watch him knock Magic out of bounds on that loose ball. Watch how hard he turns the corner and drives to the hoop. Watch his reaction after delivering a perfect pass to Kevin McHale.
Anyway, the Celtics were in control from the start against the Lakers. They won the first quarter, 31-25. They won the second quarter, 26-24, to take an eight-point halftime lead. They extended that lead to 13 during a 31-26 third quarter, and then snuck by 22-20 in the fourth. Boston won 105-90, and did it with a clean four-quarter-sweep.
Fast-forward to February 16. The teams were ready for their rematch in L.A., but neither was at its best. The Celtics were short Kevin McHale, who was sitting with a sore Achilles. The Lakers did have Magic Johnson, but he was struggling through a knee injury. Meanwhile, Robert Parish was in foul trouble from pretty much the opening whistle and only played 23 minutes.
The Celtics used an 8-0 first quarter run to take an early 18-12 lead. The Lakers chipped away and took the lead with on Byron Scott jumper with 30 seconds, but then Dennis Johnson hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to give Boston a 30-29 lead after one.
The Celtics built that lead to seven in the second quarter before the Lakers fought back to tie the score at 48 with 3:19 left. That’s just about the time Scott and Jerry Sichting got into it.
Shortly after that, Greg Kite landed a hard foul on Mike McGee and was accosted by Michael Cooper and James Worthy.
Finally, Bird tipped in a Walton miss at the halftime buzzer to give the Celtics a 58-55 lead. It also gave them a 28-26 win in the second quarter. (Bird was unbelievable, by the way. He came into game averaging 36 points over his last three and fresh off back-to-back triple doubles. With McHale out and Parish mostly on the bench, Bird led the Celtics with 22 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists.)
The Celtics came out firing in the third and built the lead to 12. Once again the Lakers crawled back but David Thirdkill completed a three-point play with less than a minute left to give the Boston an 86-80 lead heading into the fourth.
The Celtics won that third quarter 28-25, and in case you haven’t picked up on theme here, let me point out that the Celtics and Lakers have now played seven quarters of basketball in the 1986 regular season and the Celtics won all seven. Let me also point out that the Celtics dominated the Lakers in that fourth quarter at the Forum. Parish played most of it with five fouls and with him back in alongside Bill Walton, L.A. couldn’t find a rhythm. Of course this is the NBA, so the Lakers did go on a little run. They actually cut the lead to four with 3:59 left, but that’s when the Celtics defense stepped it up, and the Lakers went scoreless for three-plus minutes.
With 14 seconds left, Dennis Johnson hit a pair of foul shots to give Boston a 105-96 lead and clinch the season sweep. The foul shots also gave the Celtics a 19-16 advantage on the fourth quarter score, which would take that sweep to another astronomically cool level. But then . . .
Damn it, Michael Cooper.
So the Celtics didn’t sweep all eight quarters of the regular season against the Lakers, but here are two parting thoughts.
1) We already knew this wasn’t a fairy tale.
2) Reality wasn’t so bad.