The L.A. Lakers-Boston Celtics matchup in the 2008 NBA Finals reminded us of the great Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s. The games in the 1980s were spectacular and those teams made the NBA more popular than ever. But the media seem to forget that the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers also had a great rivalry in the 1980s. In fact, the Lakers and Sixers played each other in the NBA finals the same number of times (three) that the Lakers and Celtics played each other in the finals. It just seems like the Lakers and Celtics played each other more often, because the Lakers won five championships in the 80s, the Celtics won three, and the Sixers had one.
Speaking of the Celtics, hearing about Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen being called the “Big Three” and being compared with the “Big Three” of the Celtics in the 1980s also gets tiresome. Not because the current Celtics stars don’t stack up – they do, talent-wise (whether they could beat the 80s Celtics is debatable). But the Celtics of the 1980s were more than just the Big Three of Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. As much as I rooted against them (and I hated them like I hated the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, UNC basketball and Duke basketball), I have to admit that they had other players who were equally as important as Parish. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were just as important as Parish, especially since the Celtics already had great front court players in Bird and McHale. (Slam Magazine agrees that Parish wasn’t so much better than Dennis Johnson – on its top 75 NBA players of all time as of 2003, Johnson comes in at 63 whereas Parish was 56th).
Back to the Lakers. The teams of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil, who won three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, were nowhere near as good as the Lakers of the 1980s. In 2002, the Sacramento Kings were a better team than the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, but the referees called the infamous Game 6 of the Western Conference finals overwhelmingly in favor of L.A., awarding the Lakers 27 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter to the Kings nine. Most fans know that something wasn’t right in that game.
But less memorable was the fact that two years earlier, the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals after being down by 15. Of course, the Lakers played great and the Blazers choked. However, at the same time there were a whole lot of bad calls made against the Blazers, probably because the NBA wanted the more glamorous, big market Lakers to advance. The Lakers were granted 37 free throws in that game while the Blazers got 16. You can only argue so much that the team that penetrates more gets more favorable calls because the 37-16 disparity was too great.
Back to the point, though, that not only were two of Shaq and Kobe’s championships possibly tainted, but they simply wouldn’t have stacked up against Magic, Kareem, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and A.C. Green. Finally, the teams the Kobe-Shaq Lakers beat – the New Jersey Nets, 76ers, and Indiana Pacers were not teams for the ages, and in 2004 they lost to the good but not great Detroit Pistons. Meanwhile, in the 80s, the Lakers beat Dr. J’s Sixers twice, Bird’s Celtics twice, and Isaiah Thomas’ Pistons once.