A long line can be drawn through the entirety of the NBA’s history, from the 1940s to the present day. What the Minneapolis Lakers began in 1949, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs will develop in the 2014 NBA Finals.
When the history of the NBA is written, the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan – with six championships and an enduring hold on the popular imagination – demand and deserve multiple chapters. The place of the Jordan-and-Phil-Jackson Bulls in professional basketball is secure and substantial.
The late 1980s Detroit Pistons became a transformative (and transitional) team in the NBA’s history. The early 1970s New York Knicks were celebrated for their team game and their five-as-one cohesiveness. The early 1980s Philadelphia 76ers will be remembered because they won the world title in 1983. The mid-1990s Houston Rockets took advantage of Jordan’s baseball adventure with the Chicago White Sox. A few other teams pounced on chances to win titles in single seasons. A number of other franchises have continued to knock on the door over extended periods of time but have never managed to break through.
Yet, as these 2014 Finals approach tip-off, it is increasingly clear that the story of professional basketball in the United States currently revolves around four franchises: the two that are playing for the Lawrence F. O’Brien Trophy, and the two that have stood above the others since the NBA came into existence.
This NBA Finals rematch is the first since the Bulls and the Utah Jazz locked horns in 1997 and 1998. It’s true that other rematches have dotted the landscape of professional hoops over time: The Pistons and the Lakers met in 1988 and 1989. The Sixers and Lakers met in 1982 and 1983. The Seattle Supersonics and Washington Bullets met in 1978 and 1979. The Knicks and Lakers met in 1972 and 1973 while the Lakers were in Los Angeles; they met in 1952 and ’53 when the Lakers were based in Minneapolis. The Boston Celtics met the St. Louis Hawks in 1957 and 1958, and then again in 1960 and ’61.
Yet, for all the rematches that have occurred in the past, no two franchises have created more Finals reunions than the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers and Celtics dueled in four Finals rematches, encompassing eight series. Three times in the 1960s alone, the Bill Russell Celtics had the last word in both the front and back ends of a pair of series against Laker teams that bridged the Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain years. Five of the six total series found in those three rematches went at least six games. The Lakers made the Celtics work, but Boston always found a way to win. After the 1970s witnessed the diminished but still real influence of the Celtics and Lakers (Boston thriving in the middle of the decade, Los Angeles in the early section of it), the 1980s gave rise to the re-emergence of the two behemoths.
The centrality of the Celtics and Lakers was nothing new to the NBA at the time, but that particular renaissance of two iconic organizations is what created the NBA we know today – not a forgotten sport with a meager television presence, but a global brand infused with megawatt star power.
At the beginning of the 1980s, weeknight games in the NBA Finals still aired on tape-delay late at night. The league had not shattered the pervasive public perception that it was played by drugged-out African Americans. The malaise of the 1970s in America was not confined to politics and Jimmy Carter’s presidency. That same reality spilled into professional basketball.
Baseball remained a ratings juggernaut, and the growth of the Super Bowl accompanied football’s steady ascendancy, a rise to prominence that would only become more pronounced with each successive decade. The NBA suffered in this climate, and even though the triumvirate of the Lakers, Celtics, and Doctor J’s Sixers created great theater in the first four seasons of the ‘80s, the classic battles of the playoffs had only paired the Celtics and Lakers against the Sixers, not against each other.
It was only in 1984 that the story of professional basketball took its great leap forward, because it was only then that the sport’s two greatest teams reunited in the Finals.
When the Lakers and the Celtics – California glamour and Boston tradition – were brought together on the sport’s biggest stage, the casual American sports fan’s imagination was captured by basketball to an extent not seen before. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale co-created this bright new dawn for NBA basketball, but the personalities at the center of this drama could not be ignored: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird gave pro basketball the spark it had been seeking for so long.
The rekindling of the rivalry between two storied teams – renewed in the Finals for the first time since 1969 – certainly gave the NBA a boost in 1984, but Magic’s charisma and Bird’s all-encompassing brilliance lent marketing magic and demographic clout to Lakers-Celtics. These realities put the NBA – under the guidance of a first-year commissioner named David Stern – in position to capitalize on a fortunate confluence of factors. However, the mere existence of various components conducive to a successful venture doesn’t mean much — not if that confluence doesn’t create a great end product.
People and organizations – in any venture, within or beyond sports – might possess the ingredients needed to fulfill their dreams in a larger marketplace, but if a front-stage performance in the spotlight fails to satisfy the public’s expectations and hopes, that bowl of ingredients won’t create a winning recipe. It’s true that Magic and Bird left an enduring imprint on the popular imagination when they met for the 1979 national championship of college basketball, as Michigan State defeated Indiana State on that unforgettable Monday night in Salt Lake City. However, when the Lakers and Celtics met on the grand stage in the late spring of 1984, the series needed to be special for pro basketball to take off.
Seven games later, Stern had what he needed to make basketball an increasingly more popular sport in America and around the globe, culminating in the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics.
The 1984 NBA Finals possessed many of the qualities that define a memorable championship series. Both teams made their greatness known – the Lakers with their overwhelming fast-break attack, the Celtics with their post play and unshakable resilience. Each team revealed enough of itself to the national audience to convey the idea that these were not just two really good teams playing for a championship.
These were teams worthy of the Laker and Celtic labels, worthy of carrying on the greatest rivalry in professional basketball, 15 years since it was last staged in the Finals. This was a meeting on the mountaintop, a series played with a little more hatred and a slightly heavier weight in the present moment than the other East-versus-West rivalry of the time, the Laker-Sixer confrontation that featured Finals clashes in 1980, 1982 and 1983.
Los Angeles versus Philadelphia made for compelling television, and it claimed a considerable superstar presence of its own thanks to Doctor J and Moses Malone on the Sixers’ side of the divide. However, the arrival of Malone before the 1982-’83 season clearly altered the balance of power between the two teams.
When Philadelphia avenged its ’82 Finals loss the next year against L.A., the outcome didn’t feel surprising; the sweep the Sixers pulled off against the Lakers robbed the ’83 Finals of the drama they might have possessed had Philly gone to battle without Moses in the middle. The Sixers’ elusive championship, finally hunted down in 1983, was immensely cathartic for the organization and head coach Billy Cunningham. Most of all, the outcome gave Julius Erving, a beloved figure in his time, the crowning moment his career deserved. Yet, while the story of the Sixers’ title put smiles on the faces of many in the pro basketball world, the Finals had not become the unforgettable event they could have been.
It was only when the Celtics supplanted the Sixers in the East and faced the Lakers in the Finals that the NBA and Stern found their moment of dreams, with a young Michael Jordan surely taking notes on how to one day reach the Final(s) destination that would become a normal part of a mid-1980s season for Magic and Bird.
When the Celtics found their footing in 1984, they brought an attitude to the court that did not allow the Lakers to feel psychologically comfortable. This refusal to back down to their opponent’s soaring, swift open-court skill is precisely what fashioned another ingredient of a classic series: An immortal moment, one that echoes through the pages of time.
As anyone who followed the ’84 Finals will tell you, this series could have been as brief as the 1983 Finals in which a sweep snuffed out any drama before it could build and thereby enhance the mythic aura 1980s NBA basketball would eventually attain. Los Angeles dominated the first three games, taking charge in Game 1 in Boston and then outplaying the Celtics for 47.5 minutes in Game 2. When the series shifted to Southern California for Game 3, “Showtime” ran circles around the guys in green from New England.
Yet, you’ll notice the reference to 47.5 minutes and not the full 48 in Game 2. This, in many ways, is where the new dawn began for the National Basketball Association. Without the following moment, the tensions of the Laker-Celtic rivalry might never have had a chance to sprout, making “Magic versus Bird” the epic confrontation it regularly became thereafter.
The Lakers, up 1-0 in the series, led Game 2 by a 113-111 score with 18 seconds left in regulation. Los Angeles inbounded the ball on the sideline in backcourt. Magic Johnson received the inbounds pass from James Worthy near the sideline. Bird cut off his path heading up the court, and Kevin McHale then came with a doubleteam from the other side. Magic beat the doubleteam with a backwards pass to Worthy, who had established position in bounds. Given that the doubleteam had been broken, Worthy had the ability to give the ball to Magic, who was coming back to get the rock. Worthy, though, automatically thought about moving the ball up the floor instead of getting the ball to his point guard. Like a pedestrian who doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street, Worthy reflexively lobbed a pass to Byron Scott on the right side of the court. Henderson read the play all the way, picked off the pass, and cruised to the basket for an easy layup that tied the score at 113.
The Lakers, of course, still had a chance to win in regulation without giving Bird and the Celtics the ball. However, Magic – though not even responsible for the unfortunate turn of events that had crashed down upon his team – absorbed the sense of panic exhibited by Worthy on his flawed and fateful turnover. Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar open in the post for a skyhook attempt, but he just kept dribbling the ball.
3… 2… 1… “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”
The buzzer sounded, and not just without a shot attempt, but even the mere hint of one. Rattled to the core, the Lakers stumbled in overtime, enabling that frozen moment to put a chill in the hot, cramped visitors’ locker room at Boston Garden. The Lakers should have been up 2-0 heading to the fabulous Forum. Instead, The Celtics were able to head to Los Angeles for Game 3 with a split. More specifically, they were able to absorb a humiliating Game 3 loss (137-104) and realize that as long as they won Game 4, they’d be set up to win the series in the end.
This leads to the next reason why the 1984 NBA Finals reinvigorated the Laker-Celtic rivalry for a new generation, pushing the NBA into a glorious new era: hatred, the lifeblood of a great rivalry and a compelling series.
The Lakers and 76ers didn’t really like each other. The Lakers and Celtics hated each other – that’s the salient difference between those two Finals matchups in the first half of the ‘80s. When did that hatred become real and permanent? Game 4 in the ’84 Finals.
Los Angeles led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but the Celtics trimmed that lead to six, at 76-70, with seven minutes left in the third quarter. The Lakers took a miss by Boston’s Dennis Johnson and tried to run. Abdul-Jabbar made an outlet pass to Worthy on the left wing. Worthy found Kurt Rambis running his lane on the right wing. Rambis steamed toward the hoop and had a clear path to the basket (there was no clear path foul at the time in the NBA), but McHale was able to come from behind and deck Rambis at a diagonal angle. What had been a series defined and largely controlled by the Lakers’ speed turned into a more physical confrontation in which the Celtics had announced their presence, both territorially and psychologically.
The Lakers’ offense didn’t come to a halt for the remainder of Game 4, but it didn’t enjoy the freedom in which it had reveled over the first three games of the series. Moreover, the pressure of the moment weighed heavily on the Lakers at crunch time. In overtime, Magic missed a pair of foul shots with 34 seconds left in a 123-123 tie. Following a Bird basket with 16 seconds left, James Worthy missed one of two free throws with 10 seconds left. Johnson put the Celtics up three with a pair of calm free throw makes, and when the Lakers tried to tie the game on their subsequent possession, Worthy committed his second huge turnover of the series, another crosscourt lob pass that M.L. Carr intercepted and turned into a game-clinching dunk.
The Celtics came home to Boston and won a lopsided Game 5. The Lakers went back to L.A. and created a working margin midway through the fourth quarter to claim Game 6. The series moved to a seventh game, and while the contest was in doubt until the final minute, with Boston leading 105-102, the seeds of doubt planted in Games 2 and 4 continued to take root in the Lakers’ minds.
With roughly 50 seconds left and a chance to either tie the game or bring his team within a point, Magic prematurely left his feet and lost the ball. Dennis Johnson took the ball to the other end of the floor and drew two free throws, which he made to put Boston ahead, 107-102, with 45 ticks on the clock. Michael Cooper then missed a three, Kareem airballed a hasty and ill-advised jumper off the rebound, and the Celtics proceeded to tuck away a 111-102 win at the foul line.
The Celtics called upon the aura of their home arena and the weight of their own prestige as a franchise, in much the same way the New York Yankees managed to do many times over the decades, particularly against the Boston Red Sox. The same general dynamic applied to the Montreal Canadiens against the Boston Bruins, chiefly in the 1970s. The Green Bay Packers did this against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. The Pittsburgh Steelers did this against the Houston Oilers in the late 1970s.
The Celtics didn’t just win an individual title in 1984. They recalled the previous Finals meeting between the two teams, referenced briefly above. Something about the 1969 Laker-Celtic Finals has to be mentioned in connection with the ’84 series. In many ways, both seven-game struggles came back to one basic fact: The Lakers flinched when it really, really mattered.
It is well known among NBA historians that before Game 7 at the Forum in 1969, Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke wanted thousands of balloons suspended from The Forum’s rafters, in expectation of a win and a celebration to come. The Celtics, having defeated the Lakers in NBA Finals for most of the 1960s, naturally loved the unjustified expression of arrogance thrown their way by Cooke. This hubristic move on the part of the Lakers’ owner gave Boston the ability to gear itself up for one more moment of truth against Los Angeles, one more occasion in which to ruin a Laker season for a reason no L.A. player could control.
Despite winning only 48 games in the 1969 regular season, the Celtics moved through the playoffs, survived an early blitz by the Lakers (who were up 2-0) in the series, and outworked Los Angeles down the stretch in Game 7. As was the case in Game 4 of the ’84 Finals, the Lakers lost their nerve at the foul line, missing 19 of 47 tries in a game decided by two points, 108-106.
Fifteen years. Fifteen years had come and gone between Celtic-Laker finals, and although all the on-court performers were different, the results and – more particularly – the contours of a series between pro basketball’s two great coastal rivals remained eerily, remarkably, similar. When a series such as the 1984 NBA Finals manages to produce an iconic moment, a lasting rivalry-fueled hatred, and a strong parallel with the past – all bundled within a seesaw seven-game series and the emotional crescendo it creates – a nation takes notice. The NBA Finals drew a 12.1 rating in 1984. In 1987, the third Laker-Celtic Finals in four seasons drew a 15.9, setting the table for a 1990s run in which four Michael Jordan Finals with the Bulls drew ratings of at least 16.7. Magic and Larry set the table for Jordan.
When Jordan hung up his sneakers, guess who won the following season’s NBA championship?
This is where the Lakers and Celtics – the history they created, especially in the mid-1980s – can begin to be linked to what the Spurs and Heat are in the process of creating in the here and now.
The 1980s NBA is something fans under 30 can only learn more about by reading and asking and YouTube-ing, but the 2013 Finals possess a freshness that will be given even more life by the Spurs-Heat reunion that’s taking place in San Antonio. If you consider yourself a fan of professional basketball, you can commit the major memories of the 2013 Finals to heart:
* Tony Parker’s incredible shot at the end of Game 1, in a contest that featured barely any turnovers and a conspicuously low number of fouls, making it one of the most fluid and well-played championship-stage basketball games in modern history.
* Danny Green and Gary Neal shooting out of their minds in Game 3.
* Green shooting out of his mind through Game 5, to the extent that he would have been the MVP had the Spurs closed out the series in six games.
* Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh coming to LeBron James’s aid in Game 4.
* Manu Ginobili — after struggling in Game 4 and before disintegrating in Game 7 — turning back the clock with his 24-and-10 gem in Game 5.
* Tim Duncan, in pursuit of a fifth title, owning most of Game 6.
* Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard missing foul shots in the final 30 seconds of Game 6.
* LeBron badly missing a three with the Heat trailing 94-89, but converting a second chance when Wade kept a rebound alive and Mike Miller scooped up the loose ball before shoveling the rock to the 2013 NBA MVP.
* Bosh’s rebound.
* Ray Allen’s three.
* Leonard, only 21 years of age, being the Spurs’ rock in Game 7.
* Shane Battier hitting seven threes in Game 7.
* Duncan missing the bunny over Battier in the last minute with a chance to tie, then exposing the extent of his heartbreak when he ran downcourt to play defense.
* LeBron hitting the dagger jumper from the right wing in the last half-minute.
* San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich finding it within himself to not merely congratulate the Heat, but to offer a big, warm and sincere smile while doing so.
This wasn’t a rivalry. Spurs-Heat was – last year – a matchup without a developed history, something entirely new on the grand stage offered by the Finals. There didn’t need to be an ancient hatred reminiscent of the Lakers and Celtics. All the other ingredients of a great postseason series – present and accounted for in Lakers-Celtics ’84 – flowed to Spurs-Heat 2013.
A high level of play? Check. As was the case in 1984, multiple blowouts emerged, but they emerged because of the winner’s excellence far more than the loser’s impotence or ineptitude.
An extended series? Check.
A classic moment? Check. Allen’s three fit the bill.
Was this a carbon copy of the 1984 Finals, sans the animosity? No, not quite. San Antonio did not stand on the verge of taking a 2-0 series lead to its home building for Game 3. Game 4 did not turn out to be a razor-close hinge point in the series the way it was for Lakers-Celtics 29 years before. Game 6 became far more prominent for Spurs-Heat than it was in Lakers-Celtics. The two arenas in the 2013 Finals didn’t offer the same ambience provided by the Boston Garden and The Forum.
Yet, Spurs-Heat did contain several elements of that more famous NBA Finals between Boston and L.A.
* The win pattern in Games 1 through 4 and Game 7 was the same. The road team won Game 1 and lost Game 2. The home team, as the lower seed, won Game 3 in a blowout and lost Game 4. The home team, as the higher seed, won Game 7. More will be said about Games 5 and 6 a little later on.
* San Antonio and Los Angeles outplayed Miami and Boston for most of the series, but didn’t win, in large part because of missed foul shots in crucial endgame moments, echoing the ’69 Laker-Celtic Finals.
* Game 7 involved a conspicuous failure by a cornerstone member of the losing team on the road. In 2013, Duncan – though not having a bad game in full – blew the late gimmie near the rim against a much smaller defender. Magic, for the Lakers in 1984, endured a Game 7 pockmarked with critical and unforced errors. Both men had to live through an offseason full of searing agony, with the obvious difference being that most of Magic’s pro career still lay ahead of him.
* The Lakers and Spurs had iconic coaches on their sidelines, but the less heralded bench bosses – K.C. Jones of Boston and Erik Spoelstra of Miami – walked away as winners over Pat Riley and Popovich.
You can begin to get a feel for how these four franchises – Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat – are joined together in NBA history and the story of the Finals in particular.
This story only gets better, because there are so many more connections to be made among the four teams and their place in the NBA.
Consider one very simple fact pertaining to everything you’ve read up to now: This piece, which began with an acknowledgment of the frequency of Laker-Celtic Finals rematches, hasn’t mentioned a single detail about the 1985 NBA Finals, the culmination of the 1980s rematch between the two greatest teams in professional basketball history. You’ve been given a history lesson on the ’84 series, but not the following year. Why? This is meant to set the table for what you might (or might not) see over the next two weeks with the Heat and the Spurs. The comparisons between 1984 and 2013 already exist. The comparisons between 1985 and 2014 have not yet been drawn.
The 1985 Finals are important because they situate the 2014 Finals in a dramatic context that should greatly heighten your appreciation of this series – hopefully for the quality of basketball that will be displayed, but certainly for the history that’s going to be made by one of these teams no later than June 20.
In the 1985 Finals, the Lakers were the team trying to gain revenge. Their main star, Magic Johnson, spent the offseason with the haunting memory of Game 7 floating through his mind.
(Making comparisons with Tim Duncan, are you? Yes – that’s what you should be doing. Keep following along with that thought process squarely in mind. You’ve figured this out.)
The Lakers knew they would have to walk over the hot coals of a personally crushing experience in the recent past… and the legendary championship team that had created it in the first place. The Lakers knew they would have to keep their composure in tipping-point situations. Failing once against a legitimately great foe was painful enough; losing again the very next year would have taken an even greater toll.
The pattern of the 1985 Finals wasn’t quite the same as 1984 or 2013, but like each of those series, the ’85 clash did feature another home team blowout in Game 3 (the Lakers winning by 25 at the Forum) for a 2-1 series lead, followed by a road team win in Game 4 (the Celtics winning by two on a Dennis Johnson 18-footer at the final horn) to tie the series at 2-2.
This is where the 1985 Finals diverged from the ’84 series – not just in terms of results, but structure as well.
In 1984, after getting their hearts crushed in Game 4, the Lakers had to fly to Boston for Game 5, and they were wiped off the court in the final quarter by the ever more confident Celtics, who never relinquished home-court advantage for the remainder of the series. In 1985, though, the Lakers – suffering the same wrenching loss at home in Game 4, precisely when they had a chance to take a 3-1 series lead – did not have to go to the East Coast. They were able to stay home for Game 5, because it was in 1985 that the NBA, seeing all these extreme-coast Finals between the Lakers and either Philadelphia or Boston, felt it would be a lot more convenient for everyone if the longstanding 2-2-1-1-1 travel-and-hosting format gave way to a three-flight, 2-3-2 format.
The Lakers had to win Game 5 under this new format, because Boston had the chance to host each of the last two games if they were needed. However, the tradeoff for a must-win situation in Game 5 is that the Lakers had a chance to take the lead in the series without having home-court advantage in the final two games. Los Angeles did indeed win Game 5, and so even though the Celtics had technically “regained home-court advantage” with their Game 4 triumph, they had to play an elimination game on their own parquet floor. Just a year earlier, Boston didn’t face such a predicament.
The Lakers were able to play Game 6 of the ’85 Finals with more of an edge, realizing that they were one win away from a title. Abdul-Jabbar, who steadied his team in a Game 2 moment of crisis in the series, led the way once more, pouring in 29 points to carry the Lakers across the finish line. This game marked the only time an opposing team has won the NBA Finals on the Celtics’ home court – the 2-3-2 format had a lot to do with it.
Stop to consider what’s becoming apparent here: The 1984 and 1985 Finals rematch sequence involving the Lakers and Celtics encompassed the transition from one travel format to another. In 2013 and 2014, the Heat and Spurs are going to cross that same bridge… only in the opposite direction. What was a 2-3-2 format in 2013 will become the 2-2-1-1-1 again in 2014.
In 1985, the Lakers benefited from having Game 5 on their floor as the lower seed.
In 2014, the Spurs could very well benefit from having Game 5 on their floor… as the higher seed.
The most fundamentally unfair aspect of the 2-3-2 format – the reason it was ultimately changed – is precisely that the two teams could exchange an equal number of road wins through five games, only for the higher seed to face elimination heading into Game 6. Yes, the higher seed enjoyed a massive advantage if it could leverage a 3-2 lead after five, but if it merely managed to hold serve at home (without breaking serve on the road) or split road wins, it faced the prospect of having to win two straight elimination games to capture the series. That’s not fair, and that’s why this change to the 2-2-1-1-1 is something that should be welcomed throughout the NBA.
The Miami Heat have known both the joy and the pain of the 2-3-2 format. In 2006 as the lower-seeded Finals team, they didn’t win a road game through the first five games of the series… but took a 3-2 lead to Dallas for Game 6 because they swept the middle three games at home. In the 2011 Finals, the Heat and Mavericks split road wins in the first five games of the series, but because Miami was the higher-seeded team, it trailed 3-2 coming home to South Florida for Game 6. Miami felt pressure more than a sense of opportunity in such a situation, as was the case for the Celtics in the ’85 Finals.
The point is plain – unfair, perhaps, but plain: For all the talk about Xs and Os and matchups that you’re going to hear in the coming days and weeks, what might turn the 2014 Finals in one direction or another is the format. This year, Miami will probably need to have a 3-2 lead after five games if it wants a good chance at a repeat. This year, a 2-2 series – which meant something quite different in the 1984 and ’85 Finals – favors the higher seed (San Antonio) more than the lower seed (Miami). This year, Miami is once again poised to host Game 6, but without the ability to then host Game 7 as well. It will be fascinating to see how the tenor of the series evolves from Game 4 onward, as three decades of NBA history give way to the world once known in 1984. It’s not Orwellian, but it’s worth contemplating just the same.
The Lakers, the Celtics, the Spurs, and the Heat have been brought together by the 1984-’85 and 2013-’14 Finals rematches that are now part of the story of the NBA, with the 2014 championship series waiting to unfold and take its place in the history books. Yet, beyond that powerful connection – one that is both superficial yet also freighted with a much deeper level of narrative resonance – these four franchises sit in the middle of other intersections of fact and coincidence.
For one thing, these teams have – in their own ways – produced once-in-a-generation players. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, LeBron James, and Tim Duncan are more than legends. They have all given distinctive sets of gifts and achievements to professional basketball.
Magic was a point guard masquerading as a “point small forward,” perhaps not powerful the way Oscar Robertson was, but able to see the court with unusual clarity due to his height. Bird provided a combination of deadeye shooting and pinpoint passing that, if not unprecedented within the sport’s evolution, existed to an extent rarely seen at any point before or since. LeBron has taken the Magic/Oscar mold and become a “point power forward” while also being a central lockdown defender and fast-break finisher (even more than a creator). Duncan’s skill set is not what makes him unique, but the man with a claim to being the greatest power forward of all time has set himself apart from both predecessors and peers with an uncommon level of yearly consistency that will be marveled at 20, 30, and 40 years from now.
The Chicago Bulls naturally had a once-in-a-generation player, Michael Jordan, and that’s exactly why the Bulls won six titles, third-most on the NBA’s all-time list, No. 23 played for them. When you get to other franchises, though, just how many of them possessed one-of-a-kind players? Maybe Isiah Thomas was that kind of player for the Detroit Pistons’ greatest teams, but was Thomas that transformative a figure at point guard? Hakeem Olajuwon probably deserves to be seen as a unique basketball specimen for the two-time champion Houston Rockets (one of only 10 franchises to win multiple NBA titles), but could the 1970s New York Knicks boast of such a player?
Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did win championships with teams other than the Lakers, but the Lakers claim both of those players as team members and champions. Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Shaquille O’Neal (for both the Lakers and the Heat; the Celtics, only in a technical, tangential sense), George Gervin, maybe even Manu Ginobili – these conspicuously dynamic players, all existing outside of a conventional mold – can be considered part of the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, or Heat.
There are still other comparisons to be made as well.
Three of these franchises – Los Angeles, Boston and Miami – have made the Finals at least four straight times, and are moreover the only ones to do so. The Lakers and Celtics played each other when in the midst of these extended Finals streaks. The Lakers were finishing their four-straight-Finals run in 1984 and ’85 when they played the Celtics for the O’Brien Trophy. The Celtics were starting their four-Finals march when they took on Showtime in those same years. Pat Riley was immersed in those wars as a coach; now, he’s part of a four-consecutive Finals parade as a team architect with the Heat. San Antonio doesn’t have a streak of four straight Finals to point to, but the Spurs have merely become the most consistently successful organization in the NBA over the past decade, establishing the kind of legacy the Celtics and Lakers built in two different eras (the Celtics in particular).
The four franchises are simultaneously knitted together yet split into their familiar pairs (the Lakers and Celtics in their 1980s heyday, the Spurs and Heat in the present) when one realizes that there’s a meeting of giants to be found on both sides. The Celtics and Lakers had Magic and Bird. The Spurs and Heat feature many stars in the constellation of NBA greats, but LeBron and Duncan rise above the rest, at least in terms of historical impact on the game and the extent to which their legacies will be discussed long after they retire.
Magic and Bird formed a lifelong friendship from their rivalry. Duncan and LeBron might not become buddy-buddy when they seek out a post-playing life, but the two men were brought together in the 2007 Finals when the Spurs polished off LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Duncan told LeBron after the series ended, “This is gonna be your league in a little while.” Regardless of the outcome of this upcoming series, the simple fact that LeBron and Duncan will compete against each other in a third Finals – the same number Magic and Bird had against each other in the ‘80s – gives Spurs-Heat Part II a substantial added infusion of historical heft.
The lines between the past and present of the NBA can be identified, one by one, the more you look at these teams. One final way of seeing how these four franchises – Lakers, Celtics, Heat, and Spurs – are linked in the larger story of American professional basketball is to consider how all of the NBA’s decades, essentially the league’s full history, can be pieced together by skipping from one milestone to another:
Let’s start with something simple: In 1949, two years after the first NBA championship series (later named the Finals), the Minneapolis Lakers won their first NBA title, launching the first dynasty in the sport. From this foundation, one can then move to a series of major turning points in NBA history, all of which are separated by exactly 15 years.
1954: The Lakers win their last title in Minneapolis, concluding their dynastic run.
1969: The Lakers and Celtics meet in the Finals for the seventh time in the past 11 seasons and the sixth time in the past eight. The Celtics win this series, just as they did in each prior meeting.
Added context: As soon as the Lakers left Minneapolis, they did not win a title throughout the Celtics’ golden era. It wasn’t until the Lakers faced a non-Celtics team in the Finals (the Knicks in 1972) that they won their first title in L.A.
1984: The Lakers and Celtics renew their Finals rivalry, 15 years after it broke off. The Lakers made the Finals in 1973, the Celtics in ’74, but the two teams did not cross paths in the Finals until Magic and Bird came along and the Philadelphia 76ers’ great teams began to fade.
1999: Coinciding with the first season after the conclusion of the Michael Jordan era and the last season of a decade (the 1990s) that witnessed the disappearance of the Lakers and Celtics from the championship-stage scene, the San Antonio Spurs win their first NBA title and begin a period of top-tier success in the league. The post-Jordan period begins with a Spurs title, and it continues with a Laker title in 2000. The Spurs and Lakers combine to win each of the first five titles in the post-Jordan era; six of the first seven; and nine of the first 12. In the post-Jordan era, the four franchises featured here – Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, and Heat – have combined for 13 of the era’s 15 titles and will claim No. 14 in the era’s 16th season. (The 2004 Pistons and the 2011 Mavericks are the only exceptions, and in those Finals, they defeated a “Big Four” opponent, the Lakers in 2004 and the Heat in 2011.)
The post-Jordan era tally of NBA titles: Lakers 5, Spurs 4, Heat 3, Celtics 1 (plus: Pistons 1 and Mavericks 1 as well).
2014: 15 years after his title run began, Tim Duncan tries to win title number five. The Heat try to join the Spurs in winning a fourth NBA title, making them just the fifth franchise in league history to win that many titles.
History – not just one year, but the NBA’s larger existence – now fills the air in the Alamo City, a place where history lives and breathes for other reasons.