The rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers is so hallowed it determined what we think of when we hear the word rivalry. 34 of the total 74 NBA championships have been one by one of these teams, both with 17. They met in the NBA Finals 12 times with Russell beating Wilt. Magic won five versus Bird’s three. The 40’s Minneapolis Lakers and George Mikan, The 70s Cowens and Hondo, Kareem, Shaq and Kobe; all of these players have multiple books about them that we can relish.
Michael Holley bursts into the halls of the Celtics legacy with a staccato style, revealing the story from right where it was happening. Holley was a Boston-based journalist connected to the people, stories and conversations that made the Big Three. 250 pages pack punches and pull you into the next chapter. Holley guides us through the front office lead-up, the trades, the games, and even Pierce’s defense on Kobe that won a championship.
Holley shows the league and life changing events that shifted the destiny of the two most storied teams. Careers were altered and franchises drew on all assets to create a three-headed monster that created the biggest turnaround in NBA history and set-off so many more star-studded teams.
The Lead Up
Something a lot of us don’t know: Celtics ownership changed in 2003 when by Wyc Grousebeck walked into the former owner’s office and got him to sell the team. No meet and greet. No slideshow or media circus. The team wasn’t even for sale. The dominos started to fall this fine day. Another gem: one member of the ownership group had a golfing buddy named Danny Ainge. Ainge was an informal consultant at first who was hired as General Manager. Ainge then hired Doc Rivers, freshly let go from Orlando. Other front office hires – including a bno-name usiness consultant-turned expert on the collective bargaining agreement named Daryl Morey. More dominos fall.
A rare gripe for Mr. Holley. He doesn’t cover what I think of as a quintessential example of how the rivalry is real. Pat Riley, who is on-record for hating Ainge and is best known as the slick, flashy coach behind the Lakers Show Time, saw Kevin Garnett on the beach outside his house in Malibu. Apparently there was something to the way Riley told KG that it’s okay if he went to another team after 12 years of frustrating early post season losses with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The GM in Miami at the time, Riley wasn’t equipped to make a blockbuster trade to get KG. The Lakers were, however.
Different people will tell you different versions of this story, but there’s no way the Timberwolves GM, Kevin McHale, didn’t feel some type of way when his star player expressed interest in being traded and mentioned the Lakers. McHale still limps to this day after playing through a broken foot during the first Celtics’ Big Three’s ’87 championship run against the Lakers. Ray Allen, who we will see was watching KG’s moves closely, tells a version of this story which had KG ready to wear the purple and gold. McHale found a way to turn the trade toward Boston. Another domino falls.
Holly takes us through the blockbuster for KG, the subsequent Ray Allen move following it and the rise of draft picks Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo. Supporting cast members James Posey, Eddie House, Sam Casell, and PJ Brown added depth to the roster. Was this a superteam? Sure, but on much different terms than many of today’s examples. Remember that all three teams, Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle, were way below five hundred in both 2006 and 2007, with the Celtics at 24 and 58 in ’07.
The Turn Around
We talk about sacrifice, togetherness, and commitment like it’s a happy meal you can get in the drive through. As an elite star – which all of the Big Three were – you would have a right to ask, hey, aren’t the words of sacrifice and fitting-in meant for everybody else? Shouldn’t someone else should take the tough defensive matchup tonight? Shouldn’t Ishoot more?
We get a whole chapter about Ubuntu. Rivers learned about it following Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. It’s the togetherness, the sharing of the responsibilities that empowers the sharing of the payoff. To kick-off this team-wide mantra, Doc sat Pierce, Allen and KG down in his office immediately following the press conference officially announcing the signings. Doc told them they could win the championship, but only if they all sacrificed. When asked how many shots they’d feel comfortable sacrificing, KG led the way: “you can have all of them, coach”. And there we have it. A mantra, buy-in and leadership. Oh, and the beginning of Boston’s endless love of KG who has his #5 retired there. Inidentally, no #21 hangs in the Wolves rafters.
Was it destined the Celtics would win? No. The Celtics hadn’t made a significant run in the playoffs in over 20 years. They needed all seven games to beat the Hawks in first round and again to beat LeBron and the Cavs in the second. The Cavs series was a dogfight: the scores of the Celtics wins: Game one 76-72; Game two 89-73; Game five 96-89; Game seven 97-92.
Meanwhile in the West, the Lakers swept the Nuggets, took care of the Jazz in six, and beat the Spurs in five. That Spurs team their own three Duncan, Parker and Ginobli. Destiny? Nope.
Let’s get into one of these games. June 12 saw Game Four in Los Angeles with the Celtics up two games to one. Watch it yourself (it’s on YouTube and Hardwood Classics). Jackson’s triangle. Kobe’s ice-water bloodstream. Tom Thibodeau screaming the Lakers playsets before they happen. Gasol’s passing. And my how things have changed. Readers, there are significant parts of this game where there’re only one player outside the three point line in a half court set. Ray Allen is one of the people we think of when we think 3-pointer and averaged seven 3-point attempts per game (Stephen Curry is averaging 12 a game right now). But, we don’t just see how different the game was 12 years ago, we get to see where it was going.
Game Four found the Lakers with the largest lead in NBA Finals history in the first quarter with the Celtics down 20. Kobe was checking Rondo, well before the “playoff Rondo” mystique, and could sag so much the rest of the offense clogged. Lamar Odom and newcomer Trevor Ariza were shocking the Celtics defense with energy, size and shooting and Gasol’s two-way play led them to a 58-40 edge going into half time. Watching it, It feels like the Lakers tying the series is an eventuality and the series could tilt to their favor.
The Lakers were still up 20 with six minutes to go in the third – that’s half the game losing by 20 – and here’s where we get to see a transition and where the league was headed. Doc put Eddie House in instead of Rondo and Posey played nearly double the minutes of Perk. House and Posey embodied “3 and D”, spaced the floor and let the Big Three be the Big Three.
With the floor spread, the Celtics stabilized their offense through KG in the post. He’s passing out of doubles, running the high post with House and Posey cutting and kept Gasol stuck to him and not helping. Allen is everywhere and Pierce’s defender couldn’t leave him open. KG anchored this offensive scheme and six minutes later the lead is down to 2. Kobe’s heroics turn cold at the wrong time with Pierce as his defender in the fourth. This gets him going. Watch when Pierce draws a foul with less than a minute to go with the Celtics up three. You can see him saying “Ice. I want it. Let’s go,” at the line. After playing 47.5 straight minutes, Ray Allen waves off a screen from KG to take Vujacic one-on-one and ends with an open left-handed lay-up to ice the game. Doc rode this floor-spacing line-up for a lot of the rest of the series, winning 131-92 in Game 6.
“The Trouble Is, You Think You Have Time”- Jack Kornfield
You know what comes next. KG injured his knee and missed the ‘09 playoffs as the Celtics lost to the Magic in the Conference Finals. 2010 saw the Celtics lose a fourth-quarter lead in Game 7 against the Lakers. Ubuntu started to crackle and break like a tectonic plate as internal disputes arose (namely between Rondo and Allen) and personell shifted. In 2011, another big three is formed in Miami and Lebron James had one of the best performances of his career to grab Game 6 of the 2012 Conference Finals away from the Celtics and Rondo’s 44-10-8. Allen’s rejected $12 million over two years to go to the Heat for $9 million over 3 years. KG and Pierce got traded to the Nets for three unprotected picks, a swap and role players. Doc went to the Clippers. Beloved Rondo flamed out and, suddenly, no more dominos.
If you are a Celtics fan, and want to be reminded why this is not all just rooting for laundry, watch Paul at the press conference announcing he’s a Net. Pierce says “excite” three times in 80 seconds but sounds about as Scrooge seeing his own grave during a midnight ghost tour. Watch his face and tell me you can’t see the dreams of playing in one place his whole career and of winning another in Boston shatter.
There’s still dominos falling for the Celtics from the Big Three. The picks they got were used to get Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. “The Jays” are at all-star levels and we still have Danny pulling strings. Is there another Ubuntu in Boston’s future to combat LA’s seemingly unavoidable repeat? For now, fans of the Boston/LA rivalry have this book to enjoy while the next one is being written.
*This article was written by Adam Trott and edited by TalkBasket’s Chief Editor Yiannis Bouranis