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.