In the end, the results were inevitable. The NBA has been dominated by two franchises since its inception. One rose to power with the greatest dynasty in professional sports history, capturing 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969. The other was established with a selection of the highest profile players in league history, leading to the NBA’s best franchise winning percentage, and the most Finals appearances. The greatest rivalry in NBA history is reborn in the finals of the NBA Franchise Tournament: the All-Time Boston Celtics vs. All-Time Los Angeles Lakers.
Ball handlers: Each team is guided by the greatest point guard of his generation. The Celtics have multiple points of attack on offense, but their starting lineup will primarily be led by Bob Cousy. The Houdini of the Hardwood brings elite court vision and ample big game experience, but his slight frame will create issues on defense. The Lakers high-scoring attack will be guided by Magic Johnson, a 6’9” anomaly who can physically dominate Boston’s backcourt. Neither player was known for his outside shot; expect each team to put the ball in their playmaker’s hands and surround him with scorers.
Johnson’s size will cause Boston to cross-match defensively. When the starters are in, expect Sam Jones and Larry Bird to take turns checking Johnson. Cousy will primarily defend Jerry West, and will struggle with West’s length and athleticism advantage. Johnson will primarily guard Cousy on defense, but will also spend time on his archrival Larry Bird, due to their size similarities.
Each team will go stretches without a traditional point guard on the floor. Jo Jo White is Boston’s theoretical backup point guard, but he’ll struggle to crack this talented squad’s rotation. Bill Sharman, John Havlicek and Larry Bird will split time initiating the offense when Cousy rests. They’ll also look to get on the break whenever possible, with Bill Russell and Dave Cowens expertly throwing outlet passes to initiate this action. Jerry West and Gail Goodrich will initiate L.A.’s attack when Johnson sits. While both are capable of filling this role, expect Johnson, the only true floor leader on a team with many mouths to feed, to play heavy minutes throughout the series.
Wings: Boston has a deep collection of wing players that will present matchup problems for Los Angeles. Sam Jones was one of the great clutch players in NBA history, and his constant movement with and without the ball may tire his defenders out over the course of the series. Sixth man extraordinaire John Havlicek, who may have been the most tireless player in the NBA, will split time off the bench at shooting guard and small forward. Havlicek was one of the great all-around players in league history, and he stands as Boston’s best wing defender against L.A.’s high-powered attack. Larry Bird, the centerpiece of Boston’s offensive attack, will start each game at small forward, but will frequently play as a stretch four, especially if Los Angeles goes large stretches without a traditional power forward, as expected. Paul Pierce was another deadly scorer whose firepower will be needed in this series.
Los Angeles counters with three legendary wing scorers in their starting lineup. Jerry West will stretch the floor and serve as L.A.’s secondary ball handler on offense, while doubling as their best wing defender. Kobe Bryant will also be tasked with focusing more on defense, which he exceled at during his prime. Elgin Baylor will also start, and though he lacks great size, he’ll help the Lakers stay competitive on the glass against Boston’s bigger frontcourt. Off the bench, Jim Pollard will contribute with his athleticism and long-distance shooting ability. He’ll stretch the floor and help to guard Boston’s plethora of wing options. Like Baylor, James Worthy will primarily play at power forward, and will boost L.A.’s athleticism advantage whenever he’s on the court. Both Pollard and Worthy will balance the Lakers lineup as lower usage players who will fit in alongside any combination they’re paired with.
Big Men: Boston will start three players who stand between 6’9” and 6’10”. The aforementioned Bird will split time between the forward positions, while Kevin McHale and Bill Russell will man the interior for the starting lineup. McHale will have a distinct advantage on offense against L.A.’s smaller forwards, and will be one of Boston’s primary options as a result. He’s also skilled and versatile enough on defense to guard Baylor and Worthy, and will be utilized in Boston’s most effective defensive lineups. Russell, the greatest defensive player in NBA history, will face the greatest challenge of his career in this series, matching up against three behemoths who are all among the greatest scorers of all time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and his old adversary Wilt Chamberlain. He’ll use his uncanny motor to try to beat them down the court on offense, but his effectiveness on defense will be compromised by their sheer size and talent levels. Dave Cowens, another 6’9” undersized center, will use his bulk and will to attempt to slow this trio down. Robert Parish, Boston’s only true seven-footer, will also get plenty of minutes, but does not have the bulk to stop any of L.A.’s threats. Russell and Parish will need to use their quickness and speed advantage to score easy baskets on offense, and tire their counterparts out.
Jabbar will anchor L.A.’s big man rotation, and will serve as the centerpiece of their dynamic offense. O’Neal’s brute force will provide a devastating contrast for L.A.’s second unit, which Boston will have difficulty countering. Chamberlain’s Laker years were characterized by lower usage, high efficiency, and dominating defense, and coach Pat Riley will utilize him in their best defensive lineups. Expect the legendary George Mikan to play sparingly as the fourth center, but he will provide another dominating offensive presence when called upon.
Coach Red Auerbach will likely use a combination of the following five five-man lineups most frequently throughout series:
John Havlicek and Paul Pierce will play two of the biggest roles on the team off the bench, as swingmen who can match up with Los Angeles defensively. Late in games, Auerbach may turn to his best defensive lineup of Jones-Pierce-Havlicek-McHale-Russell for key stops.
Coach Pat Riley will be tempted to try two-center lineups, but will ultimately stay away and utilize his wing depth. Each center will be surrounded by shooting, which will force Boston to make a difficult choice – leave Russell, Cowens, and Parish alone on an island defensively, or double-team and try to recover on the perimeter. Gail Goodrich and Pollard provide elite shooting off the bench, while West, Bryant, Worthy and Baylor will be used together in their defensive lineup, with Chamberlain in the middle, to form a dominant athletic quintet.
The size and bulk of L.A.’s centers – Boston’s centers are all physically overmatched, and will struggle to contain the Laker big men. They’re also in danger of falling into foul trouble, and must avoid taking the easy way out early in games, especially with O’Neal and Chamberlain. Boston’s big men will not require the same level of attention on the other end of the court, and each Lakers center should be able to hold their own in their defensive matchup.
Boston’s passing offense – Boston’s offense will flow through the unselfish hands of their playmakers, Cousy and Bird. These are two of the best passers in league history, and together with Russell, a great passing big man, their offense will hum. The Lakers have Magic Johnson, so they won’t be devoid of playmaking, but their offense has a greater chance of stalling with some of the high-volume scorers on their roster.
L.A.’s athleticism advantage – Both teams boast tremendous depth and versatility, but L.A. has a greater collection of athletes on their roster. West, Bryant, Pollard, Worthy, and Baylor can disrupt Boston on both sides of the ball, and will cover ample ground on defense. Boston has Havlicek, who will see starter’s minutes in this series, but the rest of their perimeter players fall short of L.A.’s in this department.
History – These teams have met 12 times in the Finals, with Boston winning nine of those matchups. West and Baylor were famously never able to defeat Russell, which haunts them to this day, as West eerily described in his autobiography. However, Johnson, Jabbar, and Worthy were able to win two of their three finals matchups against Bird, McHale, and Parish, and Bryant split his two finals series against Pierce. Does any of this matter? Is Boston’s “mystique” actually something that Los Angeles fears, or does their recent success render this meaningless?
Los Angeles comes out in full attack mode, and wins the first two games of the series against a shell-shocked Celtics team. Boston, however, refuses to wilt, with Bird and Russell leading the way to two close wins to tie the series up. In the critical game five, Magic Johnson orchestrates a perfect game, and Shaquille O’Neal, a destroyer of worlds in his Lakers Finals appearances, overwhelms his smaller counterparts in a comfortable victory. Los Angeles leads throughout the sixth game, but down the stretch, key plays by Jones and Havlicek save Boston and set up a winner-takes-all game seven.
In the final game, both teams play inspired basketball. Russell and Jones lead Boston to the brink of a championship, using their collective will and clutch team play. Down the stretch, however, Magic finds Jerry West repeatedly behind the arc, where he hits multiple clutch three-pointers. The curse is lifted, as West and Baylor finally get to celebrate against their tormentors.
Lakers win, four games to three.