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|Kevin McHale and the 1986 Celtics were denied that one final tussle with James Worthy and the Lakers.|
Look, I'm not saying the '07 Colts or '86 Lakers openly chose to lose. They just took the easy way out. Subconsciously, they were probably thinking, "Deep down, we know we're not winning the title this year," and responded in crisis with the appropriate amount of urgency. In the process, they cheated two unforgettable teams of punctuating unforgettable seasons by topping their natural rivals. And that's not where the similarities begin and end with the '86 Celtics and the '07 Patriots. For the past few months, I've been avoiding the inevitable "Dr. Jack breakdown" because the responsibility of choosing between the best Boston-area teams of my lifetime was too overwhelming. But following the undeniable parallels between the Lakers-Rockets and Colts-Chargers outcomes, in the words of REO Speedwagon, I can't fight this feeling anymore.
(One crucial anti-jinxing note: So I don't have to keep writing "assuming the Pats eventually win the Super Bowl" throughout the column, we'll shorten that phrase to the acronym "ATPEWTSB." Got it? I don't want to be blamed if this Patriots' season somehow goes to hell. This is a hypothetical analysis predicated on the realistic assumption that the Patriots, currently 1-3 favorites to win Super Bowl XLII and 14-point favorites in the AFC title game, will win two more games. Which seems fairly likely. You have to admit.)
All right, let's break this baby down, Dr. Jack style
|It's hard to imagine any quarterback playing better than Tom Brady has this season.|
So this one comes down to degrees. They were/are equally good in the clutch, so that category gets thrown out. Larry Legend gets a point because he had a cool nickname (actually, he had three nicknames if you count "The Hick from French Link" and "The Basketball Jesus"); poor Brady doesn't have a single nickname other than the obscenities Bridget Moynihan mutters every time she flips through US Weekly and sees him with Gisele. Brady gets a point because he dominated throughout the '07 season (save for a couple of cold-weather games), whereas Bird battled a sore back for three months and didn't get rolling until February. Bird gets a point because there was a genuine reverence for the Legend in the mid-80s that Brady hasn't totally matched for whatever reason. Locally, they're adored the same, although Bird's spiritual connection with the raucous Boston Garden fans easily transcended Brady's connection with Gillette Stadium.
Here's the trump card: I can't imagine any professional athlete executing his job better than Brady did through these first 17 games: He made the single toughest position in sports look easy, and every time the Patriots needed him to come through, he did come through. On top of that, he excelled during an unhealthy era in which we digest sports through various mediums, argue about them constantly and pick athletes and coaches apart on a 24/7 basis. As Tony Romo showed over the past few weeks, many of these "superstars" can't handle it. But Brady's unwavering focus and complete command at all times stood out more than any statistic, especially given the level of public interest in both Brady and this particular Patriots team. I just don't think we'll ever see another season quite like it -- and the undefeated record backs that up -- whereas we've seen multiple basketball efforts that compared to Bird's work in '86 (and in some cases, even surpassed it). Throw in Gisele and this was surprisingly easy (ATPEWTSB).
(Ducking lightning bolt.)
|At least we don't have to spend any time debating the coaching matchup.|
FLAW THAT HELD THEM BACK HISTORICALLY
Quite simply, the '86 Celtics (67-15) got bored at times; you could catch them on the right night if they were tired or not paying attention. Eleven of their 15 regular-season losses were to sub-.500 teams (including the 23-win Knicks, 26-win Pacers and 29-win Cavs), but they finished 19-2 against 50-win teams. These guys should have cracked the 70-win barrier and even admit as much now. As for the Patriots, you'd have to go with their coach costing them a first-round pick by breaking the rules in Week 1. If a 19-0 season is like building the perfect Ferrari, then SpyGate would be a noticeable 7-inch scratch on the passenger's door that can't come off no matter how many times you polish it. And every time someone gets in the car, no matter how gorgeous it is and how fast it goes, they'll always ask you, "How'd you get that scratch?" That's just the way it is.
|Few athletes have ever fed off the energy of the home crowd like Larry Bird.|
(While we're here, each team also had "overrated" weaknesses: The Pats have a "shaky" running game and the '86 Celts had "shaky" outside shooting from their guards. In the case of the Celts, people were just picking nits. In the case of the Pats, ATPEWTSB, everyone was just picking nits.)
Edge: CelticsDEFINING POST-VICTORY TRADITION
Slight Edge: Celtics.
|Bill Walton will always have a special spot in the hearts of Celtics fans.|
Still, Walton's undeniable contributions remind me why I despise the increasing reliance on complicated statistics for basketball judgments: That season, he only averaged 20 minutes, 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists -- not breathtaking numbers by any imagination -- and yet, you had to be there to witness his infectious and sorely needed enthusiasm, the otherworldly way he and Bird freelanced together on pick-and-rolls, the way the Garden crowd responded to him, and how Walton's minutes allowed Bird, McHale and Parish to stay fresh AND keep the team playing at a high level. For one season, the Celtics were fortunate enough to have a completely overqualified sixth man, almost like the "Sopranos" bringing in Leo DiCaprio to play Meadow's boyfriend for Season 4. Walton also made the single biggest play of that entire season, a crunch-time putback in Game 4 of the Finals that effectively clinched the title. We'll see if Moss has a moment in these final two games that matches that one.
With that said, the neatest thing about the Walton/Moss parallel is how they pushed the careers of Bird/Brady to another level. Nothing was more exciting this season than seeing Brady take seven steps back, plant his feet and heave the football as far as he possibly could to Moss, and if you were a true basketball fan, there was nothing like watching Bird and Walton run pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos like they'd known each other for 30 years. What a cool category. I feel honored just to be writing this section.
|With Wes Welker working the underneath routes, Brady always has a safety blanket.|
SIDEKICK FOR MVP
Since there are four times as many guys on a football team, we're using two receivers (Moss and Welker) for Brady and Kevin McHale for Bird. Anyway, McHale played power forward as efficiently as that position has ever been played -- he scored on everyone and commanded double- and triple-teams, defended everyone from Adrian Dantley to Kareem, shot a ludicrous 60 percent from the field and averaged a 26/10 every night, and could play any conceivable style of basketball. On top of that, his array of remarkable low post moves hasn't been seen since; there was a genuine art to what he was doing on the block, and I'm not sure you could say that about many athletes over the past 25 years. He was a human YouTube clip. And McHale helped Bird immensely by stretching the floor, reducing the scoring burden, carrying the offense when Bird was resting, defending the other team's best forward and never caring about getting credit or being "The Man."
The Moss/Welker combo had a similar effect for Brady: Moss was the perfect deep threat for him and Welker was the perfect slot guy. It's hard to imagine any Hall of Fame power forward fitting in more perfectly with the '86 Celts (with the "possible" exception of the '03 Tim Duncan), and it's hard to imagine a better longball/possession combo than Moss/Welker for this particular Pats team. If you had the power to retroactively switch one of them for any other NFL receiver this season, would you even bother? Probably not. Everyone wins in this category.
DEFINING REGULAR-SEASON GAME
Could you narrow it down to one for the Pats? I don't think you can -- at gunpoint, I'd go with the Giants game, but you could make strong cases for four or five other ones. As for the Celtics, one definitely stands out: A January comeback win when the Hawks raced to a 27-point lead at home and made the unforgivable mistake of talking trash right before halftime, leading to a ferociously ticked-off Boston team roaring back, scoring 14 straight in the fourth quarter and eventually winning in OT. I have this one on tape -- in the second half, the entire Celtics team morphs into Clint Eastwood during the final 15 minutes of "Unforgiven." It's incredible to watch. This game should run on ESPN Classic once a week.
Edge: CelticsDEFINING PLAYOFF GAME
Edge: Celtics (for now)
|When he got bored, Bird would spend an entire game just shooting with his left hand.|
(Note: Even in the playoffs, the Celtics messed around. For instance, in the Houston series, Bird became enamored with a play in which they isolated him on the right side and he slowly backed Rodney McCray down. If the double-team came, he found the cutter for the layup. If no double-team came, he abused McCray. And it just kept happening and happening, especially in Game 6, when Bird looked like a cat toying with a mouse and even split a triple team for one driving layup. We've seen NBA teams dominate before, but Bird experimented like Dr. Moreau that season -- he was doing everything short of breeding McHale and Walton.)
Big Edge: PatriotsPLUSH DRAFT PICK HELD FOR FUTURE DOMINATION
Edge: (Shaking my head sadly.)
Robert Parish did all the little stuff: set the best picks, protected the rim, played hurt and never cared about his own numbers. We loved him for it, called him "The Chief" and yelled his nickname every time he did something good. But at no point in his career was The Chief better than New England's offensive line this season: not only did the line handle every quality defense in the league except for Green Bay's (and that might be coming in two weeks), during the past two months, it protected Brady against a bunch of fired-up defenses that did everything but draw a bull's-eye on Brady's jersey. Throw in the Dan Haggerty beards and it's no contest.
Major Edge: Patriots
|Dennis Johnson had a knack for making big plays in crunch time.|
Anyway, DJ was a good guy who never cheated or resorted to cheap shots, and you never had to worry about him imploding at the wrong time and potentially costing you a victory with a hotheaded mistake. Even if Harrison has a DJ-like knack for making big plays at the best possible times, that's where the similarities end. DJ's teammates loved him and his opponents always respected him. You can't say the same about Rodney Harrison.
ARTFULNESS WITH THE SALARY CAP
The cap wasn't much of an obstacle to NBA teams in the mid-80s, but for today's NFL teams, as Mike Francesa would say, it's a yoo-munguss obstacle. This subject has been beaten to death, but still.
Major Edge: Patriots
|When these guys played in the Garden, they usually had a lot of time to sit back and joke.|
As for the Patriots, they built a beautiful stadium that provides no real home-field advantage because the noise drifts up and out -- operating almost like an anti-Dome -- leading to the bizarre outcome of longtime season-ticket holders (as described by my buddy J-Bug in last week's B.S. Report) openly pining for the old stadium even though the old stadium was a complete dump with aluminum rows for seats. Bizarre.
Overwhelming Edge: CelticsLOCAL LOVE FOR THE TEAM
Slight Edge: Celtics
CAPACITY TO SHAME BIGGEST RIVAL INTO SUBCONSCIOUSLY GIVING UP BEFORE THE DAY OF RECKONING
Rockets-Lakers was an enormous upset, but not totally: The '86 Lakers were a subpar rebounding team and an aging Kareem was too much of a ninny to deal with the young legs of Sampson and Hakeem. So it was a semi-defensible upset until the series-clinching game, when Hakeem got thrown out for fighting and the Lakers still managed to choke at home. Really, that's how a defending champ should go out? Come on. As for the Chargers-Colts game, even though San Diego showed an immense amount of heart and Norv Turner's play calling was so good that he nearly caught fire on the sidelines at one point like an "NBA Jam" character, you can't say enough about that gag job by the defending champs. What a disgrace. Part of winning a title is defending the title after you win it and that wasn't anything remotely resembling a defense.
Edge: PatriotsUNINTENTIONAL COMEDY
CONFIDENCE OF THE FAN BASE HEADING INTO THE PLAYOFFS
Hard to believe, but it was higher for the '86 Celts. When the Colts blew it last week, some New England fans (including my dad) were actually rooting for the Chargers because it was an easier game. When the Lakers lost to the Rockets, NOBODY was rooting for Houston. We all felt cheated. I'm still bitter, actually.
|By adding Randy Moss, the Pats removed a lot of suspense from their games.|
THE GRANDKIDS TEST
Whether it's a team or a player, the test remains the same: Will you be bouncing your grandkids on your lap some day and telling them how great Player X or Team X was? (Note: I always thought this would be a great way to decide the Hall of Fame -- if somebody doesn't pass the Grandkids Test, they're out.) To this point, I've only rooted for one team great enough to pass the Grandkids Test: The '86 Celts. ATPEWTSB, the Pats would make two.
Edge: The Celtics (for now)
MY DAD'S TAKE
With the Celtics holding a slim 12-10 lead, I phoned my father to get his grizzled take for the deciding verdict. Here's a rough transcript of our conversation:
Dad: "Oh, Gawd. Come on. [Thinking.] You know, I'd have to go with the '86 Celtics. That's my favorite team ever. I can't imagine ever liking a team more than I liked that team. [Thinking.] Although maybe that's because I went to all those games so I'm more attached to them. [Thinking.] And the Pats are definitely more popular here because more people like football in general. [Thinking.] On the other hand, I felt more of a connection to that Celtics team because there were so many more games, and the guys were right there on the court, you felt like you knew them more. And they didn't cheat like the Pats did. [Thinking.] But if the Pats finish the season undefeated, I mean [Thinking.] Wait, why didn't you wait until after the Super Bowl to figure this out?"
Me: "Trust me, I'm going to take great pains to qualify that the comparison can't take full effect until after the Super Bowl. Besides, it's a relevant conversation, right?"
Dad: "I guess. [Thinking.] I have to go with the '86 Celtics. There was no way we were losing that season. Nobody could beat us in the Garden. With the Pats, our defense makes me nervous and nothing made me nervous during that Celtics season. Then again, if the Pats go 19-0 [thinking] you know, I can't believe you're doing this before the last two games! Why are you doing this again? This is the dumbest thing you've ever done -- it's even dumber than the time your car got stolen because you left your keys in your car door. Can't you wait three weeks? I'm hanging up."
We have to wait three weeks. For now, the Celtics have a slight edge. To be continued.