Revising the Celtics Curse

J.M. Poulard —  September 29, 2011

The Los Angeles Lakers are by far one of the most prestigious franchises in all of professional sports. It’s one of the most expensive tickets in sports and all the celebrities come out to support the purple and gold, especially during the postseason. There are few teams that can match the level of appeal and fandom that typically comes with this team. Indeed, only the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers can truly comprehend what it’s like to be a Lakers player.

Indeed, (it seems) their fans are located everywhere and make it their business to travel to any and every venue to cheer on their team. This explains why a player such as Kobe Bryant will get MVP chants in places such as New York, Toronto and Boston to name just a few cities.

And truthfully, it’s rather easy to fall in love with this team given its rich history:

  • 16 NBA championships
  • 62.0% winning percentage
  • 129 All-Star selections
  • 18 players selected to the Hall of Fame
  • A slew of greats that can all be identified by one name: Mikan (Minneapolis), Elgin, West, Wilt, Goodrich, Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Shaq, Kobe and maybe one day Pau.
  • Three legendary head coaches: John Kundla, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
  • Legendary superstars throughout every decade in the franchise’s history (and by legendary superstars, we are talking about players that are considered to be in the top 20 all-time of great players in the history of the league).
  • Because they drive ratings, thus they are often on national television.

When we put all of those facts together, it’s easy to see why fans would gravitate towards the Lakers.

But then again, people down in Boston might have something to say about that, and they would probably be able to offer a few valid arguments; with the most poignant one being summed up in two words: Celtics Curse.

Indeed, there used to be a time when Lakers players and fans would get caught up in the history of the ghost of Celtics past. And frankly, it’s rather easy to see why. There used to be a time that Boston dominated Los Angeles every time they met in the NBA Finals. Some might say that “dominate” is a bit too strong of a word, but really it applies quite well. Have a look at the results of the Celtics-Lakers battles from 1959 to 1969:

  • 1959 NBA Finals: Boston defeat Los Angeles 4-0
  • 1962 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1963 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 1965 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-1
  • 1966 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1968 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 1969 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3

Los Angeles finally broke through in 1972 and won the championship against the New York Knicks, with the Celtics no longer being a super power in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to 1984 and it was Celtics versus Lakers all over again with Boston prevailing and people stating that the Celtics held a curse over the Lakers, after defeating them eight straight times in the championship round.

Many observers were of the opinion that history was doomed to repeat itself whenever these two teams faced off with the title on the line.

In reality, the curse had less to do with a franchise, and more to do with a person that eventually obtained a stature that seemed almost mythical: Bill Russell.

For years, people said that he was the greatest winner of all time and that his contributions on the basketball court transcended box scores. When watching interviews of players who spoke of the great Celtics center, they always showered him with praise and nothing but respect because they believed he was truly one of a kind as evidenced by his 11 championship rings.

And yet, in all honesty, for years I thought Russell was overrated. He struggled to score it seemed, shot an awkward hook shot and was often lit up by Chamberlain. In addition, players were probably unwise in constantly challenging him at the basket. Could so many players from varying eras have been wrong?

And then, some footage of those old Celtics teams was released and just like that it became clear: Bill Russell was a bad man.

No player in NBA history epitomized team play as much as the former Celtics center. His play simply revolved around elevating the performances of his teammates. Russell was an average scorer and thus he made sure that the players that were better at it than he was got their fair share of attempts. Thus, he would set screens, run give-and-go plays and feed open shooters from the post. He would occasionally take shots within the flow of the offense but more often than not his points came in the form of put backs.

Mind you, he might have been deferential on offense, but no one owned defense much like he did. Although Russell dominated the paint as well as the boards, he did an exceptional job of defending players out on the perimeter. Far too often, it seemed as though the left-handed center knew he could block a player’s shot, but that he picked and chose when he would go after it. Thus, early in the game he might allow his man to take a jump shot from about 10-12 feet, but later in the game he would come out to challenge and get a piece of the shot.

And as good as Russell was in one-on-one defense, he was exceptionally better as a help defender. He would meet players at the rim and either swat or alter their shots, which invariably created a sense of doubt amongst opponents whenever they entered the lane. In addition, when players sensed that center was waiting for them underneath the basket, they would at times stop just about inside the free throw line for a jumper or a floater type shot, but Russell would still catch a piece of it.

Needless to say, this made Russell quite an intimidator during his playing days, and yet there was more to his game; a psychological aspect if you will.

Between foul trouble and fatigue, it would be almost impossible for Russell to cover every inch of the court defensively. Consequently, he was very selective about when to chase down shots. Indeed, when watching those old Celtics play, there are times where other than rebounding the ball, he seems to be just an average tall player on the court. And yet, nothing was further from the truth.

Russell had the uncanny ability to create momentum all by himself.  He would get in a zone when he would go after every shot either at the rim or on the perimeter, block it and then throw the outlet pass to his guard for easy transition buckets. And just so we’re clear, the players that got the those fast break shots were Hall of Famers, thus we know they converted most of their opportunities.

The best modern comparison to the Celtics teams from the 1950s and 1960s would probably be the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns; except we would have to substitute Amare Stoudemire for Dwight Howard. The team would basically look like this:

-Steve Nash at point guard (playing the part of Bob Cousy)

-Joe Johnson at shooting guard (playing the role Bill Sharman and then later John Havlicek)

-Quentin Richardson at small forward (playing the part of a really young Sam Jones)

-Shawn Marion at power forward (playing the role of Tom Heinsohn)

-Dwight Howard at center (playing the part of Bill Russell)

Wouldn’t that Suns team be good enough to essentially put a curse on just about the rest of the NBA for a couple of years?

If we look at the rest of the history between the Lakers and Celtics, we will notice that the odds titled in favor of the purple and gold in recent years:

  • 1984 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1985 NBA Finals: Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-2
  • 1987 NBA Finals:  Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-2
  • 2008 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 2010 NBA Finals: Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-3

For those of you scoring at home, ever since Bill Russell retired, the Lakers have won three out of five match ups against their hated rivals in the NBA Finals.

Magic and Kareem put on L.A. on the scoreboard in 1985 and once again in 1987; while Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol avenged a 2008 Finals loss against the Boston Celtics in the rematch in June 2010.

It seems that Los Angeles conquered its demons, but the truth is that there never was a curse to begin with. Just Bill Russell…

J.M. Poulard