Not long after the Boston Celtics had finished dismantling the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA championship series last June at antiquated Boston Garden, many were already convinced that the Celtics would not repeat as champions.
This belief had little to do with the Celtics' talent or desire. Sure, there were doubts about their depth, especially in the backcourt after Gerald Henderson was traded for a first-round draft pick, but the Celtics certainly seemed capable of winning the title again.
It's just that, in the NBA, champions don't repeat.
There hasn't been successful defense of a title since the Celtics did it in 1968-1969 in Bill Russell's final season. The circumstances have been different for teams over the last 15 seasons, but the results have been the same. Be it injuries, arrogance or simply poor play, the defending champion has always found a way to stumble either in the finals or the early rounds.
Even now, after compiling the league's best record (63-19) and only losing consecutive games twice during the regular season, the Celtics are not overwhelming favorites to repeat. The Celtics not only have to meet some talented teams in the Eastern Conference before possibly meeting the Lakers again in the finals, but they also have to battle history.
Remember, more dominating teams than this Boston club have failed.
But the Celtics are entering the playoffs, which actually began Wednesday night with the Philadelphia-Washington first game, with their usual confident swagger. They don't talk about the supposed playoff jinx but they realize it's difficult to repeat under any circumstances.
"I think the biggest thing that keeps us going is that everyone knows their roles," said Celtic guard Dennis Johnson, who played on the 1978-1979 Seattle SuperSonic team that won the NBA title only to fall the next season. "That time in Seattle, we came back the next year and everyone wanted to score a little more, shoot a little more, including me. Here, the guys come in knowing we have the same roles and we need a little more hustle to get what we had last year."
Boston has basically the same team that beat the Lakers in last season's bitterly contested championship series. The only significant change is in the backcourt, where the departed Henderson has been replaced in the starting lineup by Danny Ainge. Ray Williams, an important late-season acquisition, is the third guard.
Other than the uncertainty at guard and a knee injury to forward Cedric Maxwell, the Celtics received normal production from their regulars. Forward Larry Bird had another extraordinary regular season, averaging 28.7 points (second in the league), 10.5 rebounds (eighth overall) and 6.6 assists. Center Robert Parish averaged 17.6 points and 10.6 rebounds, while forward Kevin McHale averaged 19.8 points and 9.1 rebounds, and guard Dennis Johnson 15.7 points a game and 6.7 assists.
If anything, the Celtics seem to have more depth this season. Williams has shot only 38% since joining the Celtics in February, but filled the third-guard role well. Since the injury to Maxwell, Scott Wedman has expanded his role and figures to see a lot of time at forward. Coach K.C. Jones has indicated that McHale will start at power forward and Maxwell, still slowed by the knee injury, will come off the bench.
There are two teams--Philadelphia and Milwaukee--that have realistic chances of derailing the Celtics before they can even advance to the championship series.
The 76ers know what it's like to be the defending champions and to get abruptly knocked off in the first round. Last season, Philadelphia was eliminated in five games by the New Jersey Nets to perpetuate the no-one-repeats cycle. The 76ers don't have that pressure this season, but they also aren't exactly entering the playoffs on a roll.
After challenging the Celtics for the NBA's best record most of the season, the 76ers lost eight of their last 14 games to finish with the league's third-best record (58-24).
"We want to prove last year was a fluke and we're coming back to redeem ourselves," Coach Billy Cunningham said. "This is a better team than last year. We're healthier and that's reason enough to feel better about the team."
Philadelphia isn't totally healthy, though. Guard Andrew Toney missed the last four games of the regular season with a sprained left ankle but was reactivated in time for the playoffs. In addition, Moses Malone has been bothered by various ailments this season, but he still averaged 24.6 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds.
Milwaukee, surprise winner of the Central Division, will meet the 76ers in the second round, providing both teams win their opening series. The Bucks won three games against the 76ers this season and four against the Celtics. If centers Alton Lister and Paul Mokeski can find a way to neutralize Malone, the Bucks could prevent another Boston-Philadelphia rematch for the Eastern Conference final.