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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Celtics on verge of letting air out of Lakers' balloon again

The Lakers appear to be reliving their nightmare of 1969, when another aging Boston team struggled to a fourth-place finish in the East but upset the odds to beat L.A., yet again, for the title. But this time is different. This time if the Lakers lose, it would be worse.

June 14, 2010|Mark Heisler
  • Lakers point guard Derek Fisher tries to tip the ball to teammate Kobe Bryant (24) as he falls out of bounds in Game 5 on Sunday.
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher tries to tip the ball to teammate Kobe Bryant… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Despite appearances, the Lakers' predicament isn't the same one their famous forebears with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor faced against another dark-horse Celtics team in 1969.

It's worse.

In 1969, everyone thought the Lakers were in control, right up to Game 7 in the Forum with Jack Kent Cooke's balloons penned up, waiting to waft down in the victory celebration.

If those Lakers were a bust as far as living up to their hype as the greatest team ever assembled, they nonetheless led the series, 2-0, a deficit no team had come back from in the Finals.

The Lakers still led, 3-2, after five games, as opposed to trailing, 3-2.

It came down to one game on their court. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the more deserving team won.

The Celtics, who had finished No. 4 in the East — just like this season! — were old but gallant.

Meanwhile, the Lakers featured a season-long battle of wills between Chamberlain and Coach Bill van Breda Kolff, a gravel-voiced ex-Marine by way of Princeton, who would have told Cooke not to get Wilt, had Cooke asked.

Wilt was capable of making it work by defending more and scoring less, as he had in the Philadelphia 76ers' title run in 1967 when they posted a record 68 wins, and would with the Lakers when they won their 1972 title, breaking the 76ers' record with 69 wins.

Of course, you had to ask the right way, as 76ers coach Alex Hannum had and Lakers coach Bill Sharman would.

Van Breda Kolff and Chamberlain traded fire all season. The players called The Times "Butch's paper" and the Herald Examiner "Wilt's paper."

Imagine van Breda Kolff's delight when Chamberlain asked out in Game 7 with the Lakers down by 17, saying he was hurt.

When the Lakers rallied, Wilt asked to go back in. Butch refused, going the rest of the way with Mel Counts.

It was 103-102 with about 1:25 left when Keith Erickson batted the ball away from John Havlicek . . . right to Don Nelson at the free-throw line.

Nelson's 15-footer hit the back of the rim, bounced higher than the backboard and dropped in.

The Celtics won, 108-106.

Cue the balloons — oops.

Of course, that was then and this is now, or it was until this series.

In 1972, the Lakers won their first title in Los Angeles.

In 1975, Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced a trade to the Lakers, as Chamberlain had, showing the Lakers' new status as the destination of choice.

The Lakers kicked off Showtime, winning titles in 1980 and 1982.

There was a little setback in 1984 when they met the Celtics in the first Finals of the Larry Bird- Magic Johnson era, when the Lakers led in the last minute of the first four games, but the Celtics stole two and prevailed in seven games.

After that, the Lakers did everything but perform an exorcism, including coach Pat Riley's lessons on the Celtics.

"One day in practice I asked if anyone knew," Riley wrote in his book "Show Time."

"Kareem raised his hand. He said they were a warring race of Danes who invaded Ireland.

"I had to explain they were also a cunning, secretive race.

"We had to overcome the mythology of the Celtics."

Of course, Riley would know, being a member of that warring, cunning, secretive race.

The Lakers overcame the hard way in 1985 after the Memorial Day Massacre, the Celtics' 148-114 rout in Boston in Game 1.

Lakers history pivoted on the two days before Game 2.

Riley, often dismissed as a male model in coach's garb, held a volcanic film review, showing Robert Parish running around Kareem as if he were the Maypole, then visited two days of cold fury on his players in practice.

The Lakers upset the Celtics in Game 2, took the series in six games, dumped their aging archrivals in 1987 and finished the decade with five titles to the Celtics' three.

The Lakers then went from Showtime to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, winning three titles, assuming the place the Celtics had held.

Of course, the Lakers had another of those setbacks when they met the Celtics in the 2008 Finals, collapsing as in days of yore.

Nevertheless, the Lakers came back to win last season, beating Orlando in the Finals, while the Celtics faded to black without Kevin Garnett.

This season, the Celtics seemed to age by the day in what looked like Last Hurrah Plus Two.

Lo and behold, they not only had one, it's still going, even with their Big Three averaging 35.5 points in Games 1-4.

Now Paul Pierce looks like Paul Pierce and KG is on an uptick.

Tonight's game, and Thursday's, if needed, both come off one day's rest. That's bad for Andrew Bynum, which is bad for the Lakers' Twin Reeds, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

Of course, matching the Celtics' effort and physicality would help, assuming the Lakers can find it in themselves, even if they couldn't in Game 5.

One more like that and there will be a major update to Celtics mythology and Lakers mythology too.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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