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Repeated obstacles

A great deal can get in the way of back-to-back crowns

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / October 22, 2008
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Larry Bird didn't want any more champagne, wasn't worried about the pending parade in downtown Boston, and had already taken off his hat and T-shirt that proclaimed the Celtics the 1984 NBA champions. A day after winning the title, the Celtics star was actually out jogging in preparation for the next season, motivated by the fact that all of his opponents would be gearing for the champs.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, the rest of the team may not have had that mentality. The repeat didn't happen. Bird and the Celtics lost the 1985 NBA Finals to their bitter rivals, the Lakers.

"I remember Larry and I going out the night we won in '84 and I figured you [celebrate] for a couple days," said ex-Celtics guard Quinn Buckner. "I go to his house the next day and knock on the door and his girlfriend then, now wife, Dinah, said he was out running.

"When he came back, I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm getting ready for next year.' This is like the day after, and he was already getting ready.

"We didn't have enough people that thought like that, and honestly, I hadn't thought like that. That's really the philosophy you had to have if you want to succeed.

"What Larry knew, which I hadn't put into consideration, was that you had to start right away because of the shortened summer. We needed to get back into it. I don't know that we had enough people that took that into consideration. I know I didn't. I wasn't nearly as important as Larry, Kevin [McHale], and those guys.

"But I'm not sure anybody other than Larry did that. I'll always remember that."

Bird won three NBA titles with the Celtics, though none in succession. In fact, the Celtics have not been a repeat cham pion since 1969. The NBA hasn't had a repeat champion since the Lakers in 2003.

Short offseason. Injuries. An even bigger bull's-eye. Better opponents. In hopes of repeating, NBA champions have a lot of hurdles to overcome.

So what will this season's Celtics be up against after winning their first title in 22 years?

"Will everybody have the same mind-set that they had when they were chasing a championship?" said Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, who won five NBA titles with the Lakers. "That's the key.

"You had a lot of guys that had never won a championship on the team. You only had two guys that had ever won, [James] Posey and [Sam] Cassell. But now would they have that same hunger and same feeling that they had when they were chasing that first championship?"

The Celtics were relatively healthy last season, with the biggest concern coming when Kevin Garnett missed nine games before the All-Star break with an abdominal injury.

Other than Kendrick Perkins missing the playoff finale with a shoulder injury, they also were very healthy in the postseason.

But with only about three months between the end of last season and training camp, there wasn't much time to rest, so they may be more susceptible to injury.

While Bird views injuries as a factor, he doesn't view them as an excuse in the quest to repeat.

"There were years when Kevin was down, when Robert [Parish] was down, and there were years when I wasn't 100 percent," said Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers. "But I'm sure whoever we played in the Finals wasn't 100 percent, either. Kevin's still limping from '87. But that's the price you pay.

"If you want to be a champion, that's the price you have to pay. A lot of times, it's just playing when you're injured."

After the Lakers became the first team since the 1968-69 Celtics to win back-to-back titles in 1987 and '88, they were stymied in the 1989 Finals by hamstring injuries to Johnson (who played in only one game) and Byron Scott.

The Pistons ended up sweeping the series to win their first title - and their first of back-to-backs.

"The biggest thing was the injury," said Scott, a three-time champ with the Lakers who is now coach of the Hornets.

"I know the night before the [Finals] started up, I tore my hamstring up. Then Magic tore his hamstring up. So I think that was the biggest thing - we had the injuries at the wrong time. We were pretty healthy during the season. Injuries kind of caught up to us."

Target practice

Last year's Celtics were widely considered title contenders once they acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce. Even so, they had to prove themselves. That won't be the case this season.

Beating the Celtics will be a big win for any team, whether it's the struggling Grizzlies or the defending Western Conference champion Lakers.

The fact that a champion is going to get the best from its opponent on a nightly basis can be a grind.

"The thing is, you're not used to wearing the bull's-eye," Johnson said. "So the Celtics have this bull's-eye on them. Every night is going to be a sellout. Every night that team that they're playing is going to be up for them. They're going to have to really be prepared for that."

Posey, who played for the Celtics last season and the 2006 champion Miami Heat, said, "We had the target on our back as a Celtic. Now you're the champion, so you're everybody's big game now. It's going to be even hotter. It's going to be everybody's big night. You're just going to sense it."

Bird, however, considers this a good thing for a team trying to repeat.

"The success we had with the Celtics, they were after us every night anyway," he . "But all it does is make you better. If teams come out and go after you night after night, you're going to get better."

Talent and discipline

While the Celtics will field pretty much the same team this season, many of their top foes got better.

The Cavaliers added veteran point guard Mo Williams to complement LeBron James. New Orleans added Posey to get some championship experience and leadership. The Lakers will have a healthy Andrew Bynum back at center.

Improved opponents have always been a challenge for NBA champs vying to repeat.

"Teams made trades and got better," Johnson said. "They may have had a better championship series and playoff series against us."

Said Bird, "We didn't have enough to get over the hump in '87. In '85, the Lakers were just better than us that year. We had a great first game and then things just went the wrong way."

Derek Fisher, who was able to three-peat as a champion with the Lakers from 2000-02, believes the keys were having stars like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and also veterans who filled in during times of need. But when asked why the Lakers didn't four-peat, Fisher cited a lack of focus.

"When we had a chance to win that fourth one, we got caught up focusing on the end result and didn't really manage the day-to-day process of getting to the end," he said. "We just all of a sudden started talking about, 'Maybe we can win our fourth championship in a row,' and forgot about October through May. There's a lot of stuff you have to do to get that chance."

After winning their first NBA championship in 2006, the Heat had only a 44-38 record the following season, yet they confidently spoke about expecting to get hot once the playoffs began. The Bulls ended up sweeping the defending champs in the first round.

"We were just still on cloud nine," Posey said. "We just thought we could just turn it on. We sort of went through the regular season like we could cut it on and off.

"But when the time came during the first round of the playoffs, coach [Pat Riley said], 'We're here now. What are we going to do now? We waited all season to get to this point now and what are we going to do now?' We ended up getting swept."

As long as his team gave a strong and focused effort, Johnson didn't feel bad about the end result, regardless of whether his Lakers won the championship.

"There wasn't one time I was ever cheated from effort, preparation," he said. "We were always ready. You just take your hat off to the team that beat you.

"But we were always around the championship. And that's what you want to do, you always want to be around it."

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