This quote made the rounds in all of the basketball obituaries on the Celtics’ 2013-14 season, which ended with 25 victories, 57 losses, and very little suspense Wednesday night in a 16-point loss to the Wizards.
“It was a long season,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “Well, I guess not that long, but it was tough, a tough year.”
It’s obvious what Ainge is getting at here. But upon consideration, I think I only agree with half of it. Of course the Celtics season wasn’t long in the literal sense — for the first time since 2006-07, they will miss the playoffs. In all but one of those seasons in the interim between lottery-bound editions, they advanced at least one round in the playoffs.
As far as lousy seasons go, it could have been lousier. Because they played it straight and generally (at least until the final few games) gave the effort of a team that actually had something to play for, there were encouraging signs and moments to enjoy. Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger because players you could see playing an important role when the franchise has important games this time of year again. Rajon Rondo returned to relative form. Brad Stevens is a wonderful young coach.
Maybe it should have been, especially now that Jabari Parker has announced he’s departing Duke. Perhaps the stars and the ping-pong balls will align this time around.
The offseason will be fascinating, but it will take time to get used to the Celtics season being over so soon. There’s a different vibe this spring at the Garden than to which have been accustomed the last several seasons. Usually its the Bruins and Celtics swapping playoff dates, leaving the Bull Gang to pile up the overtime picking up the parquet and putting it down. Now, it’s not the Celtics floor that’s on ice, but their season. The Bruins, still in their championship prime, have the building to themselves, hopefully into June.
For many of us, our NBA rooting interest now turns toward Brooklyn, an alleged rival that nonetheless features two beloved former and forever Celtics who helped raise that 17th banner. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have no fear. Here’s hoping they get a genuine shot at reminding LeBron James and the Heat of that.
But this throwback isn’t about Pierce and KG, the soul of our most recent Celtics champion. It’s about the one previous, 21 seasons before. It seemed appropriate, on the morning after a Celtics season ends, to remember when a championship run of arguably the greatest NBA team of all time began.
On April 17, 1986, the Celtics, fresh off a 67-15 regular season (including a 40-1 mark at home), formally began their championship chase with Game 1 of a first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics were supposed to roll over the Bulls, who went 30-52, and they did, sort of: The Celtics won the series in a three-game sweep, and subsequently went on to wipe out the Hawks, Bucks and Rockets, losing just three games all postseason to earn that 16th banner.
(The photo atop this post sums up the ’80s awesomeness of this team nicely, though I’d sub out Rick Carlisle for Dennis Johnson there.)
Anyway, about this date 28 years ago, and that Bulls team. Perhaps casual fans don’t know why they won just 30 games that season, but here’s the reminder: Michael Jordan, their dazzling 22-year-old shooting guard, played just 18 games in his sophomore season after suffering a broken foot. The teams top three scorers in his absence? Orlando Woolridge, Quentin Dailey, and George Gervin. There’s a compelling book to be written about this team, Jordan or no Jordan.
But everyone knows what happened six weeks after he came back: He let the NBA know in spectacular and certain teams that times were about to change. The Jordan Era was about to dawn. Eventually, no one could do a damn thing to stop it, once Jordan got better teammates. His time, individually, arrived in this series. It took a superior team — perhaps the best in league history — to overcome him.
Jordan sent notice in Game 1 against the Celtics, scoring 49 points in a 123-104 defeat. That performance was so spectacular that Celtics fans cheered him admiringly when he took the court at the Garden before Game 2. Little did they know that his Game 2 performance would render his brilliant Game 1 to a mere footnote.
I could tell you that he scored 63 points, that he systematically tormented Dennis Johnson (a nine-time first- or second-team All-Defensive selection), Larry Bird, and poor Danny Ainge with explosive drives, step-back bankshots, and various other did-that-just-happen? moves in which you’d have sworn he launched himself from a springboard. And I could tell you that the Celtics somehow prevailed, 135-131 on overtime, thanks to a 36-point, 12-rebound, 8-assist performance by Bird, who was at the peak of his own powers, perhaps in part to the business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back potency of his perm-mullet.
Instead, I’ll give you the this video, featuring 20 minutes of highlights from one of the greatest games ever …
… and I’ll part with the following words from Bob Ryan’s appropriately classic story on Game 2.
Only one man in the history of the NBA playoffs knows what it feels like to score 63 points at the highest level of competition and be denied the sweet smell of team success. But the hoop world knows that every other player and every other team is on borrowed time. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks, Rockets and every other 1986 title aspirant had better seize whatever opportunity they can — Now! — because we are clearly at the dawn of the Age of Jordan.
“I would never have called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it,” said Larry Bird after the exhilarating, stimulating, emotional, exhausting and altogether brilliant contest. “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
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A Throwback Thursday flashback will appear weekly on Touching All The Bases. It will usually be much shorter than this. Or maybe not.