Faulty memory

The NBA and its fans have the dream Finals match-up they’ve been praying for: Celtics-Lakers. It’s only natural during this time to look back at the great Celtics-Lakers games and series from the 1980s, and listening to fans and commentators endlessly opine about those much remembered glory days, you’d think each game was won at the buzzer and no one ever missed a shot.

I have some news for you, they did.

The 80s Celtics-Lakers rivalry was sports at its best. Star players, desperate competition, raucous fans, contrasting styles, big personalities, legendary arenas. Often times there were six or seven hall-of-famers on the court at one time and that it was an actual rivalry – something now gone largely in professional sports – made it all the better.

That being said, watching those games now, with the same critical eye we view today’s players with, it becomes apparent that our heroes from yesteryear were no more perfect than the stars of today.

Game 4 of the 1984 Finals was on ESPN Classic recently; Celtics at Lakers.

You know what?

Larry Bird had a terrible shooting day. Below 40%. Missed multiple wide open jumpers. Kevin McHale was abused by Kareem and missed a gimmie put-back at the end of regulation which should have won the game.

Magic Johnson had a ton of turnovers including one of the worst attempted entry passes into the low block I’ve ever seen. The score was tied in the final minute of regulation and Magic tried to force the ball to Worthy, but it was stolen by Robert Parrish allowing the Celtics a chance to win. If that pass were thrown today, talk radio would have a field day over it for 48 hours.

James Worthy threw a terrible inbounds pass in overtime that was picked off allowing the Celtics to win; Kareem fouled out and complained incessantly about the officiating.

Bird, Magic, Worthy, Kareem, McHale – they were human too, despite our modern day attempts to canonize them.

I’ve followed the playoffs this year closer than any in the last 10 and it’s easy to nitpick.

A player’s flaws become obvious under a close and regular inspection, and when only considering shortcomings, you start to wonder if today’s players are inadequate when compared to their predecessors.

Kevin Garnett is far more awkward and uncomfortable scoring on the low block than he should be. He clearly is afraid to take big shots late. He shrinks from the moment.

Ray Allen is a joke on defense. He’s clueless around the basket. He’s a terrible dribbler.

Tim Duncan is an awful free throw shooter.

Lebron James has a dreadful jump shot.

Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshon Prince and Chauncy Billups all have long stretches – games even – when you forget they’re on the court.

Dirk Nowitzki is Downy soft. Shaq is used up. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony are later-day Alex English-type players who score and do nothing else.

But I’ll bet you this, in 20 years when we look back at this time, we’ll forget all that – like we forget the failings of Magic and Bird and their contemporaries – and just remember the highlights.

It’s human nature. It’s why we bitch incessantly about our current jobs or girlfriends, only to end up longing for them when they’re gone.

What you can say about those guys is that even when they didn’t play their best, they were still remarkable.

Bird may have shot poorly, but had 20+ rebounds and hit the game winner in OT. Magic struggled, but still had a triple double. McHale was off offensively, but defensed all the front court positions. Kareem was incredible until fouling out.

None of those guys disappeared the way some of today’s stars do when they don’t have their best stuff.

Also, the game was freer and more watchable. The teams got into their offense much earlier; no standing around dribbling at mid-court waiting until 10 seconds left on the shot clock before initiating. If there was an open shot, they took it. The ball was pushed up the court for four quarters. Each offensive possession wasn’t pondered over and clenched like they are today and it resulted in a far more enjoyable product.

There’s a cliché about the NBA that it is over-coached and under-taught and watching those 80s Celtics-Lakers games it’s obvious that’s the case. The NBA has always had brilliant players, and it does today, but today’s game is slowed and burdened by overbearing coaches like Larry Brown and Pat Riley who want to orchestrate each and every possession. The Celtics and Lakers in the 80s let it rip, the coaches let the players player and the result was free-wheeling, open, exciting, transition focused basketball with scores regularly around 110.

And don’t give me this, “but they didn’t play any defense” jive that you’re starting to hear from today’s critics about the 80s game. Cooper and McHale were elite defenders. Parrish, Kareem, Worthy, D.J. and Rambis were all above average.

It wasn’t for a lack of defense that the scoring was higher then, it was because the game was played with a less constricting psychology.

So we’ve got what we want: Celtics-Lakers. Maybe it won’t be as good as it was in the 1980s, but you know what, that wasn’t as good as you remember it either.