Two NBA finals meetings in three years used to mean the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were just getting warmed up.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did this three times from 1984-87. Boston won all three when the teams squared off in 1962, ’63 and ’65; and repeated the feat three times in four years at the end of that decade.
“When I became commissioner, I thought what you did every June is you went from L.A. to Boston and back again,” said David Stern, who handed out his first trophy to Bird’s Celtics in 1984.
So when the longtime rivals met in Game 7 on Thursday night, it was easy to consider it the end of a chapter, but not the end of the story.
Yet there was also the feeling that the Celtics were making the last stand with their Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, which was already an older group when it was put together in the summer of 2007, even before Garnett needed knee surgery that robbed him of some explosiveness.
“I hope not,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Obviously I’m not sure. I do think, and I’ve said this before, that I think we’re going to be better in some ways next year because Kevin will be healthier, if you know what I’m saying. It’s always a year removed from surgery that you have your best year. You know, we obviously have to sign Ray. Rasheed (Wallace) has to come back and all that stuff. So there’s a lot of variables.”
The biggest might be what goes on around the Celtics.
Boston provided a blueprint for how to construct a champion in a hurry three summers ago when it acquired Allen and then Garnett in separate trades. Put the right mix of superstars together, and a 24-win team can turn into a 66-victory powerhouse, as the Celtics did in 2007-08 in the greatest one-year turnaround in NBA history.
So what if Miami, or Chicago, or New York can find a way to put LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, or one of them and Chris Bosh, or some other All-Star combination together this summer in free agency?
“There’s going to be a power shift,” Hall of Famer Julius Erving said.
Allen himself could wind up on a team with one of them, a free agent who’d potentially be a nice complement to their athleticism with his outside shooting. But his focus now is still on being a Celtic, not beating the Celtics.
“That’s something that I’ve never been a ‘look too far in the future’ type of person, like what’s going to happen in the midst of,” Allen said, “because I’ve been with other great players and I’ve been on teams with other great coaches, and you just always take solace in the fact that you do everything you possibly can to get yourself in a good situation and move forward, whether it’s in your current situation or if you have to move.”
Plenty of hopefuls believed they found their missing piece last summer, from Cleveland acquiring Shaquille O’Neal to play with James, or Orlando trading for Vince Carter to flank Dwight Howard. Yet when everything was settled, it was the Celtics beating both to set up a 12th championship meeting with the Lakers.
“You see these teams and you realize it’s not about one player changing teams, it’s about creating a team, constructing a team, having the right coach, having a team work together, and having players prepare to sacrifice,” Stern said. “And I think that’s what we saw in all of the ’80s when they were playing each other.”
That was good enough to get the Celtics through most of that decade, when they won three titles. They eventually got old though, and the Detroit Pistons eventually passed them by the end of the 1980s.
The Celtics are already old – or experienced, as Rivers prefers – now. He also could decide to leave this summer, or he could return next season with a team that looks totally different.
So perhaps this revival of the league’s greatest champion will be a brief one, even if nobody in green Thursday night would believe it.
“We don’t talk about it at all, and I don’t think this is, anyway,” Rivers said during the series. “So we don’t think that. I think everyone outside of us, a lot of people do.”