When the Colts ducked the AFC Championship Game with an indefensible choke job against San Diego, many die-hard Boston fans thought the same thing: Ralph Sampson.
After all, a heavily favored Lakers team pulled the same trick in the ’86 Western Conference finals, allowing themselves to be “shocked” by the upstart Rockets — with Sampson making the series-winning shot in Game 5 at Los Angeles — to avoid what would have been a ritual beating by an unstoppable Celtics team. Twenty-two years later, Indianapolis couldn’t beat the banged-up Chargers at home when the refs were handing the defending champs every call and Billy Volek and Norv Turner were prominently involved. Did they want any part of the Patriots in Foxborough? Apparently not.
Look, I’m not saying the ’07 Colts or ’86 Lakers openly chose to lose. They just took the easy way out. Subconsciously, they were probably thinking, “Deep down, we know we’re not winning the title this year,” and responded in crisis with the appropriate amount of urgency. In the process, they cheated two unforgettable teams of punctuating unforgettable seasons by topping their natural rivals. And that’s not where the similarities begin and end with the ’86 Celtics and the ’07 Patriots. For the past few months, I’ve been avoiding the inevitable “Dr. Jack breakdown” because the responsibility of choosing between the best Boston-area teams of my lifetime was too overwhelming. But following the undeniable parallels between the Lakers-Rockets and Colts-Chargers outcomes, in the words of REO Speedwagon, I can’t fight this feeling anymore.
(One crucial anti-jinxing note: So I don’t have to keep writing “assuming the Pats eventually win the Super Bowl” throughout the column, we’ll shorten that phrase to the acronym “ATPEWTSB.” Got it? I don’t want to be blamed if this Patriots’ season somehow goes to hell. This is a hypothetical analysis predicated on the realistic assumption that the Patriots, currently 1-3 favorites to win Super Bowl XLII and 14-point favorites in the AFC title game, will win two more games. Which seems fairly likely. You have to admit.)
All right, let’s break this baby down, Dr. Jack style
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Tom Brady submitted the best regular season in quarterbacking history (4,804 yards, 50 touchdowns, eight picks and a 117 QB rating) and came within a Wes Welker drop and an uncalled interference penalty away from completing every pass against the Jaguars in the AFC divisional playoffs. Meanwhile, Larry Bird cruised to his third straight MVP award in ’86, averaged a 26-9-8 for the playoffs and created the 90-50-40 Playoff Club (90 percent from the line, 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range). The phrase “peak of his powers” applies to both guys, and both were true leaders who connected with teammates on a supernatural level — Brady and his receivers with their uncanny ability to freelance at the line of scrimmage, Bird and his teammates with their unselfish passing.
So this one comes down to degrees. They were/are equally good in the clutch, so that category gets thrown out. Larry Legend gets a point because he had a cool nickname (actually, he had three nicknames if you count “The Hick from French Link” and “The Basketball Jesus”); poor Brady doesn’t have a single nickname other than the obscenities Bridget Moynihan mutters every time she flips through US Weekly and sees him with Gisele. Brady gets a point because he dominated throughout the ’07 season (save for a couple of cold-weather games), whereas Bird battled a sore back for three months and didn’t get rolling until February. Bird gets a point because there was a genuine reverence for the Legend in the mid-80s that Brady hasn’t totally matched for whatever reason. Locally, they’re adored the same, although Bird’s spiritual connection with the raucous Boston Garden fans easily transcended Brady’s connection with Gillette Stadium.
Here’s the trump card: I can’t imagine any professional athlete executing his job better than Brady did through these first 17 games: He made the single toughest position in sports look easy, and every time the Patriots needed him to come through, he did come through. On top of that, he excelled during an unhealthy era in which we digest sports through various mediums, argue about them constantly and pick athletes and coaches apart on a 24/7 basis. As Tony Romo showed over the past few weeks, many of these “superstars” can’t handle it. But Brady’s unwavering focus and complete command at all times stood out more than any statistic, especially given the level of public interest in both Brady and this particular Patriots team. I just don’t think we’ll ever see another season quite like it — and the undefeated record backs that up — whereas we’ve seen multiple basketball efforts that compared to Bird’s work in ’86 (and in some cases, even surpassed it). Throw in Gisele and this was surprisingly easy (ATPEWTSB).
(Ducking lightning bolt.)
Loved by players and media members alike, K.C. Jones treated the Celtics like men and deferred to them whenever possible, getting by with just enough coaching smarts to succeed without screwing up a situation that couldn’t really be screwed up. (You’re waiting for me to make a Doc Rivers joke here. I’m going to refrain.) With that said, Belichick-Jones ranks right up there with Tyson-Spinks, Piper-Williams, Dufresne-Sistas, Ryan-Ventura, Jonathan-Bouchard and Jolie-Aniston in the Mismatch Hall of Fame.
FLAW THAT HELD THEM BACK HISTORICALLY
Quite simply, the ’86 Celtics (67-15) got bored at times; you could catch them on the right night if they were tired or not paying attention. Eleven of their 15 regular-season losses were to sub-.500 teams (including the 23-win Knicks, 26-win Pacers and 29-win Cavs), but they finished 19-2 against 50-win teams. These guys should have cracked the 70-win barrier and even admit as much now. As for the Patriots, you’d have to go with their coach costing them a first-round pick by breaking the rules in Week 1. If a 19-0 season is like building the perfect Ferrari, then SpyGate would be a noticeable 7-inch scratch on the passenger’s door that can’t come off no matter how many times you polish it. And every time someone gets in the car, no matter how gorgeous it is and how fast it goes, they’ll always ask you, “How’d you get that scratch?” That’s just the way it is.
Thanks to an inordinate number of goofy white guys, the Celtics struggled slightly against athletic teams that loved to run, like the Blazers. This wasn’t an ongoing issue and surfaced only if they were tired or bored (see above). The Pats’ weakness is much more glaring — they’re slow at linebacker, something that has been exploited for pieces of games but never for four straight quarters. And let’s hope it stays that way. In fact, I don’t even want to talk about it.
(While we’re here, each team also had “overrated” weaknesses: The Pats have a “shaky” running game and the ’86 Celts had “shaky” outside shooting from their guards. In the case of the Celts, people were just picking nits. In the case of the Pats, ATPEWTSB, everyone was just picking nits.)
DEFINING POST-VICTORY TRADITION
For the Patriots, it’s Bill Belichick’s handshake with the opposing coach that I described two months ago like this: “He has the same satisfied smirk on his face that someone has when they’re meeting the boyfriend of a kinky ex-girlfriend, like he’s particularly delighted to make eye contact for that split-second as they’re shaking hands.” Meanwhile, the Celtics had Kevin McHale holding up his gangly arms and displaying his hairy, sweaty armpits for everyone to see. I don’t know, I’ve always been partial to the ‘pits.
Slight Edge: Celtics.
Both Randy Moss and Bill Walton were considered on the downside of their careers, both were rescued from bad teams, and both transformed their teams from “really good” to “great.” Statistically, Moss crushes Walton in every respect; his ability to stretch defenses, draw double-teams and provide a home-run threat for Brady dwarfs anything Walton did for the Celts. So this shouldn’t be close.
Still, Walton’s undeniable contributions remind me why I despise the increasing reliance on complicated statistics for basketball judgments: That season, he only averaged 20 minutes, 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists — not breathtaking numbers by any imagination — and yet, you had to be there to witness his infectious and sorely needed enthusiasm, the otherworldly way he and Bird freelanced together on pick-and-rolls, the way the Garden crowd responded to him, and how Walton’s minutes allowed Bird, McHale and Parish to stay fresh AND keep the team playing at a high level. For one season, the Celtics were fortunate enough to have a completely overqualified sixth man, almost like the “Sopranos” bringing in Leo DiCaprio to play Meadow’s boyfriend for Season 4. Walton also made the single biggest play of that entire season, a crunch-time putback in Game 4 of the Finals that effectively clinched the title. We’ll see if Moss has a moment in these final two games that matches that one.
With that said, the neatest thing about the Walton/Moss parallel is how they pushed the careers of Bird/Brady to another level. Nothing was more exciting this season than seeing Brady take seven steps back, plant his feet and heave the football as far as he possibly could to Moss, and if you were a true basketball fan, there was nothing like watching Bird and Walton run pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos like they’d known each other for 30 years. What a cool category. I feel honored just to be writing this section.
DEFINING FACIAL HAIR
For the Pats, it’s a toss-up between Wes Welker’s porn ‘stache and the Dan Haggerty beards grown by the offensive linemen every year. But even if you teamed those two looks together, they couldn’t match the unbeatable combination of the Legend’s blonde afro-mullet and wispy blonde mustache. Anytime someone can take eight lip hairs and make magic with them, you have to tip your hat.
SIDEKICK FOR MVP
Since there are four times as many guys on a football team, we’re using two receivers (Moss and Welker) for Brady and Kevin McHale for Bird. Anyway, McHale played power forward as efficiently as that position has ever been played — he scored on everyone and commanded double- and triple-teams, defended everyone from Adrian Dantley to Kareem, shot a ludicrous 60 percent from the field and averaged a 26/10 every night, and could play any conceivable style of basketball. On top of that, his array of remarkable low post moves hasn’t been seen since; there was a genuine art to what he was doing on the block, and I’m not sure you could say that about many athletes over the past 25 years. He was a human YouTube clip. And McHale helped Bird immensely by stretching the floor, reducing the scoring burden, carrying the offense when Bird was resting, defending the other team’s best forward and never caring about getting credit or being “The Man.”
The Moss/Welker combo had a similar effect for Brady: Moss was the perfect deep threat for him and Welker was the perfect slot guy. It’s hard to imagine any Hall of Fame power forward fitting in more perfectly with the ’86 Celts (with the “possible” exception of the ’03 Tim Duncan), and it’s hard to imagine a better longball/possession combo than Moss/Welker for this particular Pats team. If you had the power to retroactively switch one of them for any other NFL receiver this season, would you even bother? Probably not. Everyone wins in this category.
DEFINING REGULAR-SEASON GAME
Could you narrow it down to one for the Pats? I don’t think you can — at gunpoint, I’d go with the Giants game, but you could make strong cases for four or five other ones. As for the Celtics, one definitely stands out: A January comeback win when the Hawks raced to a 27-point lead at home and made the unforgivable mistake of talking trash right before halftime, leading to a ferociously ticked-off Boston team roaring back, scoring 14 straight in the fourth quarter and eventually winning in OT. I have this one on tape — in the second half, the entire Celtics team morphs into Clint Eastwood during the final 15 minutes of “Unforgiven.” It’s incredible to watch. This game should run on ESPN Classic once a week.
DEFINING PLAYOFF GAME
For the Patriots, it hasn’t happened yet. The Celts had Game 5 of the East semifinals against the Hawks, when they rolled off an unprecedented 25-0 run in the third quarter to clinch the series. 25-0!!!! The Pats can’t top that one unless they beat the Chargers 56-0 and force Tomlinson, Rivers and Norv to cry at the exact same time on the sidelines. Anything less and they lose this category.
Edge: Celtics (for now)
MOST ENDEARING TRAIT
Both teams were so confident, they actually screwed around during games — like the game in Miami when Brady apparently decided, “I want to see how many Dolphins can cover Moss deep at the same time when he’s catching a bomb in traffic,” or the West Coast trip when Bird got bored and decided he’d only shoot with his left hand for the Portland game. The Celtics get the edge because they experimented throughout the season, whereas the Patriots slowed down in this department by Thanksgiving.
(Note: Even in the playoffs, the Celtics messed around. For instance, in the Houston series, Bird became enamored with a play in which they isolated him on the right side and he slowly backed Rodney McCray down. If the double-team came, he found the cutter for the layup. If no double-team came, he abused McCray. And it just kept happening and happening, especially in Game 6, when Bird looked like a cat toying with a mouse and even split a triple team for one driving layup. We’ve seen NBA teams dominate before, but Bird experimented like Dr. Moreau that season — he was doing everything short of breeding McHale and Walton.)
Don’t sleep on the Celtics here. The two biggest markets in the country loathed them (New York and Los Angeles), three other major cities (Philly, Detroit and Atlanta) loathed them, Spike Lee took some pointed shots at the Legend in “She’s Gotta Have It,” and it’s safe to say they were black America’s least-favorite NBA team (as J.A. Adande detailed recently in an ESPN.com column). Also, every non-Celtics fan truly detested Danny Ainge at the time — he ranked only behind Bill Laimbeer as the most despised NBA player of the ’80s. But considering a Packers-Pats Super Bowl would galvanize America behind one team like nothing we’ve seen since “USA 4, USSR 3,” I think the Pats have this category locked up.
Big Edge: Patriots
PLUSH DRAFT PICK HELD FOR FUTURE DOMINATION
The ’86 Celts owned Seattle’s No. 1 thanks to an earlier trade, so we rooted for the Sonics to tank all season, and they eventually handed over the No. 2 pick (Lenny Bias). The ’07 Pats owned San Fran’s No. 1 thanks to an earlier trade, so we rooted for the Niners to tank all season and they eventually handed over the No. 7 pick (to be named). I recommend we keep New England’s first-round pick under 24-hour, round-the-clock surveillance for the entire spring and summer just to be safe.
Edge: (Shaking my head sadly.)
Robert Parish did all the little stuff: set the best picks, protected the rim, played hurt and never cared about his own numbers. We loved him for it, called him “The Chief” and yelled his nickname every time he did something good. But at no point in his career was The Chief better than New England’s offensive line this season: not only did the line handle every quality defense in the league except for Green Bay’s (and that might be coming in two weeks), during the past two months, it protected Brady against a bunch of fired-up defenses that did everything but draw a bull’s-eye on Brady’s jersey. Throw in the Dan Haggerty beards and it’s no contest.
Major Edge: Patriots
SUPPORTING MONEY GUYS
Dennis Johnson was the NBA’s best money guard for 10 years and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. (I pleaded his case last year when he died at age 52). For the Patriots, we’ll team Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi together because they’re the “money guys” for the Pats’ defense — like DJ, one of them always seems to make a big play when the team needs it. I have nothing but praise for Vrabel and Bruschi, but Harrison disgraced the franchise with his HGH suspension and slightly tainted a few of this season’s games with cheap shots, late hits, dumb penalties and generally irrational behavior. For Pats fans, he’s like dealing with a family member who says and does dumb things at every holiday dinner — maybe you don’t hold those things against him because he’s family, but you always find yourself complaining about him when he’s not in the room.
Anyway, DJ was a good guy who never cheated or resorted to cheap shots, and you never had to worry about him imploding at the wrong time and potentially costing you a victory with a hotheaded mistake. Even if Harrison has a DJ-like knack for making big plays at the best possible times, that’s where the similarities end. DJ’s teammates loved him and his opponents always respected him. You can’t say the same about Rodney Harrison.
ARTFULNESS WITH THE SALARY CAP
The cap wasn’t much of an obstacle to NBA teams in the mid-80s, but for today’s NFL teams, as Mike Francesa would say, it’s a yoo-munguss obstacle. This subject has been beaten to death, but still.
Major Edge: Patriots
Almost as big of a mismatch as Belichick-Jones, only the other way: The ’86 Celtics had one of the most significant home-court advantages in sports history, finishing 50-1 at home (including the playoffs) and breaking records for “Most times a group of fans recognized that a great pass was about to happen even before it happened,” and “Most times a crowd has ever lifted a team from one level to another.” (If you ever want to see how a home crowd can affect a game, watch Game 6 of the ’86 Finals when it’s on ESPN Classic some time, and pay special attention to the completely terrified look on Sampson’s face.) I know I sound like Bill Brasky whenever the topic is the ’86 Celtics, but seriously … 50-1 at home? We’ll see another 19-0 NFL team before we see another NBA team go 50-1 at home.
As for the Patriots, they built a beautiful stadium that provides no real home-field advantage because the noise drifts up and out — operating almost like an anti-Dome — leading to the bizarre outcome of longtime season-ticket holders (as described by my buddy J-Bug in last week’s B.S. Report) openly pining for the old stadium even though the old stadium was a complete dump with aluminum rows for seats. Bizarre.
Overwhelming Edge: Celtics
LOCAL LOVE FOR THE TEAM
ATPEWTSB, the Pats have a built-in advantage for the simple reason that football is more popular than basketball. On top of that, when the Patriots were vilified nationally after SpyGate, that made Patriots fans more attached to the team and the season became about something else. Everyone loved the ’86 Celtics, but this Patriots season has been different — it’s a much more personal experience as a fan, something that can’t fully be explained. When you’re rooting for a team that everyone is rooting against, it’s almost debilitating. I’m not kidding. I need a vacation after this season.
For the Pats, it’s the fact they finished 16-0 even though they were basically running Warren Moon’s old run-and-shoot offense for the past 10 weeks. (I didn’t even realize this until stumbling across highlights of an old Oilers game and realizing their offense looked familiar.) For the Celtics, they’d throw out a lineup from time to time that could have just been called “Springfield” — Parish at center, Walton and McHale at forward, Bird at 2-guard and Dennis Johnson at point — which somehow worked because McHale could guard 2-guards on the other end, and offensively, they’d just crash the boards and find mismatches on every possession. Insane. But that wasn’t even their quirkiest wrinkle because they were the last NBA title team that could throw out a legitimate Whitewash: Bird, McHale, Walton, Ainge and Jerry Sichting, with Scott Wedman as the sixth man. And you wondered why Ed Norton loved the Celtics so much in “American History X.”
Slight Edge: Celtics
CAPACITY TO SHAME BIGGEST RIVAL INTO SUBCONSCIOUSLY GIVING UP BEFORE THE DAY OF RECKONING
Rockets-Lakers was an enormous upset, but not totally: The ’86 Lakers were a subpar rebounding team and an aging Kareem was too much of a ninny to deal with the young legs of Sampson and Hakeem. So it was a semi-defensible upset until the series-clinching game, when Hakeem got thrown out for fighting and the Lakers still managed to choke at home. Really, that’s how a defending champ should go out? Come on. As for the Chargers-Colts game, even though San Diego showed an immense amount of heart and Norv Turner’s play calling was so good that he nearly caught fire on the sidelines at one point like an “NBA Jam” character, you can’t say enough about that gag job by the defending champs. What a disgrace. Part of winning a title is defending the title after you win it and that wasn’t anything remotely resembling a defense.
I’m not saying the ’86 Celtics were an ugly team, but after they won the title, they celebrated at the “Star Wars” bar. For historical purposes, only the 2002 Kings, 1987 Bucks, 2000 Hornets and 1984 Knicks could hang with them in the looks department. Still, does that surpass the ongoing comedy of a slightly dazed Robert Kraft reacting to big plays in the owner’s box or babbling during victory celebrations? For some inexplicable reason, the ongoing success of the Pats has turned him into Gary Busey. I can’t get enough of him.
CONFIDENCE OF THE FAN BASE HEADING INTO THE PLAYOFFS
Hard to believe, but it was higher for the ’86 Celts. When the Colts blew it last week, some New England fans (including my dad) were actually rooting for the Chargers because it was an easier game. When the Lakers lost to the Rockets, NOBODY was rooting for Houston. We all felt cheated. I’m still bitter, actually.
This was one of the qualities that made the Celtics special, epitomized by the sweep in Milwaukee when Bird nailed three bombs to clinch Game 4 of the East finals, then swished an Eff-You 3-pointer at the buzzer for good measure. That was always my favorite Eff-You sports moment until SpyGate happened and the Pats made the Eff-You Touchdown a tradition for two solid months, leading to me writing an entire Eff-You column in October. So I’m giving this one to the Pats, and if you don’t agree with me, eff you.
THE GRANDKIDS TEST
Whether it’s a team or a player, the test remains the same: Will you be bouncing your grandkids on your lap some day and telling them how great Player X or Team X was? (Note: I always thought this would be a great way to decide the Hall of Fame — if somebody doesn’t pass the Grandkids Test, they’re out.) To this point, I’ve only rooted for one team great enough to pass the Grandkids Test: The ’86 Celts. ATPEWTSB, the Pats would make two.
Edge: The Celtics (for now)
MY DAD’S TAKE
With the Celtics holding a slim 12-10 lead, I phoned my father to get his grizzled take for the deciding verdict. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:
Dad: “Oh, Gawd. Come on. [Thinking.] You know, I’d have to go with the ’86 Celtics. That’s my favorite team ever. I can’t imagine ever liking a team more than I liked that team. [Thinking.] Although maybe that’s because I went to all those games so I’m more attached to them. [Thinking.] And the Pats are definitely more popular here because more people like football in general. [Thinking.] On the other hand, I felt more of a connection to that Celtics team because there were so many more games, and the guys were right there on the court, you felt like you knew them more. And they didn’t cheat like the Pats did. [Thinking.] But if the Pats finish the season undefeated, I mean [Thinking.] Wait, why didn’t you wait until after the Super Bowl to figure this out?”
Me: “Trust me, I’m going to take great pains to qualify that the comparison can’t take full effect until after the Super Bowl. Besides, it’s a relevant conversation, right?”
Dad: “I guess. [Thinking.] I have to go with the ’86 Celtics. There was no way we were losing that season. Nobody could beat us in the Garden. With the Pats, our defense makes me nervous and nothing made me nervous during that Celtics season. Then again, if the Pats go 19-0 [thinking] you know, I can’t believe you’re doing this before the last two games! Why are you doing this again? This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done — it’s even dumber than the time your car got stolen because you left your keys in your car door. Can’t you wait three weeks? I’m hanging up.”
We have to wait three weeks. For now, the Celtics have a slight edge. To be continued.