Such a situation recalls an earlier three-way Eastern scramble between sixty-win powers. The 1980-81 campaign was the last season of the tape-delayed Finals (or World Championship Series, as it was officially called then) was the first season three sixty-win teams resided in the same conference. The Boston Celtics (62-20), Philadelphia 76ers (62-20) and Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) were the clubs that vied for supremacy. All three were well-coached, explosive and deep, with their own overwhelming strengths and nagging weaknesses. Only one could win.
Let's take a look back at that season, those teams, and the lesson to be learned from that earlier clash of the titans.
Guided by ex-Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch, Boston had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Cornbread Maxwell, and that indefinable Garden magic, but the C's weren't yet the monster of the mid-80s; Kevin McHale was a rookie reserve, Dennis Johnson was playing in Phoenix, and Danny Ainge was a senior at BYU moonlighting as a good-glove, bad-bat major-league second baseman. In fact, the night after the Celtics clinched the 1981 NBA Championship with a victory over the Rockets in Houston, Ainge went 0-for-2 with a strikeout as Len Barker fired a perfect game against his Toronto Blue Jays at the Stadium. Boston was good enough to win the title, but aside from Bird, they might have been the least impressive of the league's three sixty-win powers, with only average depth and a decided lack of firepower from the guard spots.
The most impressive team might have been Billy Cunningham's Philadelphia 76ers. Julius Erving was the league MVP in 1980-81, Bobby Jones was the best individual defender around, Mo Cheeks and rookie Andrew Toney formed one of the NBA's most dynamic young backcourts, and the bench was deep and diverse. But Philadelphia was saddled with a reputation as a flaky team with a tendency to fold in the clutch, a reputation they would enhance by blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. They also lacked a consistent post presence. Backboard-shattering center Darryl Dawkins was an enigma who could play like Tarzan one night- and Jane the next.
Central Division champion Milwaukee had plenty going for it: explosive scoring, with seven players averaging double figures; talent, with Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman the headliners; and an innovative head coach in Don Nelson, one of the game's original thinkers. But like the 76ers, the Bucks were a "donut team." 32-year old Bob Lanier manned the pivot, and although Lanier wasn't quite over the hill yet, he was no longer the dominant force he'd been for Detroit in the mid-70s. The Bucks would lose to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, dropping Game 7 at the Spectrum by one point. It was the first of seven straight seasons Milwaukee would fall to either the Sixers or Celtics in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the West was in the throes of the most bizarre conference playoff in NBA history. With Magic Johnson missing half the season with a knee injury, the World Champion Lakers failed to win their division for the only time in the decade and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Houston, dropping the deciding game of the best-of-three miniseries in the Forum. Phoenix had the conference's best record but lost to the Kansas City Kings in the West Semifinals, falling at home in Game 7. Midwest Division champ San Antonio lost to Houston in the other West Semifinal, also losing Game 7 at home. While the Celtics and 76ers, co-owners of the NBA's best record (62-20) met to decide the East, the West Finals saw a match-up of teams with identical losing records (40-42) in the Rockets and Kings. Houston defeated Kansas City four games to one, making it five times in five Western Conference series that the team with home-court advantage lost.
Boston went on to defeat Houston in the Finals- but not without a struggle. Led by Moses Malone, who at one point claimed that he could beat the Celtics with four guys randomly picked off the streets of his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia, the Rockets took Boston to six hard-fought games before succumbing.
While home court in the Wild West was rendered meaningless, it proved crucial in the East. Ownership of the top seed meant that the Celtics were able to avoid strenuous competition early in the playoffs. While the 76ers and Bucks grappled for seven games in one Eastern Semifinal, the Celtics enjoyed a four-game milk run against a mediocre Chicago team in the other. Boston got the deciding seventh game of its classic Eastern Conference Final series against the 76ers on the Garden parquet. And while Dr. J starred, it was Larry Joe Bird who took over as the Celtics rallied from their 3-1 deficit. Larry's 32 points helped win Game 5, his 25 points and 16 rebounds led a come-from-behind effort in Game 6, and his bank shot with 1:03 left provided the winning margin in Boston's 91-89 Game 7 victory.
Three teams evenly matched; each with its own virtues and its own flaws; two of those teams blessed with the premier go-to guys in the game. The team with home-court ultimately raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy. And that advantage is of even more importance this season. Two years ago, as the East's second seed, the Cavaliers faced .500 opponents in the first two rounds and a 53-win Detroit team in the conference finals before running up against the 58-win Spurs in the NBA Finals. This year, the team which finishes second in the East- or third, for that matter- will in all likelihood have to defeat three 60-win teams in succession to win a World Championship. Just in case you were wondering, that's never been done before.
History says it's important that the Cavaliers lock down at least the top seed in the East this spring, if not the entire NBA. Of course, you probably don't need me to tell you that. But in a season this rare, that importance is magnified. Our team might be good enough to win it all regardless of seed. But in this game, the smoothness of the road is just as important as the quality of the vehicle.
It would also be nice to play a team with a losing record in the Finals. But we don't have that kind of luck around here.