"This starting five has never lost a series, ever."
— Doc Rivers after Game 6 vs. the Magic
I had never thought of that until Doc mentioned it in the postgame of the Eastern Conference finals clincher.
A record of 7-0 in playoff series as a starting five is a hugely impressive feat and great way to define how tough this group has been over the last three years.
(And yes, I think no Kevin Garnett last year makes this 7-0 asterisk-worthy. Not as impressive as it would be had the C's made the finals last year, for example. So it feels a little false. I get that. But the fact is that Doc is right: These five guys have never lost a playoff series as a starting five. Who knows, if KG had been healthy in 2009 they could be looking at 11-0 right now.)
Now this starting five has a chance to win eight straight playoff series, something the legendary starting five from the 1980s never was able to do. That group also put up a streak of seven consecutive series wins, before losing to the (wait for it) Lakers in 1987.
So does that mean if the 2010 players find a way to beat the Lakers to get to 8-0 we can put them with (or, gasp, above) the Dennis Johnson-Danny Ainge-Robert Parish-Larry Bird-Kevin McHale crew that we've long since retired the "all-time best starting five" title upon? Is it possible that the Rajon Rondo-Ray Allen-Kendrick Perkins-Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett five actually is better?
Well, just a quick look tells you it might not be impossible. The 1987 Celtics? Three first-ballot Hall of Famers. The 2010 Celtics have the same. The 1987 Celtics? A tough-as-nails point guard with the ability to change a game without taking a shot. Same goes for 2010. The fifth starter in 1987 was the perfect role player for that team, though his national persona was more defined by his constant whining to the referees. See where I'm going with this?
Let's take a look and see how the two 7-0 groups match up. The starting five of the 1987 Celtics vs. the 2010 Celtics starting group.
Point guard: Dennis Johnson vs. Rajon Rondo
How great would this matchup be to watch for seven games? The two best defensive guards in Celtics history, period. But totally different offensive players (though you'd have to count the jump shot as Weakness No. 1 for both) — DJ the slow-it-down and wait for the Big Three guy and Rondo the classic attack-first point guard. I'm thinking this would be the best of any of these matchups, just a fascinating contrast. Two absolute warriors.
By 1987 DJ was 32 years old and a little past his prime. But he put together a brilliant postseason, averaging 18.9 points and 8.9 assists in 41.9 minutes (regular-season numbers: 13.4 points, 7.5 assists, 37.1 minutes) while guarding Michael Jordan, Sidney Moncrief, Joe Dumars and Magic Johnson. Typical DJ (one of the five or six best big-game players of my lifetime), and it was stuff like the 1987 playoffs that made people wonder why it took so long for him to get into the Hall of Fame.
As good as DJ played in 1987, though, he falls a little short when put next to the 2010 Rondo, who is averaging 16.5 points, 10.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds. Rondo, as we head into the 2010 finals, leads all postseason players in minutes, assists and steals. He's actually led the NBA in playoff assists in each of the last two seasons and is a lock to do it again in 2010 (also led the playoffs in steals two years ago). Put it a different way: If the NBA gave out MVP awards for the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs, Rondo and Kobe Bryant would have been locks this year, and Dennis Johnson would not have been in the running in 1987.
Trust me, it hurts to write this. DJ is on my Mount Rushmore of all-time favorite Boston sports athletes. He was the one guy that Larry Bird looked at the way everyone else looked at Larry Bird -- immense respect and more than a twinge of awe. It's been said so many times that the only reason Bird called DJ the best player he ever played with was to tweak Kevin McHale that it's almost become fact. But I think Bird meant it. And if Bird is taken and I can have any other Celtics player in history to make an 18-footer with my life on the line I'm moving right past Hondo and Paul Pierce and choosing DJ.
All that is great, of course, but it doesn't change this: The 1987 Dennis Johnson isn't as good as the 2010 Rajon Rondo.
Slight edge: 2010 Celtics
Shooting guard: Danny Ainge vs. Ray Allen
Allen has made 2,444 3-pointers in his career, tops among active players and second only to Reggie Miller on the all-time list. Way down the chart, in the 58th spot between Morris Peterson and Michael Redd, is Ainge, who made 1,002 in his career. But Ainge, at the time of his retirement in 1994, was one of only three guys to make over 1,000 3-pointers. The league, as we know, has become extraordinarily dependent on the 3-pointer (while shooting it with no more skill. I think Antoine Walker really is the prime example of this. Who can forget 2002, when 'Toine became the first player in NBA history to pull off the "600 3-point attempts/600 cars purchased" feat?). In 1987 Ainge was ninth in the NBA with 192 attempts from 3-point range, a total that would rank 98th in 2010.
Can we all agree that the last decade and a half has made it impossible to figure out who stands where when it comes to the 3-pointer in an all-time context? How about this: Both guys are somewhere in the top 30 or so longball shooters in NBA history — with Allen closer to No. 1 and Ainge to No. 30. OK. Now we all know that Ray Allen is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in waiting and Ainge was a mostly good and sometimes very good role player for the Celtics. Sure, Allen has slipped a notch, but would you in any way be stunned if he's the MVP of the finals? Fully capable of averaging 25 points in a seven-gamer. Ainge was not at that level in 1987 (nor was he at any point of his career).
Edge: 2010 Celtics
Small forward: Larry Bird vs. Paul Pierce
First of all, no way Bird guards Pierce. He'd slide over to Perkins, and McHale would take Pierce and Parish would guard Garnett. Bird got plenty of rest in the 1980s guarding guys like Caldwell Jones and Tree Rollins while McHale chased Dr. J and Dominique Wilkins all over the court.
There was some momentum in Boston a few years ago regarding the idea that Paul Pierce might be the best offensive player in Celtics history. Bob Ryan wrote something suggesting that, and Tommy Heinsohn agreed with the notion (of course, Tommy once compared Greg Minor to Jerry West, so maybe he's not the most impartial source).
I might be sold on the idea that Pierce can find the most ways to score in Celtics history -- he can drive to the basket, post up and come off screens to hit a jumper with equal skill -- but Larry Bird is the best offensive player in team history. Pierce's career high in field-goal percentage is .472, a number topped by Bird 10 times in his career. Bird's career free-throw percentage is higher than any season Pierce has ever had, and his career 3-point percentage is higher. And this is before we get into the passing. There aren't a lot of four-minute mixes when you do a "Paul Pierce passing" YouTube search.
In 1987 Larry Bird shot 52.5 percent from the floor and averaged 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists for a 59-win team. This is the reigning three-time MVP, at the time considered the best player in history. And of the 76 MVP votes in 1987, take a gander as to how many first-place votes went to Larry Legend.
And the crazy thing is that I can live with it, when I look at the numbers. Magic got the MVP, and he had maybe his best season (23.9-12.2-6.3) for a team that won 65 games. Jordan was the runner-up, and all he did was average 37.1 points per game. Plus, Bird had won the last three years and the voters were looking for a different angle. But wow, three of the five or six best players in history at their peak. Don't hold your breath for that to ever happen again in another MVP race in any sport.
Edge: 1987 Celtics
Center: Robert Parish vs. Kendrick Perkins
Always Robert. Good move in retrospect. Doesn't "Bob Parish" sound like a doomed town selectman candidate?
In 1987 Parish averaged 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Celtics. In his 444 NBA games Kendrick Perkins has scored at least 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds four times. But it's the classic right team, right guy match for Perkins and the Celtics. He's perfect for this group, put up an 8-8, do the dirty stuff and stay out of the headlines.
This would be a tough cover for the 2010 Celtics. Parish was one of the handful of fastest centers in NBA history. At least once or twice a game he was good for a breakaway dunk in transition. Maybe Garnett would have to guard Parish (very similar body types, actually) and Perkins would move over to McHale., which would lead to the Perfect Storm of bitching at referees.
Edge: 1987 Celtics
Power forward: Kevin McHale vs. Kevin Garnett
I know it's hard to believe when you see McHale on TV today, but he was a game-changer on defense during the prime of his career. He would have been fully capable of guarding Pierce and Garnett (not at the same time, but I think you get the point.)
Unlike Allen vs. Ainge, this matchup between a player and his (former) general manager goes to the 1987 group. McHale had his best season in 1987, setting career highs in points (26.1) and rebounds (9.9) while leading the league in field-goal percentage (.604). He finished fourth in MVP voting and was the other forward on the All-NBA First Team. Garnett was an MVP and is maybe one of the 25 best players in history, but there is no season in his career that equals McHale's 1987.
Edge: 1987 Celtics
I kind of figured it would go like this. The 2010 five gets the nod in the backcourt, The Big Three with a huge edge up front. And it's the Bird-Parish-McHale factor that ultimately gives the nod to the 1987 group. You are talking about three guys that averaged a combined 71 points and 30 rebounds a game in 1987. The best frontcourt in history having its best season. Too much for the 2010 starting five to try to match.
I suspect that the 2010 Celts would trade a loss in this matchup for a win in the "most consecutive playoff series won" category, however.
And unlike the 1987 group, they still have that chance.