With each fast-break basket scored by Los Angeles in the NBA Championship series—i.e., Magic Johnson passing to Michael Cooper or James Worthy or any other flashing bolt from the blue—the Lakers' fascination with pyrotechnic explosions becomes more and more apparent. And in the wake of Sunday's 137-104 thrashing at the hands—or feet—of the Lakers in Game 3 at the Forum, it was clear that the Boston Celtics obviously had forgotten one of childhood's basic tenets: Play with fire and you'll get burned.
"It's out, it's gone, it's everybody," said Johnson, trying to explain his team's incendiary ways after he dished out a championship-series record 21 assists as the Lakers took a 2-1 lead in the finals. "It feels so good and happens so fast...there's just nothing a defense can do."
Especially when the opposition "played like a bunch of sissies," which is how the Celtics' Larry Bird summed up his team's effort. "We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again," said Bird, although his 30 points were far from sissified. "Guys aren't running back on defense, and you can't have that. Sometimes you can anticipate things like this happening because one team is going to be more up than the other. It's just too bad that all the bad things are happening to us."
Not quite all the bad things. After blitzing Boston in Game 1 by a 115-109 score, the Lakers handed Game 2 to the Celtics on a silver platter, blowing what seemed to be a safe lead in the final moments when Worthy's crosscourt pass was stolen by Gerald Henderson, who tied the score at 113-113 with a layup; then Johnson inexplicably allowed the final 13 seconds to run down without getting off even a desperation shot. The Celtics rallied to win in overtime, 124-121, and with the series tied 1-1 it appeared that a classic was in the making. But except for those strange happenings in the last 18 seconds of regulation in Game 2, the Celtics would have found themselves down three games to none, a hole from which no team in championship series history has ever escaped. "I know that we should be up three-zip," Worthy said.
After their defeat in Game 1, the Celtics seemed to understand Problem No. 1: the Lakers' blistering break. Magic and his fellow speedsters had turned the Boston Garden parquet into a track, breaking clear to score 52 points. "We haven't seen anything like it so far in the playoffs," said Boston coach K.C. Jones. "Hell, we haven't seen anything like it all season, except for the two times we played them." The Lakers won both of those games. For the finals, L.A. added a new wrinkle. When Boston had the ball, Laker coach Pat Riley had the 6'9" forward Worthy guard 6'4" Celtic guard Dennis Johnson. If D.J., a fine inside player, chose to play down low, that put Worthy closer to rebounding position; if he shot from the outside, definitely not his strength, Worthy was that much closer to filling the lanes for one of Magic's passes.
Everything the Lakers tried in Game 1 worked so well, it seemed nothing could stop them—except the fire alarms in their Boston hotel, the Marriott Copley Place. The Lakers were rousted by fire alarms no fewer than 10 times (often in the middle of the night) during their six-day Boston stay. Hotel officials blamed the alarms on dust, but an unsuspecting maid was probably close to the truth when she said, "They could be set off by a man with a cigar."
Nah, Red Auerbach wouldn't do that. Or would he?
To stop the break in Game 2, the Celtics would have to sink perimeter shots early and then slow the Lakers into a half-court game. And that's just what happened. Spurred on by the noisy Garden crowd, Boston scored the game's first seven points and had a 36-26 lead after the first quarter, despite 14 points by Magic, eight on bombs from the outside. Boston got some scoring help from a totally unexpected source—that former Toronto Blue Jays infielder, Danny Ainge.
Ainge had played just 17 minutes in the Celtics' previous three games, but he hit his first three shots, the shortest being a 16-footer. For the game, Ainge scored 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Despite Ainge's contribution, the Lakers were able to run enough in the second quarter to cut what was once a 13-point Celtic margin to two (61-59) at the half. Boston increased its lead to seven midway through the third quarter, but then Worthy—who is called Clever by his teammates because after a haircut earlier in the season, the barber told him it made him look clever—scored 11 of L.A.'s next 12 points on an assortment of jumpers and flying jams, and the Lakers were in striking range again.
With 1:12 to play, Worthy made a three-point play to tie the game 111-111, and with 35 seconds to go Johnson hit two free throws to give L.A. a 113-111 lead. When Kevin McHale missed a pair for Boston with 20 seconds to play, it seemed to be all over. But L.A. gave it away. With a swarming full-court press, the Celtics forced Magic to pass off to Worthy and then overplayed Magic, denying him a return pass. Under double-team pressure, Worthy then uncleverly attempted a crosscourt pass and the ball was picked off by Henderson, who scored the tying hoop with 13 ticks left.
With plenty of time for a game-winning shot, the Lakers isolated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic on the left side. But Cedric Maxwell was applying pressure on Magic up high and Robert Parish was overplaying Kareem down low, and the Lakers were unable to get off any kind of shot. Johnson killed a good 10 seconds just dribbling, waiting to make the perfect pass.
In overtime two baskets by Johnson gave the Lakers a 118-115 lead with 2:54 to play, but after Abdul-Jabbar missed a sky hook Bird fired downcourt to the ubiquitous Henderson for a fast-break layup. Fouled by Johnson, Henderson made the free throw to tie the game, with the lead moving back and forth until reserve guard Scott Wedman hit a jumper from the left corner for a 122-121 Celtics lead with 14 seconds to play.
Amazingly, the Lakers were once again unable to get off a shot. Parish stole a Jamaal Wilkes pass, only to have the ball trickle out of bounds off Bird's foot. But Parish then cleanly knocked the ball away from Bob McAdoo and two free throws by Bird sealed the victory.
Although the Lakers tried to seem pleased about the split in Boston—"We got what we came here for...I think," said Riley—the Celtics knew they had ducked a bullet. "I thought it was execution time," said Maxwell. "I was just waiting for a call from the governor, hoping for a reprieve."
In a surprise move, Jones had assigned Maxwell, a 6'8" forward, to cover Johnson in the late stages of the game, and while Maxwell gave the 6'9" guard trouble, he wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of guarding Johnson in future games. "I hope it's the last time I have to guard him," Maxwell said. "Don't say I did a good job on him, because I don't want K.C. to get any ideas. If he says I have to do it again, I'll just say, 'Well, K.C, it's time for me to start picking up the deferred payment checks.' "
Jones must have been listening, because Maxwell didn't cover Magic on Sunday. Seemingly no Celtic did, and he had a field day. From the outset (or outlet), L.A. came out firing, determined to atone for the Game 2 collapse. L.A. scored the first seven points, ran that to an 18-4 lead and had the Forum rocking. But the Lakers cooled and Boston put on a spurt of its own, outscoring L.A. 22-6 to take a 40-35 second-quarter lead. Now Johnson kicked the Lakers into high gear, leading them to 18 consecutive points and a 57-46 halftime lead. L.A. hit its first seven shots of the third period, finishing with a championship series single-quarter record of 47 points, and the Celtics were in chaos.
"I didn't intend to give my team the day off, but I guess that was about the size of it," said Jones.
Riley was as surprised as Jones by the game's lopsided nature. "I can't remember the last time we got 63 rebounds in a game," he said. "In the last three days we have touched both ends of the spectrum." So had the Celtics.