Early Sunday it appeared as if the Fates had conspired against the Los Angeles Lakers in their NBA championship series with the Boston Celtics. At 1 a.m. Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's world was spinning all around him, his head rocking with his sixth—and by far worst—migraine headache in two weeks.
Abdul-Jabbar was in the starting lineup that afternoon at the L.A. Forum, but for almost three quarters he and the rest of the Lakers were reaching for Excedrin, Tylenol and smelling salts. The Celtics were on a roll, leading 84-73 and only 17 minutes away from being crowned NBA champions. To complicate matters for L.A., Magic Johnson had just left the lineup because his right knee was aching, and his replacement, rookie Byron Scott, had been so erratic in earlier games against the Celtics that for most of the time he had been riding the pine.
A gunner, Scott missed his first shot, but that was the last thing he and the Lakers did wrong. On his next attempt, Scott drilled a 16-foot jumper, and then he dunked on a fast break. After that, he fed James Worthy for a breakaway, and suddenly it was L.A. that was on a roll. Two more baskets cut Boston's lead to 84-83. With 6:41 to play and the score tied at 93, Scott buried a three-pointer, and the Lakers were off to the races.
The Celtics never recovered from Scott's explosion, and L.A. won 119-108 to even the series at three games apiece. Indeed, Boston scored only five baskets in the entire fourth quarter as the Laker fast break, which had disappeared after Game 3, made a triumphant return. Abdul-Jabbar, his headache only a bad memory, scored a game-high 30 points while grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds in 42 minutes. As always, the 15-year veteran led by example, but before the game he delivered a rare speech in which he exhorted his teammates to pull together. "That meant so much to us," Magic said. "When your leader has strength like that, you have to follow him."
L.A. coach Pat Riley refused credit for the masterstroke that inserted Scott into the game. He said he "wasn't making an adjustment but just groping." As for Abdul-Jabbar, Riley said: "Two trucks rolling on the top of his head wouldn't have kept him from going to the post."
With Sunday's game, the NBA set a record for encroachment into the baseball season. Basketball was never meant to be played in an un-air-conditioned 97° arena, as it had been in Game 5 on Friday night in Boston Garden, or on June 10, the latest date of any championship series game—breaking the June 8 record set in 1982. Or, for that matter, on June 12, when the seventh game was to be played back in the Hub.
Actually, the Celtics and Lakers haven't just been playing basketball; the series turned into a sports festival of sorts. There was the track meet in Game 3, with L.A. fast-breaking to a 137-104 rout. Then Boston used full-contact Australian rules football very effectively to win Game 4 129-125 in overtime. In Game 5 Boston parlayed the insufferable heat and some efficient basketball (finally!) to win 121-103. And on Sunday, there was some early Celtic efficiency that was ultimately overcome by some late Laker pyrotechnics.
"People should have expected a seven-game series because what you have here are two quality teams," said L.A. assistant coach Dave Wohl. "But each win has brought such exultation and each loss such deflation that everyone has gotten caught up in that instead."
True. After the Lakers blew them away in Game 3, the Celtics were thought to have nary a ghost of a chance in Game 4 at L.A. on Wednesday. Even some Celtics were convinced that the Lakers had exorcised the fight right out of their team. "It's probably too late now," said pugnacious Boston sub M.L. Carr, "but what we should've done right from the start was set Worthy or Magic or someone on his can and then we should've done it again so they would've known what we meant. Then maybe they wouldn't have been so fearless going inside."
If the thought of someone taking out either the 6'9", 215-pound Johnson or the 6'9", 219-pound Worthy seemed ludicrous, then going after 6'8", 220-pound forward Kurt Rambis had to seem only slightly less appealing. Yet that's just what 6'10", 225-pound Celtic forward Kevin McHale did midway through the third quarter of Game 4. After taking a pass from Magic for what looked to be a routine fast-break hoop, Rambis was lassoed around the neck in midflight by McHale, and McHale made no attempt to make Kurt's landing a happy one.
Both benches emptied, and although no blows were landed, Carr's point had been made. At the time, the Lakers held a 76-70 advantage. A minute and a half later Celtic forward Larry Bird was jaw-to-Adam's-apple with Abdul-Jabbar after the Lakers' Big Stick had nearly decapitated French Lick's Hick with a helicoptering elbow after gathering in a rebound.
Following that, the game became one of those ugly, Eastern Conference affairs that the Celtics love and the Lakers can't stomach. "The incidents definitely helped them and hurt us," Magic said later. "Now we know that if they have to elbow, smack us or slam us to win, they'll do it."
Despite the mayhem, Los Angeles still seemed ready to put the Celtics away—as in a three-games-to-one deficit. With 56 seconds to play, Magic converted two free throws for a 113-108 L.A. lead, and the Forum was rocking. But Boston center Robert Parish, a no-show in L.A.'s earlier wins but effective (25 points, 12 rebounds) in this game, grabbed a rebound and converted a three-point play to cut L.A.'s lead to 113-111. Twenty-three seconds later, Abdul-Jabbar fouled out trying to take down an offensive rebound over Bird, who tied the game at 113-113 with his two free throws.
Now, with 16 seconds left, the Lakers and Magic had a chance to redeem themselves for the last-shot snafu that probably cost them a victory in Game 2, which the Celtics had won in OT. The Lakers set up a two-man isolation, Magic and Worthy this time, Kareem having fouled out. Again, Magic dribbled off about 10 seconds but, unlike in Game 2, when he frittered away the last ticks, this time he attempted to lob the ball to Worthy. His weak toss was first flicked away and then stolen by Parish, who—in an excellent defensive adjustment—was guarding Worthy and had almost forced him to the sideline. The Celtics had two shots to win in regulation, but Bird's 23-footer rimmed and McHale's four-foot follow bounced out, reducing him to floor pounding.
With 35 seconds remaining in overtime, and the score tied at 123, Magic once again failed to come through. Johnson, an 81% free-throw shooter in the series, had two free throws, but missed both. Bird responded with a basket, and Carr, adding insult to insult, later stole a Laker inbounds pass and dunked for the clinching points.
Mindful of McHale's lassoing of Rambis, Riley was quick to brand the Celtics as nothing more than common thugs, but the Lakers were hurt more by the reemergence of the Celtics' two most maligned players, Parish and Dennis Johnson, who broke out of a two-game slump with 22 points and also slowed Magic to a walk. Both players had caught so much flak from the Boston fans and media that even the Lakers felt a bit sorry for them. "It just goes to show how the system operates," said Worthy. "They've been playing their hearts out while McHale has been next to invisible, but no one's said anything about him."
Johnson, who in the past has been known to complain about lack of PT, has been a strong, silent type. "There have been occasions—usually in a heated postgame atmosphere—when I've said things to people that have gotten me in trouble," said DJ, "but that's only because I've got this crazy little thing about wanting to win. That hasn't been a problem here because I've got a coach and teammates who want to win as much as I do."
In Boston, as he did in Seattle and Phoenix, DJ has added something to a winning situation. Boston acquired Johnson, five times a member of the NBA's all-defensive team, last June for one reason: to shut down big guards like Philadelphia's Andrew Toney and Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief. Johnson came through, holding each below his regular-season average.
For the first 14 quarters against L.A., though, Johnson spent most of his time guarding Michael Cooper, a swingman, or Worthy, not Magic, who at 6'9" is the quintessential big guard. But before Game 4, Boston coach K.C. Jones told Gerald Henderson and Johnson, his starting backcourt, to switch assignments if they wished, and they wisely did so for good at the start of the second half. Because of his upper-body strength, DJ is able to muscle Magic away from the center of the court, limiting his effectiveness. And, as a result, DJ, who played just 14 minutes in Game 3, put in 50 minutes in Game 4.
In Game 5 in Boston Friday, any talk of a Laker retaliation for McHale's mugging or of continued roughhousing by the Bruins—er, Celtics—was lost in the heat and humidity. Players on both teams were administered oxygen, and referee Hugh Evans became so dehydrated that he collapsed. At halftime, the Celtics showered and changed uniforms.
L.A. never got its running game off the ground (for the night, the Lakers scored just 15 points off the break, compared with 52 in Game 1), and its half-court offense was atrocious. L.A. shot just 42.8%, its worst in 20 playoff games this season. Credit the Celtics as well as the climate because they forced the Lakers to take all sorts of improbable shots. At one point in the first quarter Kareem, who was having enough troubles shooting his sky hook righthanded, tried one with his left and missed miserably. The Celtics had counted on the heat to wear down the 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar, and that may have helped account for his seven-of-25 shooting. "To appreciate what it was like out there," Kareem said, "try taking a sauna with all your clothes on, then do 100 pushups and run up and down the court for 48 minutes."
Strangely enough, Bird said he found it cooler out on the floor than sitting on the bench with his teammates fanning him with towels. For the first time in the series, Bird was in his element. Entering the game he was the series' leading scorer (27.5 average) and rebounder (13.7), but his performances had been merely workmanlike—for him. His 29-point, 21-rebound effort in Game 4 was an example of inside grittiness, not long-range beauty.
That changed Friday as Bird bombed the Lakers for 34 points on 15-of-20 shooting, including a pair of three-pointers. After one second-half jumper, Bird smiled slyly and blew on his fingers as he backpedaled on defense—his way of saying that this night he finally had it. "There's no other forward in the game like him," Wohl said. "He's like Kareem in that you have to change your entire defense to play him or else he'll automatically get his 30."
Back in the air-conditioned Forum on Sunday, Bird had 17 points at halftime, as Boston led 65-59. Grinding it out down low, Bird set the pace for the game as well as his teammates. In fact, the only Laker highlight in the first half occurred at 7:09 of the first quarter when Worthy evened the tag-team championship at one fall apiece by fouling the fast-breaking Cedric Maxwell into the basket support.
At the start of the third quarter it seemed that L.A. was determined to live or die by the hook of Abdul-Jabbar, whose migraine had cleared up an hour before game time. Despite his troubles ("There were just a lot of things working against me, but mainly it wasn't falling. It's hard to analyze in the heat of the moment," he said later), Abdul-Jabbar scored eight of L.A.'s first 14 second-half points, and then Scott came into the game for the first time. "The game was a lot of fun until then," said Jones. "Bird, Johnson, Henderson, everybody just started missing at the same time, and they started rebounding and running and jumping and dunking the ball."
And in the middle of it all was Kareem. "You hear a lot about Celtic pride and tradition, but we've got some of that here, too," he said. "There was never any question that I was going to play; I was just going to have to be sick. I couldn't hold my breakfast, so maybe it was vapors I played on."
And it was the Celtics, not Abdul-Jabbar, who were running on empty when Sunday was over.