As his Boston Celtics teammates poured champagne on each other after their 111-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on June 12 in the decisive game of the NBA championship series, guard Dennis Johnson stood off to one side, holding a bottle and drinking in the scene. He shook the bottle and, after a minute or so, uncorked it and joined the celebration. With the bubbly spurting like a geyser, Johnson directed the stream across the room, all the while shouting, "This is the way you do it; this is the way you do it!"
The rest of the Celtics picked up on what seemed like a good idea, until soon the ceiling, the walls, the working press and countless supernumeraries were dripping. The general hilarity was a fitting denouement to what had transpired over the prior 17 days.
If nothing else, Boston's triumph was a celebration of brawn over beauty, a prime example of the Celtics' work ethic. Not that the Lakers didn't try hard, but the Celtics simply tried harder. How else can you explain a team shooting 39.5% in the biggest game of the season and winning its 15th NBA title nevertheless?
But work alone doesn't mean much unless you have something to work with, and in that respect the Celtics' banner year was a tribute to their architect, president and general manager, Red Auerbach. He, too, was a locker-room celebrant, and he, too, had champagne poured on his head—for the 15th time. Auerbach—who traded for center Robert Parish when no one else wanted him, drafted superstar Larry Bird in 1978 when he still had a year of college eligibility remaining, and traded for Johnson—is the only man who has participated in every Celtic championship, nine as coach and the last six in his present capacities. He says he's retiring, but then, he's never exactly been the retiring sort, and he'll still be around in some capacity.
As much as this series will be remembered for the way the Celtics won it, the way the Lakers lost it should be equally memorable. Only twice, in Game 5, played in the 97° sweatbox of Boston Garden, and in the finale, did the Celtics score clear-cut victories. Their other wins, in Games 2 and 4, were the result of Los Angeles largesse. Even Bird, the series' most valuable player, admitted as much. "L.A. should have swept us in four games," he said.
Had it not been for a misguided pass by James Worthy, meant for Byron Scott, with 15 seconds to play and the Lakers leading 113-111 in Game 2, L.A. would have taken a two-zip lead home to California. "What will I remember most from this series?" said Laker coach Pat Riley. "Simple. Game 2. Worthy's pass to Scott. I could see the seams of the ball, like it was spinning in slow motion, but I couldn't do anything about it." Gerald Henderson swiped the pass, sank a layup to tie the game, and Boston won in OT.
"Our team is wiry and footloose," Riley said. "But an aggressive team that rebounds will win because it will create more opportunities for inside play and free throws." And of all the things that contributed to the Celtics' triumph, none was more important than rebounding. They outrebounded the Lakers in five of the seven games, grabbed a championship series-record 131 offensive rebounds (compared with 96 for L.A.) and outscored the Lakers 159-90 in second-shot points. Boston took 35 more shots from the field and 42 more from the line than Los Angeles.
The Lakers' fast break, the essential element in their arsenal, is predicated on getting the ball off the glass. When the Lakers dominated the boards, they won. For example, in Game 3, L.A. had a remarkable 63-44 rebound advantage and cruised to a 137-104 victory. Except for Game 1, if the Lakers didn't outrebound Boston, they didn't run, and if they didn't run, they didn't win. And there was no more vivid example of that than Game 7.
As they walked onto the Garden parquet, the Lakers knew they'd have to fly in the face of history. In six previous seventh games for the championship (three against the Lakers), the Celtics had never lost, while Los Angeles was 0 for 4 in seventh games. On Tuesday the L.A. fast break accounted for only seven points, as Boston concentrated not only on forcing the ball down low but also on pounding the offensive boards for second-shot opportunities. Parish scored nine points off eight offensive rebounds and twice kept the ball alive so that teammates could score. Along with Parish, forward Cedric Maxwell jumped out of the box early, 17 of his team-high 24 points coming in the first half. The Lakers finished the game with 33 rebounds, compared with 52 (20 offensive) for Boston, and that finished them.
Maxwell was spectacular in what may have been his final game as a Celtic. He's now a free agent, and a dissatisfaction with his sacrificial role in Boston's offense, as well as the prospect of big bucks—most notably from Atlanta Hawks owner Ted Turner, whom Maxwell facetiously calls "Uncle Teddy"—could be enough to lure Maxwell away.
If so, he made his last series as a Celtic a memorable one. Maxwell hit his verbal stride during the finals, becoming—with the exception of teammate M.L. Carr, he of the paramilitary ravings—the most outspoken player of the series. In discussing the physicality that slowed the L.A. break to a walk and put Boston in control of the series, Maxwell said, "Before, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light and look both ways."
Another key to shooting down L.A.'s magic-carpet ride was the defensive job the 6'4" Johnson did against 6'9" guard Magic Johnson. Hampered by tendinitis in his left knee, Magic was further slowed by DJ's grinding D. The body-to-body assault not only wore Magic down but also oftentimes ran down the 24-second clock, putting the Lakers' half-court offense in a distinctly rushed state, and perhaps Magic in a new light.
"The series was special, what you live for," said a subdued Magic. "I'd rather play in the finals four times and lose than not be in them at all. I'm two and two now, but I can say that I was there."
Magic may have been here and there, but Bird was everywhere. Entering the series, it was generally conceded that one definitive edge Magic held over his otherworldly counterpart was an innate ability to create a big play, to do whatever it took to win. Yet in the three instances where a big play was needed, at the conclusions of Games 2, 4 and 7, Magic wasn't. He dribbled out the clock in regulation in Game 2, and so the shot that might have prevented the game from going into overtime never got taken. His pass to Worthy at the end of regulation in Game 4 was stolen by Parish; Boston won in overtime. And with L.A. trailing 107-102 and :50 to play in Game 7, Magic drove to the hoop but couldn't escape Parish, who swatted the ball away to start a Celtic break. Magic's inability to be magical in those closing moments caused one Boston executive to remark, "I've gained a greater appreciation for Larry because it seemed he did more for our success than Johnson did for theirs. Magic was great—but only when the Lakers were ahead."
Bird's selection as the series MVP was based on his myriad contributions. He averaged 27.4 points per game, but they may have been the quietest points in the history of championship play. However, his 72 defensive rebounds and 14-boards-per-game average spoke loud and clear. Magic averaged a very workmanlike 18 points a game and set a record with his 95 assists, but he also committed a record 31 turnovers.
Of course, Bird didn't have DJ to contend with. A case could be made that Dennis Johnson was the series' pivotal player. He was outstanding on defense during the last four games, Boston winning three of them, and once coach K.C. Jones suggested that he should guard Magic, beginning at halftime of Game 4, it seemed that the concentration he was putting into D carried over into O. DJ scored only four points in Game 3 but scored 22, 22, 20 and 22 in the next four.
"I thought I was into the game, but the first game in L.A. convinced me that I wasn't," said DJ. "Even K.C. had to come over to ask if something was wrong. I told him that whatever it was, it wouldn't be there again. I had been missing jump shots since January, and I knew why, but I never took the time to adjust. It was just a case of getting mentally and physically aggressive."
Those are qualities the Lakers lacked. Sure, they had their heroes: Worthy, who averaged 22.1 points a game and shot an NBA seven-game final record 64% from the field, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who at 37 averaged 26.6 points a game and showed his class even when riotous Celtics fans mugged him as he left the court after Game 7. And they certainly missed the offense of supersub Bob McAdoo, who sat out Game 7 because of an Achilles tendon injury.
Even so, when Henderson sparked Boston in the third quarter with nine points (he had none in the first half after acquiring three fouls in the first 2:29 of the game) and the Celtics increased their lead from 58-52 at the half to 91-78 after three, even the hardiest Hub fan knew L.A. would make a run. Abdul-Jabbar's nine points and Worthy's eight—the last two bringing the Lakers to within 105-102 with 1:14 remaining—seemed to set up a perfect ending for the 14,890 in the Garden and those watching on CBS (the game attracted the largest TV audience in NBA history). But as it had all series, Boston made the big plays: Parish's steal from Magic and Maxwell's block of a Scott shot.
So all summer L.A. will once again have to live with the thought that although it had the better team on paper, Boston had the better team on the court, just as it did 15 years ago when the Celtics beat the more talented Lakers in another seventh game—the last time these teams met for a title. Boston center Bill Russell put all the talk to rest when he said, "It seems to me that's why they keep score." This time it was Abdul-Jabbar who assessed the outcome: "The best team won. If you can't make it happen on the court, you don't deserve it."