Archaeologists sifting the rubble could have found a clue. They could have uncovered evidence that there would indeed be life for the Los Angeles Lakers after their 148-114 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Championship Series. The hint was buried deep inside an abject utterance from L.A. coach Pat Riley after the Celtics had beaten his Lakers. "I have never seen a team, except ours at times, shoot from the perimeter like that," Riley said.
Except ours at times. What a marvelous little phrase! His players had just gotten their keisters kicked, but Riley was saying the roles could easily have been reversed. And when the Lakers did turn the tables last week, twice bouncing Boston—by scores of 109-102 and 136-111—to take a 2-1 series lead, they did it with a most unlikely mix. To be sure, there were the sudden spasms of speed and the elegant skyhooks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the Lakers also beat the defending champions at their own physical game, matching them bang-for-bang and body-for-body. They even went bark-for-bark with the Celts' best-in-show woofing. "They expected us to crawl into a hole," said Laker assistant Dave Wohl. "It's like the bully on the block who keeps taking your lunch money every day. Finally you get tired of it, and you whack him."
The Lakers' turnaround highlighted two truisms: 1) If you're going to lose a game in a playoff series, let it be the opener. It tends to exorcise. 2) If you're going to lose in any particular fashion, let it be by blowout. It tends to motivate. After Game 1, even the Celtics wondered what consequences awaited them for having won so totally. "It's definitely a time to back off [talking trash]," said the Celtics' Cedric Maxwell. "It's not like backgammon or cribbage, where if you beat someone bad enough you get two wins."
To get those victories, L.A. paid its dues. Forget all the silly propaganda about the Lakers being avocado-powered pantywaists who shirk work. Why, their entire starting frontcourt, with its protective eyewear, looks less fit for a basketball arena than a machine shop. And while L.A.'s fast break seems so natural—Boston coach K.C. Jones likens it to the waves crashing onto the beach at Rio—a certain minimum of human pounding is necessary before the surfbreakers can pound, too. "Our break starts with good, tough defense," said forward Kurt Rambis. "That forces teams out of their offense. Then we must control the boards. That's where the work comes in. If we do those two things, the fast break is the easiest part."
L.A. neither rebounded nor defended in Game 1. Not only did Magic Johnson get only one rebound, but his teammates didn't haul in many either, largely because there were so few to be had. "When you're always pulling the ball out of the net, you can't run," Abdul-Jabbar said. As the Celtics began notching the benchmarks of their 34-point rout, they also set a few Championship Series firsts and bests, noted by a nettle (*):
Score 26-12, Celtics. By now, both Abdul-Jabbar and forward James Worthy have hoisted bricks, and guard Byron Scott, who entered the finals shooting 56.5% for the playoffs, has gone 1 for 4. Boston's Danny Ainge, Scott's counterpart, will close out the first quarter with six straight field goals and 15 points.
Score 54-29. Celtic reserve Scott Wedman launches the first of his 11 shots, all of which he'll make,* including four three-point attempts.
Score 97-69. Jones, whose Celts would shoot 60.8%,* said: "It was one of those days where, if you turn around and close your eyes, the ball's gonna go in." Here Boston's Larry Bird, after leaping to take a pass in the lane, demonstrates.
Score 144-112. A couple of urchins steal onto the court and execute a Modified Fun Bunch Flying Five.* They linger until the Laker fast break, in its most impressive achievement of the afternoon, chases them off.
Final score 148*-114. Seven minutes after the buzzer sounds, a fire is reported on the Garden roof. Hot as he was, Wedman will not be charged with arson.
If nothing else, the outcome served the Lakers notice that they were no longer playing in the Sun Belt Conference. L.A.'s waltz through the West had included victories by an average score of 131.2-117.5; five first halves in which they had scored at least 75 points; and seven games in which Mike McGee, their ninth man, had scored at least 15 points. Riley delivered a philippic to his team before Game 2, promising fines for muffed rebounds and lazy defense.
The Lakers made the adjustment, which was less a matter of transmission overhaul than of simple downshifting. Said L.A.'s Bob McAdoo, "You don't get to the finals without rebounding and hitting people." And hit people the Lakers did. They flagellated the Celtics inside in Game 2, Kevin McHale in particular. It had been McHale whose clothesline shot on a breaking-away Rambis in Game 4 was credited with igniting Boston last spring, inciting the Celts to win that game, two of the next three and the series. And it was McHale who last week jousted with Riley in the press, contrasting the Celtic "longshoremen" with the Laker "movie stars."
To defend their honor, the Lakers banked on their deeper bench. They quite happily spent nine more fouls in Game 2 than in Game 1, even though that meant losing both Worthy and McAdoo in the process. These weren't the "movie stars' " agents who were suddenly beating McHale to rebounds, or stripping him clean as he began a move, or rerouting his shots into the orchestra. Could that have been Fred Gwynne in the role of McHale? "Boston's a work-ethic team," Riley said. "My only problem is with the perception that we're not."
Boston's other frontcourt power, the 7-foot Robert Parish, hardly fared better than McHale. Parish had consistently beaten Abdul-Jabbar down the floor during the Game 1 rout, but in Game 2 The Chief took an elbow to the rear and suffered what was officially called a "contusion of the right buttock."
Parish encountered an even bigger pain in the butt in The Begoggled One, who led the Laker assault on the backboards with 17 rebounds, added 30 points (Mike Cooper repeatedly baited the skyhooks with unerring outside shots) and showed an intensity that was gnarly to the Max. "Kareem was just awesome," said Maxwell, who went on to call the Celtics' play "dorsal." He meant "docile," but, as McHale said, "We did play like fish."
The Celtics were completely out of water midway through the second quarter of Game 3. For the first time in the series, the Lakers sustained a stretch in which they converted turnovers and long rebounds into baskets at the other end. Worthy led the 10-1 tear that made up most of Boston's 48-38 lead and closed out the half with a jumper and two free throws to push the Lakers in front by 65-59. Someone asked Jones, who was inadvertently locked in the Celtics' locker room at halftime, for his assessment of the quarter. "Worthy," he said. "That would be my assessment."
After Boston made a run to within four points, Abdul-Jabbar, with 9:05 left in the third quarter, chose to throw in the skyhook that made him the NBA's alltime leading playoff scorer with 4,458 points. "The record," he said, "was not the thing I was after."
Instead, the Laker captain was trying to banish forever the lethargy that had plagued him and his teammates in Game 1. He studied film of the opening debacle, watching it, in Riley's words, "like a little kid with big eyes." He passed off for 15 assists in the two L.A. victories, waiting patiently for the Boston defense to collapse on him before flipping the ball to open teammates. "He's the hub of our wheel," Rambis said, "and when he's playing like that, our whole wheel runs better."
The Hub's hub, Bird, was stuck in the mud. He shot 17 for 42 in the two Celtic losses, and remained typically taciturn about the combination of injuries that have contributed to his playoff-long shooting slump. "I don't know if it's his [bad] finger or [bad] elbow," Jones mused. "He never says."
Bird did, however, start a rugby scrum that formed in pursuit of a loose ball in the second half of Game 3. He landed on the Forum floor, followed by Rambis, and they were joined by the ever-combative Ainge. "We should meet them out in the parking lot and have a fight to get it out of our system," Bird said. "I don't know if the league is up for it, but the Celtics are." Sock!
The Bird-Rambis-Ainge altercation had a two-bout undercard involving McHale. One was with Magic Johnson, the other was with McAdoo, who said of McHale, "I don't know him personally, and I don't care to know him, because this is war." Biff!
"There's not much I can do about it," shrugged Jones, whose reserve guard, Ray Williams, was thumbed for wrestling Rambis into a seat on the Laker bench late in the game. "Except go back to Brockton [Mass.] and get [Marvelous Marvin] Hagler." Pow!
Abdul-Jabbar was one of the few players who distanced himself from the horseplay. "We're not out to physically harm them," he said. "But I wouldn't mind hurting their feelings." Of course, as has been abundantly documented, he's different from most NBA players. For one thing, he's 38. For another, he's a bookworm. He recently polished off a collection of short stories by the late Raymond Chandler, the mystery writer who set most of his tales in L.A.
Someone asked Abdul-Jabbar if he was familiar with author Robert Parker, the Celtic fan whose whodunits take place in Boston. "Yes," he said. "I've read four or five of his books. They're very well done. He gets a lot of his inspiration from Chandler."
Last week L.A. and Boston got plenty of inspiration from each other. The Celtics won Game 1 by cloaking themselves as Lakers. The Lakers won Game 2 by cloaking themselves as Celtics. And with all the banging around in Game 3, the series was proving to be a delightfully unpredictable, if spine-tingling, read. But it looked as though Chandler, not Parker, would get to write the final chapter.