The Celtics have now beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in The Forum and in Boston Garden, in transition and in half-court, from the outside and from the inside, with their superstars and with their scrubs, in sickness and in health. It now behooves the defending NBA champions to return to their drawing board and their video library and devise a way to whip these guys in green—but it is not immediately apparent how that can be done.
"Right now," says the Lakers' Magic Johnson, "there's no doubt that Boston is a much better team."
No doubt at all. On Sunday in Los Angeles the Celtics beat the Lakers 105-99, a result far more significant than Boston's 110-95 home-court rout of L.A. on Jan. 22. While the Lakers had vengeance as a motive and their own celebrity-strewn playhouse to show off in, the Celtics had power forward Kevin McHale on the bench with an Achilles injury and an exhausting road trip (Sunday's game was their fourth of seven on a western swing) as potential alibis. Logic seemed to say: Laker victory, 1-1 season series, no psychological edge for either when the playoffs roll around. But at crunch time Sunday it was the Lakers who raised the gloves and said, "No màs."
Why? Is 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar too old to handle the Celtics' double-trouble center tandem of Robert Parish and Bill Walton? Abdul-Jabbar had 23 points on Sunday but only seven in the second half, during which he raised his season airball total against the Celtics to four, two in each game. Is the bruised right knee that has kept Magic out of seven games since Jan. 15 a serious problem? Johnson wound up with a stat line perilously close to a triple-single: six points (including zero field goals), six rebounds and 12 assists.
Is the vaunted Laker reserve strength a myth? Byron Scott, now coming off the bench as the third guard, spent more time on Sunday trying to KO the pesky Jerry Sichting than he did making jump shots and running on the break—he had 10 points on 11 shots to go with no assists. Maurice Lucas, who was hired to crash the Celtics off the boards, played six minutes and had one rebound. A.C. Green, the rookie battery charger, played nine minutes and had no points, one rebound.
Finally—firstly, really—the No. 1 question for the Lakers, and everybody else in the NBA, for that matter, is: How do you handle Larry Bird? On Sunday, Bird merely grabbed 18 rebounds, twice as many as Abdul-Jabbar, 11 more than James Worthy, four more than Parish-Walton. Fourteen came at the defensive end, where Bird played his customarily heady, in-the-paint-and-out one-man zone. He scored just 22 points, but there are only so many even a superstar can get over one weekend. Two nights earlier in Portland, in a performance that showed how high he can soar above mere mortals, Bird sank a 15-footer to put the game into overtime and made the winning basket in a 120-119 victory. His point total for the evening: 47. What's scary about Larry—and the Celtics—is what Bird said after Sunday's game: "I thought as a team we could have played better today."
No player is more influenced by Bird's heavy mettle than Walton. Consider how they two-timed Worthy down the stretch. The forward got his 34th and 35th points on a dunk with 4:26 left, cutting Boston's lead to 100-94. At 3:51 the Celtics called time and Bird was selected to check Worthy for the first time in the game. He promptly made his presence felt—Michael Cooper calls Bird a "wide-body"—and Worthy missed a jumper.
Typically, both teams tried to play down the significance of the rematch. Abdul-Jabbar: "One game during the regular season is not going to change things too much." Boston coach K.C. Jones: "This game means nothing more than just another Laker-Celtic game." Balderdash. Both teams were well aware that the seat of NBA power had taken a transcontinental journey eastward.
"See, the regular season tells you different things," said Magic after the game, icebag taped to his right knee. "Now, we know we have to make little readjustments in our defense."
But what readjustments can the Lakers make? Boston, 41-9 at week's end, is playing like a team without the weaknesses that enabled the Lakers to beat them in the NBA finals last season. The Celtics have:
•Outside shooting. Without McHale, who has tendinitis in his left Achilles tendon and hasn't played a minute since the All-Star Game, the Celtics are a different team on offense and, logic says, a weaker one. Really? Bird, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman all hit perimeter jumpers in the first four minutes Sunday. The Lakers did their usual trapping, double-teaming and running at the shooter...and the Celtics kept whipping the ball around, like a college team working a zone. "We may have to reevaluate that strategy," Riley said later of his defense. Of the Celtics' 27 first-half field goals, 16 came on jumpers off the half-court offense.
•Bench strength. Suddenly, the Celtics are 10 deep. How many teams can lose an All-Star like McHale and have a former All-Star like the mad-bomber Wedman (who has scored 10 or more points in 12 of his last 14 games) ready to step in? And don't laugh at the suggestion that David Thirdkill, who in his fourth season has already been with five NBA teams, can contribute. Over the last few weeks he has become a defensive specialist. Thirdkill contributed a key three-point play at the end of the third period to give the Celtics an 86-80 lead. Rick Carlisle, the piano-playing, heady guard from Virginia, was 5-of-7 from the floor, including a slightly off-balance shot from the corner early in the fourth period that just beat the 24-second clock and stretched the Celtics' margin to 92-82. "Would've been a three-pointer except for my feet," said Carlisle, who wears a size 15½ and is known as Flipper.
Even Greg Kite, generally a 6'11" piece of excess baggage, got the most of two personal fouls he committed late in the first half when he fouled first Mike McGee, then knocked Abdul-Jabbar to the floor. Neither foul was flagrant, but they followed hard upon a Scott-Sichting shoving match (Scott was hit with a technical for pushing Sichting in the face) and precipitated charges on Kite's person by Worthy, Magic and Michael Cooper. No punches were thrown. "It didn't surprise me," said Abdul-Jabbar. "They're known as a cheap-shot team." Just another game, eh, Kareem?
Jones is displaying more and more confidence in Sichting (11 points, three assists), whom he used in place of Ainge down the stretch on Sunday. And Walton is simply the best reserve center ever. Parish picked up his third foul at 5:58 of the second period and his fifth midway through the third period, but so what? Pull the lever marked WALTON. "He plays maniacally against us," Riley had said of Walton the day before the game, a perfect choice of words. Abdul-Jabbar seems to tense up when he sees red, as in Walton's hair. "I'm not worried about fouling out in that situation," said Parish, who played the entire fourth quarter, "because Bill is right there."
•Speed on the break. The Celtics' break is nowhere near as explosive as L.A.'s, but it is versatile. Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Bird or Sichting can all take charge—the Lakers, by contrast, have to get the ball in Magic's hands—and any of those four is effective on the wing. The jump-shooting Wedman is a good trailer, and Parish runs the floor as well as any big man in the NBA except Houston's Akeem Olajuwon. Boston doesn't have a take-it-to-the-basket break but, rather, a pull-up-jumper break, and as long as the NBA doesn't adopt style points, it gets the job done.
The Celts demonstrated that the Laker break can be stopped. L.A. got only six transition baskets, mostly because the Celtics took care of their own half-court offense. "Their strategy is to make you take a quick, bad shot, then run it back at you when you're in disarray," said Celtic assistant Chris Ford, "but we kept the floor balanced on offense and didn't get caught like that."
There was also the Johnson-on-Johnson factor: Nobody is tougher at defusing Magic than Dennis Johnson. Early in the game D.J. was retreating on defense when he suddenly whirled around and surprised Magic, causing the Laker to lose his dribble out-of-bounds. And he's not just a defensive player. D.J.'s jumper with 3:03 left was probably the key basket of the game—it broke a two-minute Celtics' scoreless streak and restored a six-point lead. D.J. finished with a team-high 23 points.
With 3:05 remaining, Jones sent Walton in for Wedman. "Let me play Worthy," Walton had asked, and K.C. gave his approval. Shadowed by Walton, Worthy had trouble getting the ball and, when he did, Walton blocked his jumper. The only Laker points in the final 3:51, in fact, came on Cooper's uncontested three-pointer just before the final buzzer.
Just think what the Celtics might've done with McHale in there—it was he, after all, who had held Worthy to an ineffectual 12 points in Boston Garden.
"What did it look like from the bench?" McHale was asked. "Well," he said, "it looked like a lot of fun." Only if you were wearing green.