A Swatch of celtic green has now appeared on what had been the perfectly purple canvas of the NBA finals. It happened Sunday afternoon in the Boston Garden. So what else is new, right? Once again we were reminded that the Garden is actually Bizarro World, a place where broken bones are ignored, where the best 94-by 50-foot track team in existence sputters to a crawl and where Greg Kite is escorted into the interview room after scoring zero points. Curiouser and curiouser—that's the way things keep getting on the parquet floor during the postseason.
After being blown out twice by the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum, the Celtics regrouped in Game 3 at the Garden and won 109-103, a victory that had seemed unlikely even to Celtic loyalists. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were limping, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were being run ragged by a speedy Laker backcourt, and Bill Walton was missing in action. Trying to stop L.A.'s fast break in the first two games had been like trying to catch the wind in a colander. It appeared that the Celtics had used their supply of miracles in beating Milwaukee and Detroit in seven-game series and that a Laker sweep was not only possible, but likely.
"Nah, we're just too good a team to be swept," said Larry Bird, who helped put away the broom with 30 points. "This was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for Game 4. Now it's going to be easy."
The victory was anything but easy, and if the Lakers came away with any consolation, it was the fact that the Celtics played an impeccable offensive game and still struggled to win. The Lakers, by contrast, had won the first two by 32 points. "I hope that's as well as they can play," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Indeed, the half-court offense simply can't be executed any better than the Celtics did it in the second quarter when they made 17 of 21 field goal attempts to go up 60-56 at halftime, a lead they never lost. That's 81% and none of those 17 baskets came on fast breaks.
"Shooting over 50 percent is one thing," said Magic Johnson, who scored a game-high 32 points, "but shooting like that is just beyond everything." Certainly it was beyond the Lakers' efforts to double-team Bird. He spun out of trouble and found Ainge in the corner. Or he got the ball to Johnson, who was spotting up near the foul line. Or he jabstepped toward the basket, dribbled behind his back and stuck a jump shot that fogged up James Worthy's goggles. DJ (11 of 22, 26 points) continued to pour it on in the third period when he scored the Celtics' first two baskets and a three-pointer that gave Boston a 74-62 lead. The Lakers never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
And now for the scoring line on the incredible Mr. Kite: zero of three from the field, zero free throws, zero points. So what was this guy doing within 20 miles of an interview room, a place he had been only once before ("when I just stuck my head in for a minute")? Here's what: He grabbed nine rebounds; he bodied Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket; and he got back on defense, once rejecting Magic's scooping fast-break layup. Do not underestimate the importance of getting back—the Celtics were so ineffective against the break in Games 1 and 2 that, as Kite put it, "one of the Laker Girls could've scored a layup on us."
It was significant that the Celtics maintained control during Kite's 22 minutes in the game. This allowed Parish to return, rested and refreshed, and score 10 important points in the fourth quarter. It was one of the few times in the postseason that the Celtic bench has provided a clear assist. Indeed, the absence of reserve strength in the wake of injuries to McHale, Parish and Walton was the major reason the Lakers were overwhelming preseries favorites.
While the Celtics battled the Pistons in their enervating seven-game Eastern Conference final, the Lakers stayed in fighting trim by holding several practice sessions at Santa Barbara City College—which is much like going to the French Riviera for infantry training. But the Lakers saw the potential minefield that lay before them. Come in overconfident and unprepared against Boston—as they did last year in the conference finals against Houston—and they would go out losers, never mind how banged up Boston might be. "I don't know anything about the problems they're supposed to have," said Abdul-Jabbar before Game 1. The Lakers had to believe they were playing the Celtics and not just another Denver, Golden State or Seattle, their easily disposed of Western Conference playoff foes.
So the Lakers kept their noses to the grindstone and not the beach blanket, running fast-break drills for the first 30 minutes of their workouts. The idea was to get Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and even Worthy involved as the "push man," the player leading the break. Thus L.A. could best utilize its overall team speed, instead of depending solely on Magic's quarterbacking.
And so, in front of a Forum crowd so celebrity-studded that Robin Leach would have salivated on his tuxedo (see page 24), the Lakers came out running in Game 1 and didn't stop until they had a 126-113 victory. In the first two periods L.A. ran 35 fast breaks and only 10 set plays, a percentage that perfectly fit its game plan. The Lakers ran after Celtic misses, of course, but they also repeatedly got fast-break opportunities—full-scale, official, three-lane breaks—after Celtic baskets. "We just may work on that aspect of the game harder than any team in the league," said L.A. assistant coach Randy Pfund. "When he was a starter, Kurt Rambis was probably the best in the league at getting the ball in-bounds quickly after a basket. Now A.C. Green is doing the same thing."
The Lakers' speed was so overwhelming that even Magic's outside shots (he scored 29 points) amounted to pull-up jumpers. It was entirely fitting that when Cooper left the game in the fourth quarter, he raised his left foot in the air, and Jack Nicholson, sitting at court level near the Celtic bench, slapped it. L.A. had indeed given Boston a lesson in sole.
"The Celtics looked to me like they were keeping up pretty good," said Mychal Thompson with a straight face, "just at a different pace." Equally discouraging for the Celtics was Worthy's performance in the Laker half-court offense. He scored a game-high 33 points, whooshing by his defender—the hobbled McHale or the lead-footed Bird—with an impossibly quick first step. Said Magic of Worthy: "James is playing at the top of his game—and above it." Somehow that made sense. Despite his poor performance in Game 3, Worthy still leads the Lakers in playoff scoring with 24.7 points per game.
As a few Celtics calculated it, they had done exactly two things correctly in Game 1. Parish: "We got here on time." DJ: "We got the opening tap." Clearly, they would have to do better in Game 2, particularly against the fast break. Boston seemed to have two options: The Celtics could either come up and challenge the outlet pass in an attempt to slow down Magic or they could retreat as quickly as possible to fortify the area around the basket. Boston pursued a middle course, with Ainge latching onto Magic as soon as he got the outlet while his teammates turned tail and got back. The strategy worked for seven minutes, as Boston held a 21-18 lead and L.A. scored only two fast-break baskets. But then it was showtime.
Cooper's three-point shots seemed to be coming from the sky. He made four in the first half and two more in the second for a playoff record. Coop also directed the L. A. offense, dishing out eight assists in the second period, equaling a final-series record. When it was all over, L.A. had itself a 141-122 rout.
There seemed to be nothing the Celtics could do to stem the tide in Game 3, other than to depend on the fabled Garden Mystique. Parish had gotten off to a good start in Game 2—scoring 12 points in the first period—but seemed to tire and finished with only 17. Ainge had squeezed off only 10 shots in Games 1 and 2 and spoke of the Celtics' offense as turning "too individual." DJ's confident, rock-solid athleticism was lost on an opponent replete with confident, rock-solid athletes of its own. Walton had played 11 minutes in Games 1 and 2, but he produced no diamonds, only rust.
The biggest downer of all was McHale's physical condition. The Celtic forward has, for all you podiatry freaks, a fractured navicular bone of the right ankle and sprains of various ligaments in that ankle. Team physician Dr. Thomas Silva believes McHale could be risking serious permanent injury or, at the very least, his "ability to play at an all-star level."
McHale discussed his situation with Walton—"Boy, it's really fun talking feet with Bill," he said—but would not reveal Walton's advice. Neither would Walton, who was downcast and virtually silent throughout the series. But McHale, who has taken to shooting fall-away jumpers almost exclusively and who grabbed only seven rebounds in Games 1 and 2, was determined to play in Boston. "I'm just going to let the chips fall where they may," he said.
After Game 2, Boston's sixth straight postseason loss on the road, Bird openly questioned his team's commitment. "If this continues, maybe it's time to make some changes and get some people who will play hard every night and not just in front of their families," said Bird with typical bluntness. So that was the unhappy state of the Celtic nation coming into Game 3.
But all it took was a few minutes on the parquet floor, which does for the Celtics what the waters of Lourdes do for other true believers. Walton got only one token minute in Game 3, but McHale held up bravely, scoring 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and playing tough defense on Worthy, who finally revealed his humanity with an ineffectual 13-point, three-rebound afternoon. Scott (four points) was no factor at all, reverting to his old habit of shooting outside (2 for 9, 0 of 5 from three-point range) instead of driving to the basket; he never got to the free-throw line. And A.C. Green might as well have been a statue for all he did on offense—one field goal in three attempts.
"At the Forum they had too many water faucets running at one time," said Celtic assistant Jimmy Rodgers. "We had to shut off at least one of them." Boston shut off three, leaving Magic and Abdul-Jabbar at times in the position of playing two against five.
"Maybe we were just due for a game like that," said Magic with a sigh. "I know we won't play that way again."
But there's no doubt that Boston put a nick in the armor of invincibility that had surrounded the Lakers in the postseason. And in the Bizarro World of Boston Garden, one nick can open a gusher.