Under normal circumstances last Friday night's matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, their first confrontation of 1987-88, would have served as the NBA's version of the Tip-Off Classic, a sign that the season had begun in earnest. But that wasn't the case as the glamour teams dragged themselves wearily into Boston Garden, humility clinging to each of them like a cheap suit. Rather than being a usual Laker-Celtic show-time showdown, this game was a grim struggle for survival. The aura of near invincibility that has surrounded the Big Two for so many years had been eroded by hard times—each had won only once in its last five games, and in both of those victories the losers were the lowly Nets.
"Important? You better believe this game is important," said Los Angeles's Magic Johnson on Thursday. Said Boston's Jerry Sichting, "Both teams are playing poorly. Both teams need a win."
What passed for pregame humor was of the gallows variety. "It's a little strange when the headlines say 'League doormats play big game,' " said Laker coach Pat Riley. His Celtic counterpart, K.C. Jones, had to field this question: Which team is worse? Jones considered it for a moment and then flashed a sly smile and said, "Well, we'll find out tomorrow night, won't we?"
Indeed we did, and Jones didn't like the answer. Never mind that it took Johnson's buzzer-beating, 22-foot miracle shot to produce a 115-114 L.A. victory. It was Boston that blew a six-point lead in the final 2:35. "That's the type of game you should win, especially at your own place," said the Celtics' Larry Bird after getting 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He wiped his face, which has taken on its usual winter pallor, and shook his head. "If we don't pick it up soon, this season's going to be a disaster."
In this case, disaster is relative. Through last weekend Boston still led an Atlantic Division that could only be described as horrible; not another team was playing better than .500 ball. But Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta in the Central Division and four teams in the Western Conference—the Lakers, Dallas, Denver and Portland—had better records than the Celtics' 11-8.
As for the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said after the win in Boston, "One game is not going to turn around a season." He was right. On Sunday the Lakers struggled in L.A. before beating Cleveland 90-89.
But the win over Boston served notice—if notice needed to be served—that the basketball world still spins on the finger of Earvin Johnson, last season's MVP Shots are made that can be dismissed as merely lucky, and there are Magical ones for which there is no explanation available. "You almost expect him to do something like that," said Sichting of Johnson's game-winner.
Had it not been for the Celtics' ineffectiveness on offense down the stretch, Magic never would have gotten the opportunity to pull off this latest trick. After Bird's steal and jumper gave Boston a 111-105 lead with 2:35 left, the Celtics scored just one basket the rest of the way, a Danny Ainge to Robert Parish backdoor layup with 55 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, the Lakers got two good jumpers from Mychal Thompson, a free throw from Abdul-Jabbar and, finally, a three-point jumper by Michael Cooper that tied the game at 113-113 with 45 seconds left.
Magic then stole a pass Ainge had intended for a cutting Bird—remember when Boston was the best half-court offensive team in the NBA?—but, at the other end, the Celtics forced Abdul-Jabbar into a hurried 20-foot jumper that fell short. Bird rebounded the ball and threw a bomb to Ainge, who was streaking down the right side. Johnson fouled Ainge to prevent the layup, and that put Ainge on the line with three seconds left. Ainge, who was the league's second-best foul shooter last season, behind Bird, made his first free throw but missed the second, whereupon Thompson and Parish began battling for the rebound. While that was going on, Johnson, Mr. Presence of Mind, motioned for a timeout. Referee Mike Mathis granted Magic's wish, even though Thompson didn't have possession of the ball. In fact, Boston's Kevin McHale ended up with the ball after Thompson and Parish had batted it around. When Mathis signaled for the clock to be stopped, it still read :03.
The Celtics protested the call but didn't make too big a deal of it when the game was over. Clearly they had no one but themselves to blame for even being in position to lose the game by one tweet of the whistle.
L.A. got exactly what it wanted out of its inbounds play from midcourt. Magic came around picks by Thompson and Byron Scott and received the pass from Cooper on the run as Ainge trailed desperately behind him. Magic took one step and launched an off-balance shot from just inside the three-point line. As the ball headed toward the basket, Laker forward A.C. Green fell to his knees in prayer. The shot caromed off the glass and went cleanly through the basket for Magic's 17th and 18th points, to go with his 17 assists and eight rebounds. "I live to be in those situations," said Magic. Friday's win didn't suddenly make all the Lakers' ills, which are in fact quite similar to Boston's, go poof. And both teams must cure what ails them if they expect to meet in the championship series for the fourth time in five seasons. Consider the factors working against the Big Two:
•Suffering superstars. One wouldn't guess it from their performances, but both Johnson and Bird have been bothered by Achilles tendon soreness, the chic NBA injury of the moment. Magic (left Achilles) missed six exhibition games, and Bird, who has aching ankles to go with tendon troubles in both feet, sat out four regular-season games in November. It's impossible to figure how much Magic and Bird are hurting. Both go out and play all-world basketball, both plunge their aching tootsies into buckets of ice after most games, both smile and say that nothing's wrong.
Rest is the only remedy for the Achilles condition, but neither Johnson nor Bird will get much of that if his team continues to struggle.
•The fragile forwards. James Worthy and McHale are of comparable offensive importance, the former for his ability to get out on the L.A. break, the latter for his post-up mastery, which prevents defenses from double-teaming Bird. Neither is at full strength.
Worthy, who started all 100 of the Lakers' regular-season and playoff games last year, has missed four games because of tendinitis in his left knee. He played only 14 minutes and scored just eight points against the Celtics. Meanwhile, McHale appeared to have made a miracle recovery from off-season surgery on his right foot, which had kept him out of action until Dec. 1. In his first four games he averaged 22 points. But on Friday night he was off his game—he scored 10 points in 37 minutes—and admitted that all is not as well as it seems. "The foot's felt pretty bad the last few days," said McHale. "I used to beat people with quickness, and I just don't have it now."
The Lakers haven't responded well to Worthy's absence—especially Cooper, who is super as a sub but seems uncomfortable in a starting role. He's at his best guarding small forwards, not impersonating them on offense. "Our three-spot [small forward] is called upon to score, and that's a different role for me," says Cooper. "Plus, I hate to say it, but I've had to pace myself a little bit with the extra minutes I've gotten as a starter, and I'm not used to that. I'm an all-out player." But he was outstanding against the Celtics, with 21 points, nine of them on three-point shots. If the Lakers have to play long stretches without Worthy, the suspicion is that Cooper will find a way to get it done. It seems he always does.
The Celtics won't be as fortunate if McHale's minutes are curtailed. Backup power forward Fred Roberts is more of an open-court player than McHale, and, indeed, the Celtics ran an effective up-tempo game without McHale early in the season. When he returned, the offense slowed down and waited for his long arms to arrive in position near the basket. This isn't to say that the Celtics are a better team without McHale, a ludicrous thought, but an out-of-sync McHale is going to retard Boston's efforts to perfect an offense that can run as well as execute in the half-court.
•The graying of the pivot. On the evening of Dec. 4, Abdul-Jabbar scored only seven points in an 85-83 loss at Milwaukee. That game was the first in 787 in which he failed to score in double figures. He came into Boston Garden averaging 16.1 points per game and had one of his better efforts of the season with 23 points and nine rebounds in 34 minutes. Abdul-Jabbar will turn 41 on April 16, just eight days before the-end of the regular season.
As for Boston's center, there are still nights when Parish's long legs get him open to catch long passes from Bird or Dennis Johnson for easy baskets. But those times have become rare this season, and Parish, 34, had an inordinately quiet 15 points in 42 minutes against the Lakers. That fit the pattern of his preceding four games, in which he had scored 12, 10, 12 and 14. They're not bad numbers—if your name is, say, James Donaldson.
Both Abdul-Jabbar and Parish are big-game players. Abdul-Jabbar was certainly effective against Boston with four important fourth-period field goals. Without Bill Walton, who once again is out for the season after foot surgery, to back him up, Parish may just be pacing himself. At least that's what the Celtics are hoping.
•The bullpen. When Cooper is a starter, the Laker bench, with the exception of Thompson, looks like something out of the CBA. Or worse, it looks like something out of Boston. Jones's substitution rotation this season has had neither design nor pattern, and, consequently, no Celtic reserve—from rookies Brad Lohaus and Reggie Lewis to veterans Sichting and Darren Daye—has a clue about his role. Against L.A., for example, Sichting played often and well (27 minutes, 17 points), but Daye, whose quickness would seem to be an effective weapon against the Lakers, got only four scoreless minutes.
•Buzzards are darkening the sky. Before Friday's game the L.A. players were mystified by their ineffectiveness in the stretch. They had lost two-point decisions to Milwaukee and Cleveland and fallen in overtime to Washington and Milwaukee. Boston also looked positively shell-shocked on Dec. 9 after losing 124-119 in the Garden to a Denver Nugget team that hadn't won there since April 6, 1979.
Well, here's what you're up against, Big Two: You're each a big, juicy piece of red meat, and the rest of the league hasn't eaten in years. There's a genuine feeling out there that both the Lakers and the Celtics are vulnerable. Piston assistant coach Dick Versace felt it as he watched Detroit's 128-105 rout of Boston on Dec. 4. "For the first time I really believed we were the better team, and I never believed that before," Versace said. Other teams are having similar thoughts.
When you have to play hard every night—well, almost every night—it takes something out of you. Still, Bird feels that even an '80 or 90 percent effort would get us past most teams." Is he psyching himself or kidding himself? Certainly the Celtics raised their level of play against the Lakers, and maybe they'll continue to do so now that the situation has almost reached the desperation point. And perhaps all the Lakers needed to resume their winning ways was to beat Boston and to get closer to home—they can leave their watches on Pacific time until they play in Utah the day after Christmas.
"There's no need to get all worked up over this game," said Thompson on Friday night. "We'll all be back here in June."