The seeds for Boston's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA finals yesterday were first sown on April 17, when the Celticstook the floor to face the Washington Bullets in their first-round series.
Washington was the first of three Celtics' opponents whose chosen playing style was of the walk-it-up variety. For all four games of the Washington series, all seven of the Knicks' series and all five of the Milwaukee series, the Celtics were dealing with slow-tempo basketball, and yesterday they paid the price - defensively.
Playing teams that eschew the fast break has two important ramifications. The first is that you risk frustration because you can't run enough to suit your personnel. The second is that you lose the fear that the other guy will run you. For six weeks and 16 games the Celtics seldom had to worry about being victimized by the quick hitter, as Tom Heinsohn might say. And then came the Lakers.
How long did it take for this to become a factor? Try, oh, 20 seconds. The Celtics scored on their first possession, 15 seconds into the game, when Larry Bird took a pass underneath. LA took the ball out of bounds, and faster than you could say "Bob Cousy," Magic Johnson was feeding a streaking Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, of all people, for a sneakaway lay-up three-point play. Five seconds had elapsed after the Bird basket. And what was Kareem doing barreling downcourt? Most teams assume they can run him, not the other way around.
"We run, too," he said. "I'm not usually the guy running, but it worked out like that."
It worked out for eight more fast-break points as LA was stepping out to a 28-10 lead. The Celtics' offense-to-defense transition was, to be polite, wretched.
"In those first three series," pointed out LA assistant coach Dave Wohl, "the Celtics didn't face a consistent running team. They obviously weren't used to the transition. They weren't adjusting mentally to our movement. By the time they did, we had already taken two strides. And we stressed running. In the huddle we'd keep telling our guys, Push it, push it.' "
The Celtics weren't buried under an avalanche of LA fast-break baskets, since the final Laker point tally on transition was 28. But LA hurt them badly in certain strategic bursts, such as in the beginning of the fourth quarter.
When Larry Bird hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the third period, the Celtics, who had trailed on four third-period occasions by 19 points, were now within four at 92-88. The crowd was frenzied. The Laker response was to produce two immediate Byron Scott fast-break baskets off Celtic misses.
But the real killers were the next two LA baskets of the period. A Robert Parish fast-break jumper cut the LA lead to 96-92 when Kareem again sneaked away on the in-bounds pass to dunk one. Parish connected on a follow-up, and once again LA scored right out of the Celtic bucket, this time with Jamaal Wilkes taking a feed from the ever-dangerous Magic Johnson. This, of course, is an ancient Celtic tactic - running a fast break directly after the other team scores - and it is always a shock to see someone do it to them. But, given the dual circumstances at work here, it's not so surprising.
That's because the Lakers are coming here two nights after completing a two-way fast-break series with Phoenix, whereas the Celtics were still shaking off the effects of their 16 games at waltz tempo.
"I would have to believe those other three series had something to do with our readiness to get back into that kind of pace," admitted Celtics assistant Jimmy Rodgers. "That's not an excuse, but it's still relevant."
Another factor is the weird look LA gives you. "You've got different defensive matchups than you normally would," said assistant coach Chris Ford. "We had decided to have our people guard the same guy who was guarding them, but for some reason we didn't seem to pick up our men well at all, and sometimes we were lost in the transition."
This failure of the Celtics to respond adequately to a team playing its own style is not a unique athletic phenomenon. Many good offensive rebounders, for example, fail to block out very well on the boards at the defensive end. We may have to leave the whys and wherefores of this to the sports psychologists.
The important thing for the Celtics is to eliminate this failing before Game 2 on Thursday. "Fortunately," said Rodgers, "we'll have three or four days to, if nothing else, run wind sprints."