Lakers' Coach Westhead Calls Loss a Piece of Art

January 19, 1981


Paul Westhead labeled the game a "piece of art," but the Laker mentor might have gone further and declared it a masterpiece had Jamaal Wilkes made one more shot.

What Might Have Been for the visitors from Tinsel Land was a 21-foot baseline jumper that spun out of the basket with two seconds left, enabling the Celtics to preserve yesterday afternoon's 98-96 triumph before 15,320 fortunate ticket holders, not to mention a national television audience. There was even a What Might Have Been II as well, because the Lakers insisted that there were at least two Boston fouls in the rebound scramble precipitated by the Wilkes miss.

The Lakers had gone to their Silent Assassin by virtue of his 14-for-18 shooting over the game's first 47 minutes and 51 seconds. Wilkes had done as much as anyone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar included, to give the Lakers a chance to become only the second team to emerge from the Garden with a victory this season. Thus, when Tiny Archibald made the second of two free throws with nine seconds left to put Boston ahead by a 98-96 score and the Lakers called their last timeout, the Celtics knew enough to expect Wilkes to be Los Angeles' prime target.

"We figured they would try to go to Jamaal in some way," explained Chris Ford. "And of course, they always have the option to go to Kareem."

Wilkes was easily freed along the baseline, and he let one fly. "It felt good and it looked good," declared the NBA's best unknown superstar. "In fact, I thought it was in." It was - for an instant. But it suddenly spun back out ("an Irish leprechaun blew it out, I guess" - Westhead), kicking off a fierce rebound struggle during which Abdul-Jabbar said he was fouled after grabbing the Wilkes rebound. Kareem (32 points, 12 rebounds) also said Michael Cooper, who came up with the ball after he lost it, was fouled.

But neither Joe Gushue nor Bob Rakel, two gentlemen who should have received five figures apiece for attempting to adjudicate this particular war, blew the whistle, and the Celtics staggered off with their eighth straight triumph and 20th in their last 21 decisions.

What this was, folks, was April in January. The game had a playoff feel from the start, when the uppity invaders hit the Celtics with a quick 10-2 blast. The 50 turnovers (as the teams lost a staggering total of 68 points on burns, 43 by LA) were often the result of superb defense or over-exuberance rather than sloppy play. There wasn't a player, coach, trainer, ballboy, policeman or vendor whose head and heart weren't into this gem of a game.

Boston's victory was notable inasmuch as a) LA led for most of the game, b) the Celtics had to overcome 61 percent first-half LA shooting and c) it was accomplished without much tangible aid from Larry (4-for-13) Bird. That the Celtics could record their 38th victory of the season was due to a revived team defense that held Los Angeles to 14 points and 30 percent (7-for-23) shooting in the fourth quarter, some key plays by Archibald (22 points, 7 assists), another big performance by Robert Parish (22 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks and some certified Clutch Plays) and, finally, one extremely vital shot by Ford.

The newly bearded backcourtman merely stuck a dagger in LA's heart by taking a Bird pass and barely beating the 24-second clock with a three-pointer that gave the Celtics a 97-94 lead with 58 seconds left, the ball having been provided courtesy of the Parish Heist Service, Inc. With the score tied at 94, Parish had deflected a Jim Chones pass and then saved it for the Celtics, turning it back over with 1:20 left. Precisely 22 seconds later, Ford came up with his timely bomb.

The Celtics appeared safe with 42 seconds left when Cedric Maxwell (22 quiet points and assorted coach-pleasing contributions) stole a pass, but the ever-dangerous Cooper got the ball back 12 seconds later by making a rear- entry steal from Archibald. With 22 seconds left, Abdul-Jabbar dropped in a short hook to make it 97-96.

The suspense heightened with nine seconds remaining when Archibald could only sink the second of two free-throw attempts, and the Celtics were forced to sweat out those final agonizing nine seconds, culminating in the noncalls underneath, before their victory was assured.

The Lakers, who led by checkpoint scores of 26-23, 59-53 and 82-76, had begun to lose their control of the game in the final four minutes of the third quarter. The Garden noise level increased conspicuously, and along with it the intensity of the Boston defense, following an LA 24-second violation at 3:41 of the third quarter (76-68, LA). It was at this point that the Celtics really got into this game, eventually taking their first second-half lead at 85-84 on a Parish inside three-pointer. LA came back with six straight, but the Celtics regrouped again and took a 92-90 lead on a Maxwell follow-up three-point play.

It was, in sum, a superb spectacle, one that did the league proud. "I don't think we can play with any more style," claimed Westhead. "I can't imagine anyone watching that failing to realize the quality of performance in our league."

And if Wilkes had nailed one more shot, they might still be out there.

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