21-0 Run Spells Doom for Celtics

January 14, 1980

A majestic basketball game deserves a more fitting climax than a questionable call that places a man on the foul line with the score tied and three seconds remaining - for being fouled on the passoff.

And yet the fact that it was two foul shots by Norm Nixon, and not, say, a sweeping hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an up-fake jumper by Jamaal Wilkes (or even one of Nixon's artful drives) that decided yesterday's Celtic-Laker extravaganza hardly diminished the impact of this superb contest. It's just that it would have been nice to end the proceedings without controversy.

But you pays your money and you takes what you get in this league, and what the 15,320 hoop worshipers got at the Garden yesterday was a spectacular second-half performance by the Lakers. They injected themselves into the game with a memorable run of 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, then outlasted the Celtics in a dramatic final period of play to earn a 100-98 triumph on the aforementioned foul shots by Nixon, who, according to referee Jack Madden, was slapped by Nate Archibald while trying to divest himself of the basketball.

When the media horde descended upon the Celtic locker room, Bill Fitch was engaging in self-flagellation, torturng himself by running the taped replay of the game's final minute. "There's no way that was a foul," lamented Fitch. "The man has both hands at his sides and they call a foul. This one will be hard to digest."

The indigestion had begun to set in back in the first half, when the Celtics somehow managed to shoot a dazzling 63 percent from the floor and accumulate nothing better than a 62-51 halftime lead. Such occurrences are almost invariably omens of imminent disaster in the NBA, and in the third quarter the tidal wave struck. For once Chris Ford stuck in a 20-footer from the left at 10:07 to give the Celtics a 67-53 lead, the Celtics would go 7:46 without scoring again.

By the time Archibald (13 points, 10 assists) broke the drought with a banker from the lane, LA had ripped off 21 of the most eye-popping points the old edifice has ever seen - especially by an opponent. During this stretch, the Lakers of Paul Westhead were nothing less than a two-way basketball machine. They were overplaying, helping out, switching, harassing and just generally dominating the Celtics on defense, and when the ball turned over, they were throwing in shots guaranteed to win any H-O-R-S-E game ever staged.

"Our defense triggered it," said Westhead, "but when it's going like that it's a reciprocal thing between the offense and the defense." The particular individual defensive contribution of note was submitted by young Michael Cooper, who affixed himself to Larry Bird like the stamp on an envelope. Bird had started off the game by throwing in three great shots, and he was 6 for 6 at the half. "Michael did an outstanding job of denying Larry the ball," explained Westhead. "We have a lot of respect for Larry, and I told Michael that if Bird was going to score, it would be on a back-cut. Sometimes players are afraid to overplay that much because they're afraid they'll get beaten, but the other players promised him they'd help out, and I told him I'd take responsibility for any back-door baskets Bird got."

Bird went 0 for 2 in that fateful third quarter. "He had some shot opportunities," countered Fitch, "but he didn't take them. Nobody can stop Larry one on one." At any rate, a mind-blowing turnaround by Jim Chones (15 valuable bench points) gave LA a lead at 69-67 (its first since 2-0), and the Lakers would lead for the next five minutes before a Dave Cowens fast-break basket restored the Celtics' lead at 80-79 with 10:05 to play.

This touched off a brief flurry of lead-swapping before a Chones basket gave LA an 83-82 lead. It was tied as late as 91-all (4:09 left), before LA ran off seven straight (including one on an ill-advised Fitch technical at 93-91). But the Celtics gave it one last shot, coming from that 98-91 state of affairs with 2:17 left to tie the game at 98 apiece on a spectacular fast- break basket by Cedric Maxwell with 21 seconds to play.

All that remained, however, was a wait until the Archibald foul, a call disputed by Boston, but a call that could not change the fact that Madden and Ed Rush had worked a great ballgame. The Celtics were out of timeouts (Fitch had called three in the third period during the LA blitz), and still Cowens got off a makeable 20-footer that hit the rim as the buzzer sounded.

Only a hopeless Celtic fanatic would deny the Lakers credit. For Magic Johnson had limped his way through 21 unproductive minutes (with what was laughingly referred to as a "groin pull"), and they had still banked a tough road victory. Hell, even Kareem looked excited when it was over.

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