Cooper Stifles Bird

Los Angeles Lakers

31-15 (Won 2)
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Boston Celtics

32-11 (Lost 1)
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January 13, 1980

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In the first Lakers-Celtics game it was Jamaal Wilkes' defense that stymied Larry Bird. This time the defensive effort was provided by Michael Cooper.

The coach asked me if I wanted to start the second half. No way, Cooper said. Cooper deserved to play because of the job he was doing on Bird . Hey, we're a team. That's what we're all about." His main job is defense, and that is why one Michael Cooper was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday. It is why he wound up outshining Magic Johnson and sharing the limelight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It was one of the keys to the Lakers' stunning 100-98 defeat of the Celtics - stunning because of a 21-point third-quarter turnaround that seemingly couldn't happen against a Boston team playing before 15,320 fans at the Garden. There just aren't that many 6-foot-5 guards who can play so effectively against Larry Bird, especially considering that Bird didn't miss a shot for the first 24 minutes.

With 10:07 left in the third quarter, Boston had a 67-53 lead and CBS was beginning to wonder if there would be enough action in the second half to keep the network in contention in the ratings battle with the college game on NBC. That was before the Lakers ran off 21 straight points and Bird, who had gone 6 for 6 in the first half, found himself shadowed all over the court by Cooper, a Don Chaney-type defensive specialist who played only eight minutes last year because of a knee injury. Bird was 0 for 2 in the third quarter.

"I think if you look to one key to our turnaround," Laker coach Paul Westhead said afterwards, "it would be the job Cooper did on Bird. He had killed us in the first half, yet in the third quarter especially, Cooper went out and denied him the ball.

"Bird is such a great player and can do so many things. But he can't do it if he hasn't got the ball. We played defense and it got us back into our game. We got our break going off it, and we think we're one of the better fast-break teams in this league. I won't say we're better than the Celtics. But if we play defense, we can run with anybody."

The ploy has been tried many times against Bird, but its success has been marginal because the 6-9 Celtic forward is so strong that he can post most guards and simply overpower them. But for some reason, that didn't happen yesterday, and the rhythm, timing and shooting that had carried the Celtics to a 14-point lead all but vanished while the Lakers took charge.

Cooper's nine points and four rebounds tell little of the job he did against Bird. The former University of New Mexico star was not to be denied his moment of glory - not by the Celtics or the fan who accidentally doused his face with a cup of beer while Cooper was making a brilliant save of a loose ball.

"I had never played against Bird until I saw him last time in Los Angeles," said Cooper, "and a I couldn't have stopped him all by myself. I concentrated on denying him the ball. I'm quicker than he is, but I'm in trouble if they (the Celtics) start lobbing passes over my head. They never did. Maybe it was because they were worrying about the big guy (Abdul-Jabbar) in the middle blocking shots. Maybe it was because everybody was helping out on defense."

It was argued later that Bird wasn't the only one having his problems because of the Laker defense. The Celtics got only 12 points in the period, and hit only 5 of 28 attempts from the field. Not only was shot selection a problem, but so were execution and overall judgment against a Los Angeles club that was later described as "awesome." But to a national television audience and the Garden crowd, the feat of stopping Bird ranked right along with the 33-point effort by Abdul-Jabbar.

"They are a very good club," said Bird. "We can't say we're better than they are because they've beaten us twice now. What happened today was not one guy's fault. It was everybody's fault. I thought I might have been able to do more inside. But I never got the ball. The shots were there and we just didn't execute." Celtic coach Bill Fitch agreed that the Lakers' defense in the third quarter helped sink his club, but added that an obvious imbalance in foul calls, including one against Tiny Archibald with three seconds left, hurt the Celtics even more. Of the last 18 fouls, 15 were called against the Celtics.

"I can't even look at the tape of the last minute, it was so bad," said Fitch. "I'll give Los Angeles credit for taking advantage of a lot of breaks. It was too easy at first, and we overpassed. Larry passed up a lot of shots. There were a lot of things we simply didn't do. I used up all our timeouts trying to get the point across. I'd do it again if I thought it'd win for us."

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