Did Magic Choke?
May 31, 1984
Magic Johnson went out into the oppressively rainy night insisting he had not made a mistake, and perhaps he hadn't. He had been caught in a situation that cried, not for prestidigitation, but for a hardcore basketball move to be made.
There was no rabbit to be pulled out of a hat, but there was history to be made and not even the Los Angeles Lakers, as agonizingly close as they were, were able to make it.
NBA Championship Series history is safe for another year. Once the Boston Celtics had stolen away with their 124-121 overtime victory, the Lakers could only frustratingly stare at the reality of having had a golden chance of becoming the first team ever to start a title series with back-to-back victories away from home.
''Any time you have a one-game lead, you're up two points with 18 seconds to go in the second half and have the ball, and don't win, you have to be disappointed,'' Johnson said.
How about a tie game with 13 seconds left and the ball in the hands of the sport's best and tallest lead guard?
How about the regulation buzzer sounding before Magic, or anybody else, could so much as launch a potential game-winner?
''I didn't make a mistake,'' Johnson said, leaving the legend of Derek Harper to wave alone in the wind. Harper is the young Dallas guard who didn't take a shot at the end of a playoff game against the Lakers, believing his team had the lead, then learning he had driven his weary teammates into an overtime with which they were unable to cope.
In a game where seemingly everything else happened, Johnson says that's one thing that did not happen.
''We had called a timeout, called a play to get it into Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar),'' he said. ''The Celtics were overplaying, the clock kept going down. The 24-second clock (atop the backboard) was off, because there were less than 24 seconds remaining. There was another clock I kept peeking at, but I lost (sight of) it, maybe with about four seconds left. Maybe when I knew I couldn't go to Kareem and looked for (Bob) McAdoo.
''But it wasn't a mistake. I wasn't gonna let 'em steal it, I wasn't gonna turn it over, I wasn't gonna give them a chance to win. I really believed, if we had to, we could win in OT. This was a game that was in our hands, and we couldn't do what we wanted with it. It isn't any one person's fault, it's all of our faults. Sometimes things like this happen.''
This is a best-of-seven series that already is approaching legendary proportions as it careens out to Inglewood, Calif., for Game 3 Sunday at the Forum. The Lakers, unfurling a spectacular cannonade, had refused to lose Game 1. The Celtics, having had to wait four grueling days to get even, had equally refused to lose Game 2.
That explains why the Lakers were unable to put this one away, despite a marvelous 29-point performance by James Worthy, a 27-point, 10-rebound, 9-assist effort by Johnson, 20 points by Abdul-Jabbar, 16 points by McAdoo and an excellent 13-point contribution by Jamaal Wilkes.
That explains why the Celtics evened things with double-figure scoring jobs from eight of the nine players used by coach K.C. Jones. And it explains why guard Gerald Henderson managed to intercept a pass by Worthy and drop in the tying field goal with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. And why the Celtics had one more round of stifling defense left in their arsenal.
Cedric Maxwell had come out to face Johnson. Robert Parish was overplaying Abdul-Jabbar. Kevin McHale was on McAdoo.
And Johnson, who always has someplace to go for one final piece of excellence, had nowhere left.
''He was probably counting down the time in his head,'' said Lakers assistant coach Dave Wohl. ''We were yelling from the bench, but in that noise (14,890, the Boston Garden's 169th consecutive sellout crowd), he obviously couldn't hear us.
''Give the Celtics credit. We had two chances and didn't win. We had 'em in the coffin. As McHale said during their series with New York, we had 'em buried and had to keep shoveling the dirt on. But we didn't.
''But when you think about it, they had said in the papers that they had to look at us as muggers trying to come into their home, and even though we didn't get the win, we showed we could handle a supposed mugging and not get dominated. We're going home with a 1-1 series, but it may as well be zero-zero, because it's even.''
Larry Bird, playing 49 of the evening's 53 minutes, led the Celtics with 27 points and 13 rebounds, Parish scored 18, Maxwell had 16 points and 12 rebounds, Danny Ainge exploded off the bench with 12 points and five assists in 25 minutes, and Scott Wedman sent down a 15-foot baseline jumper with 14 seconds left in OT that gave them the lead for good.
And just in case anybody thought that was all the Celtics had to offer, Parish stripped McAdoo at 0:05, and Bird dropped in the final two free throws at 0:02.
Pat Riley, the Lakers' coach, talked quietly about the value of having split the first two games away from home, the comfort of going to the Forum for the next two, the challenge of maintaining - and even gaining - an advantage.
''We got what we wanted,'' he said, ''but we could have gotten more. This game was for men only. But what happened at the end of regulation is something that has never happened to us, where we never got a shot, or even a turnover.
''It has to be a tremendous boost for the Celtics. We let 'em up out of the grave. But they had something to do with it. They applied such pressure to Kareem, he was almost out to a high post. They had Maxwell, who's 6-8 and has long arms, on Magic. The passing lanes were suddenly shortened up, everybody else was denied and the clock was ticking down. The one thing I know for sure is, I will never forget tonight. I will never forget it.''
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