Lakers Rally from 17 Down, Beat Celtics

February 16, 1987

Section: SPORTS



What took place here yesterday afternoon at the Fabulous Forum bore about as much resemblance to the joke Celtics blowouts of Denver, Golden State and Portland as Bruce Springsteen has to some third- string lounge act in Brighton.

But the grandeur was better appreciated by the Los Angeles Lakers, who came from 17 points back midway through the third quarter and who received some MVP play from Magic Johnson in the last two minutes to escape with a 106-103 triumph over the Celtics. "It was," said a very emotional Magic, "the type of game that doesn't happen all the time."

You'll never glean from the box score the tenor, fervor, pitch, tempo and sheer sweat engendered by this game. It was a demonstration of class and professionalism the Dallases, Houstons, Atlantas and Milwaukees aspire to.

The Lakers won it with a run of 8-2 after a free throw by Danny Ainge had given the Celtics a lead of 97-94 with 2:27 remaining. Six of those points were supplied by the Magic Man, who hit a set shot (97-96, 2:05), a coast-to- coast spinning lay-up (98-97, LA, 1:29) and, finally, another set shot behind a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pick with 23 seconds left that gave LA a 102-99 lead.

Magic finished with 39 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, and the Lakers needed everything he could give them because they got very little (until, typically, when it was most needed in the fourth quarter) from Abdul-Jabbar, who was 1 for 8 entering the fourth quarter and who needed 8 points in the final seven minutes to extend his double-figures scoring streak to 743 games.

But this is clearly Magic's year, and, in the end, it was Magic's game. "There will be other opinions about who should be the MVP," said Kareem, "but I think Magic would be a sound choice for it."

The second set shot gave LA a necessary three-point cushion they were able to live on for the rest of the game. Robert Parish scored twice, but each Boston basket, time out and subsequent personal foul was answered by a pair of free throws, first by Kareem (104-101 at :14) and then by Magic (106-103 at :04). The Celtics had one time out left and were able to get off a last attempt, but Larry Bird's only field goal try of the fourth period, a 30- footer at the buzzer, hit the backboard and bounded off the rim.

The Celtics were left with the unpleasant task of explaining how a 17-point (75-58) lead with 5:41 remaining in the third quarter had turned into such a disappointing loss, and the rationalizations varied.

"We made some bad decisions," said Danny (3 for 11) Ainge, "and they are a team that can strike fast."

"Hard to play when your big men (Kevin McHale and Parish) are in foul trouble," grumped K.C. Jones.

And then there was the opinion of Bird, who is not noted for his sugar- coated analysis. "We lost our composure for a while in the third quarter," he decided.

For two and a half periods, the Celtics were doing unto the Lakers much as they had done unto the Nuggets, Warriors and Trail Blazers, which is to say they were getting the ball in low (although not without great difficulty in the face of determined LA post defense) and then getting it back out to open men for jump shots. Dennis Johnson (22 points, 10 rebounds in a classic DJ big game performance) also was taking it to the hoop when the opportunity presented itself, and sometimes when it didn't.

The result was a 32-28 first-quarter lead, a 58-50 halftime lead (on Ainge's three-pointer with one second left) and that aforementioned 75-58 lead via a 17-8 third-quarter start. Considering the quality of the opposition, the Celtics were playing as well as they've played all year.

But after scoring 75 points in the first 30:19, the Celtics were limited to 28 points in the final 17:41. One reason was they simply turned cold after hitting 28 of their first 48 shots. Another is they had to play the final two- plus minutes of the third quarter without both McHale and Parish, each of whom picked up a fourth personal foul via the offensive route.

But the biggest reason was the Lakers simply awoke and took the game away from them. "We started taking the ball to the basket," pointed out coach Pat Riley. "We just put our heads down and went. That aggressiveness got us back in the game -- that, plus their cold spell."

From the Boston perspective, the last half of Period 3 was not pretty. The Lakers got three shots before two free throws by Michael Cooper made it 78-64. Parish (78-66) and McHale (78-68) were called for those offensive fouls, and McHale made it worse by drawing a technical. Bird missed two free throws at 78-69, a very bad omen. Things continued to deteriorate until Magic sent the crowd into a frenzy with a halfcourt buzzer-beating three-pointer that sent the Lakers into the final period down by only four (81-77).

LA was not going to allow either McHale (16 of his 23 in the first half) or Bird (19 of his 20 in the first three periods) to beat them by scoring. Each post-up or isolation drew a double- or triple-team, and for a while the Celtics made the Lakers pay via jumpers from Johnson or Jerry Sichting.

LA got its first lead at 86-85 on a Cooper three-pointer, and the Lakers got a big lift when Kareem came off the bench to hit two hooks (89-88 and 91-90, Boston). Later on, the Big Fella put the Lakers ahead to stay at 100-99 (:58) with a left-box runner when Parish played him for the hook toward the middle.

Another major contributor was newcomer Mychal Thompson, who gave LA 29 valuable bench minutes (10 points, 4 rebounds). Without him, no W.

Settled for the moment is the matter of the league's best record. It now belongs to LA, at 38-12. Settled, too, is the issue as to which NBA matchup presents the most epic confrontation.

Now that this thing is over, each respective titan can resume the normal butt-kicking of all those ordinary teams, while their fans and the basketball public at large can dream how great it would be if they could meet more often.

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