February 15, 1988
LAKERS BREAK AWAY FROM CELTICS
The moral of the story is: Hang around long enough, you'll see everything.
In this particular case, you'd see the Lakers impose a suffocating first-half defense that triggers a 20-point (64-44) halftime lead. Next you'd see the Celtics play a Michelangelo of a third period, wiping out the deficit with a 36-12 whomping that sends them into the final period leading by 4 (80-76). Finally, you'd see the Lakers demonstrate why they are defending champions (with the best chance to repeat in recent memory) by charging out of the fourth-quarter box with runs of 9-0 (in the first 1:44), 17-4, 20-7 and 31-11, all of which leads to a 115-106 victory in a game that will find its way high onto any list of "Oddities" in this historic rivalry.
"I have never had anything like that happen to a team of mine," said LA coach Pat Riley after yesterday's triumph. "You get 20-point leads where you might give up 12 or 16. But to have a 24-point swing in a game like this is incredible. It's a testimony to the Celtics, the fact that they never give up."
So what does it say about Riley's team, which responded to the challenge like, well, champs? "We never really panic anymore," explained Magic Johnson (22 points, 14 assists). That's from our years of being together. The key was to get a fast start in the fourth period. Once we did that, the whole momentum just changed. We got two big steals after our first basket, and that's what turned it around."
That's no lie. Mychal Thompson (12 points, team-high 11 rebounds) evaded a steal attempt and stuck in a short banker on the first LA possession of Period 4. Dirk Minniefield (3 turnovers, 1 assist) missed connections with Brad Lohaus, and Byron Scott (a first-half killer with 20 points) scored in transition. The next Boston possession was key, and it ended in disaster when Michael Cooper deflected a Larry Bird pass to Danny Ainge (Bird insisted he was fouled). Magic converted the turnover to give the Lakers a lead (82-80) they would never relinquish.
It was a bloodless coup. Without firing a shot, the Celtics handed over the parliamentary keys to the opposition.
The aforementioned momentum shift was irrevocable. The Lakers had regained their desire and ability to play stifling defense, and they were once again the free-and-easy offensive team they had been during the first half. But Boston kept battling, and with 6:17 left a Kevin McHale turnaround pulled the Celtics within 5 at 96-91. Here Scott, en route to a career-high 38 points, drilled an open three-pointer resulting from exemplary ball movement (99-91), and when Minniefield couldn't convert a drive over the long arm of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Scott converted two free throws in the subsequent transition. That made it 101-91 with 5:30 left, and the rest was for the stat man.
From a Boston viewpoint, the first half was strictly for the junk man. The Celtics led early (8-4), but that little advantage disappeared in the face of a 12-0 LA run that established the tone for the remainder of the half. Boston simply couldn't combat the superb LA team defense, which was particularly effective against Bird, whose every shot in the paint, or near it, was contested by more than one gold jersey.
"They were always there if I got the ball and spun in the middle," lauded Bird.
"The first half," agreed Riley, "was as well as we've played all year defensively. There was a hand in every face."
But what was this third-quarter thing all about? How was it that McHale outscored the Lakers in their own gym (14-12), while Bird was outrebounding them (7-6)? How was it that LA scored a season-low 12 points, at home, while shooting 24 percent (5 for 21)? How was it that the Celtics ended a sensational period's work by outscoring the champs, 16-3, in the final 3:38 while the frosty Bird (8 for 22) was enjoying the show from the bench? How was it that the Celtics accomplished all this without Robert Parish, who departed complaining of lower back pain after playing an ineffective eight minutes?
"We became very terminal," contended Riley, ever the wordsmith. "We had no motion at all."
Added general manager Jerry West, "That's what good teams do when they're on a roll. They get you standing around."
It certainly was a 12 minutes to remember, and it crested when an Ainge three-point bomb cut the lead to 1 (76-75), an illegal defense technical foul shot tied it for the first time since 8-8 and a lefty tap-in by the relentless (24 points, 11-for-14) McHale put the Celtics ahead.
But there were still 12 long minutes to play, and the Lakers excel at one-upmanship, even if the opponent is Boston.
"We had to beat them twice," said a relieved Riley. "It's hard enough to beat them once."