It was a process that required almost surgical skill. Down by a point, seven seconds left. Sixteen banners above, deadwood below. Nothing could help them here, not the witches of Eastwick or even Jack Nicholson himself. Nothing but a sneak punch to the gut.
"I thought my best choice was to drive on him," said Magic Johnson, who maneuvered around Kevin McHale for a 12-foot hook with two seconds left that put the Lakers 50 yards ahead of the Celtics in the NBA Finals. "I didn't really see it go in because there was somebody in front of me."
He didn't see it go in because McHale, Robert Parish and Larry Bird all converged on the point of attack. He didn't see it go in because an entire Garden crowd dared the shot to be different.
"The release felt pretty good," said Johnson, who finished with a team- high 29 points and 8 rebounds. "But I never watched it. I'll have to see it some other time."
It was everything great finishes should be. Johnson hesitated on the left wing, decided what to do, then stutter-stepped around McHale and let his "junior, junior sky hook" go. When it fell through the hoop, the Laker bench erupted and Pat Riley pumped a fist that would have made Marvin Hagler take a second look.
"We were trying to do whatever was available," said Mychal Thompson after the game, "but if you put the ball in Magic's hands, it's going to be a great design play."
Johnson has always had the hook in his shot parade, but he never really used it until this year. Earlier in the playoffs, he beat Golden State with nearly the exact same shot. In the second period last night, he dropped a lefthanded version of his baby sky.
"I don't have the depth that Kareem has," he said. "I have to be within 7 or 8 feet."
Make that 12. Johnson's soar to the basket drove a blade through the Celtics' heart and gave them only two seconds to recover, only two seconds to score.
"I saw Larry's shot got up at the end, but I didn't think he was set," said Johnson of Bird's final attempt. "If he'd had another two seconds, I think it would have gone for him."
In Los Angeles, the memory of Johnson scoring probably will win Best Picture this year. And it wasn't even the shot Riley wanted.
"James Worthy was our first look," said the coach. "Michael Cooper had him open for one count but didn't force the pass. Magic was open for a jumper but he went back into the lane. When it licked the net, it was amazing. This is about as emotional a game as I have ever been involved in."
From the beginning of the game, Johnson showed his cheeky, cocky charm. His sixth point pulled the Lakers within 2, 17-15 and his 10 points in the second quarter made it 55-47, Celtics, at the half. Johnson had totaled 19 of LA's 47 points, the only Laker in double figures. And down the stretch, he was always murderously there. With 29 seconds left, his alley-oop pass to Kareem Abdul- Jabbar put the Lakers ahead by 1, 104-103. His running hook ended it all.
"We'd been standing around too much in the beginning of the game," he said. "We were fumbling and missing and dropping the ball. We had to calm ourselves."
They calmed themselves, all right, calmed themselves into a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Johnson said he and Bird are the type of players "who'll do whatever it takes to win, who aren't afraid to take the last shot."
Score one for the California cooler with the baby sky.