June 3, 1987
LAKERS BREAK CELTICS' BACKS LA RUNS BOSTON DOWN
How do they put it in legal shop talk? "Worst Case Scenario"?
It was worse than worse. It was a horrifyingly Worst Case Scenario at the Forum last night when the Celtics found themselves used as foils for one of the great fast break exhibitions ever seen in the NBA playoffs. The Lakers scored the game's first 9 points and never allowed the game to get any closer than 12 in the final 34 minutes as they cruised to a 126-113 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
Answered in this game were any questions surrounding the prolonged Los Angeles layoff (no games in eight days and four in 21), as well as any doubts about what would happen to the Celtics should they fail to play a brilliant offensive game. Boston was cooked as soon as its first few shots started clanging off the rim. There were very, very few second-shot ooiprtunities afforded them in this game, and any they did get were long after the fact; in oither words, any time after the midway point of the second quarter.
"I think it was apparent we had a lot of energy," said LA coach Pat Riley, who probably had spent half the night before worrying about the potentially debilitating effect of the LA layoff. "You never know what to expect in these situations. I was worried about our ability to catch the ball and react. But our running game was sharp. The players were committed to running. The teams sparred for the first few minutes. The Lakers actually misconnected on their first three fast break attempts. The first basket of the game was a little jump hook in the lane by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who then ignited the real LA attack by blocking/goaltending? a Kevin McHale shot and starting a fast break that culminated in a second-chance basket by James Worthy, who helped himself to a game-high 33 points, almost all of the baskets on an infinite variety of 2-foot shots.
The Lakers jumped into that 9-0 lead, expanded it to 23-13 (a total that included 15 fast break points) and exited the first quarter with a 35-26 lead. The most telling figure was four fast break baskets after Boston scored. Nothing demoralizes a team more.
"We all put a lot of emphasis on hitting baskets back on them," pointed out Worthy.
"When we called our first timeout (9-0, 9:27 left in the first quarter)," said Larry Bird (32 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists), "I knew we had to start getting back faster. We just couldn't beat them up and down the floor."
While Worthy was drawing the fans' attention with his dunks and swooping drives, the man with the keys to the engine was, of course, Magic Johnson. He was the one pushing the ball up the floor and commanding most of Boston's attention. Let's set the record straight; James Worthy is good, but he is very fortunate to be playing with Magic Johnson, not the other way around. The Celtics were never in the game after the initial 9-0 run. It was a matter of how close the scoreboard was. Whenever Boston would make the slightest push to make the score interesting, the Lakers would simply downshift and embarrass the Celtics in what Riley loves to label "skirmishes." But that military term suggests some sort of mutual fire. Those weren't "skirmishes" going on out there; those were target practices.
The most devastating of those "skirmishes" came when a Sam Vincent second-quarter drive created a 39-30 LA spread. This innocent shot must have struck some kind of nerve in the LA psyche, because what happened after that wasn't nice. Worthy almost immediately spun in for a three-point play. Two Boston turnovers created two more Worthy transition baskets. Finally, Worthy pitched the ball from the left box to a spotted-up, unguarded Michael Cooper. Mr. Three-Point calmly swished a home run ball. The Lakers had just run off 10 points.
In 66 seconds.
Now it was 49-30, and the show time had only begun. For when A.C. Green retrieved a Boston miss, he quickly handed the ball off to Cooper, who had circled behind him along the baseline. It was as if he were Gretzky and he had just picked the puck up behind the net. Cooper dribbled upcourt at top speed and, one step inside the three-point arc, he pulled up for a 21-footer that touched, as they say, nothing but net. That capped the run at 12 straight, and the rest of the game was conversation as far as the final outcome was concerned. Almost lost in the local rush to crown the Lakers the Team of the Century was an inspired performance by Bird, who made 11 shots in succession, the last four in the half and all seven in the third period. He scored 26 points in the span of 16:26, and without that hot streak, this easily could have gone into the books as one of those 40-point humiliations instead of the gentle 13-point drubbing it turned out to be.
But Bird's showing had no effect on the overall outcome. What mattered were the 17 LA fast break points in the first quarter, and the 12 transition points the Lakers added in the second. The Lakers had watched Milwaukee and Detroit run on Boston, and they had no doubts they could run even more.
"I was disappointed with our effort," Bird said. "This isn't Detroit or Atlanta we're playing. It's the Los Angeles Lakers, probably the best team in the league. It's going to take a great effort on our part and we just didn't have that."
For his part, Riley was careful to play the role of Gracious Conqueror, sort of like General Grant at Appomatox. "All we did," Riley claimed, "was light a fire under the Celtics. "They're gonna come hard and heavy Thursday night; you can believe that."
After what he just saw, you've got to wonder what he really thinks.