Lakers Win Battle of Good v. Great

December 16, 1989

Section: SPORTS


Some rivalries never die, and the Celtics vs. the Lakers may well be one of them.

Let's just say the "Beat LA" chant is terminally ill.

The Garden crowd was reduced to a whisper last night by the Lakers, who blew open the game in the fourth quarter, then cruised off the parquet with a 119-110 win.

Leading the charge was Magic Johnson, who scored 16 points, handed out 21 assists and made 6 steals, and James Worthy, the fluid forward who torched Boston for 28 points. In spite of their gaudy numbers, those two were only part of the story.

The other half included a string of perimeter jumpers from A.C. Green (8 for 12, 25 points), who normally makes his living in and around the paint, and even more outside shooting from Byron Scott (9 for 15, 21 points). In all, LA shot 54.3 percent from the floor and simply outmatched the Celtics with smarts, ball movement and quickness. The Lakers did all that without a center in their starting lineup, since Mychal Thompson was sidelined with an inflamed Achilles' tendon.

"I didn't know what to expect coming in," said Larry Bird. "But this is the first time I can honestly say they are better."

"I don't know of anyone playing better than that," said Robert Parish.

These rare admissions of Laker supremacy were with good reason. There's an overused cliche in sports, and it's called the killer instinct. It separates good teams from great teams, which these days is the same as separating Boston from LA.

What the Lakers did to the Celtics on their own floor was rip their heart out. They did it quietly and swiftly in the opening minute of the final quarter.

What happened in those first 60 seconds? The Lakers dropped a neutron bomb on the Celtics, blowing them to pieces with a back-door lob from Magic Johnson to Orlando Woolridge for a 3-point play, a trifecta from Scott with the shot clock winding down and a Vlade Divac steal, which quickly (and we stress the quickly here) turned into a fast break bucket from Worthy.

A stunned Jimmy Rodgers called time, his team suddenly down, 93-82. The way LA was playing on the defensive end, it was nearly impossible to expect the slower, more deliberate Celtics to make up the difference in the final 11 minutes.

As for the Lakers' offense, it was close to flawless when they needed it most. The visitors scored on their first five possessions of the final quarter, culminated by a Divac bucket underneath that extended that opening run to a 10-0 streak and a 97-82 cushion with 10:04 to play. Down the stretch, Magic took the ball to the hole, drew a pile of defenders, then kicked it back to a teammate on the wing for an open jumper.

In that final frame, the Lakers shot 57.1 percent from the floor. The Celtics? They checked out at 37.5 percent.

"That's how it's been going for us," said Green. "Earvin draws double-teams and we spot up. If we can hit those shots, it makes it tough to stop us."

It is particularly hard to stop a team when you turn the ball over 17 times, as Boston did. It becomes more complicated when your top gun, Bird, shoots 9 for 27 from the floor. Add a 32-13 disparity on trips to the line that favored LA, and it's clear why this game turned out the way it did.

The bad vibes were evident at halftime, when the Lakers ran off with a 60-55 edge even though the Celtics shot 62.8 percent from the floor. At that juncture, no Boston player could keep up with Worthy (16 at the break) long enough to stick a hand in his face. The goggled forward ignited an 8-0 spurt in the waning minutes of the second quarter to provide LA with its 5-point spread.

"The Lakers played tremendous," said Rodgers. "Defensively, we did everything we wanted. We got them to take the outside shot, and it seemed like they hit all of them."

That, of course, wasn't by accident. Magic moves the ball better than anyone else the league. The Lakers make better decisions than anyone else the league. They also back up their offense with active, bothersome, hands-up defense.

In short, they do everything the Celtics have been trying to do for the past two months.

"The Lakers swing the ball and get it to who they want to," said Jim Paxson. "If you take something away, they react. From a basketball perspective, that's how you want it to work.

"When we call a play, we don't switch sides often enough to make it work. We rush shots we don't have."

Good teams and great teams. There was one of each on the floor last night, and for the boys in green trim, it was a little hard to swallow.

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