Four thousand two hundred sixty-two games and never, ever a whupping like it. In Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series last Friday night, the No. 8-seeded Boston Celtics, they of the 16 NBA championship banners hanging from the rafters, lost by a franchise-record 47 points to the No. 1-seeded Orlando Magic, they of the three disco mirror balls suspended from the roof of the Orlando Arena. There haven't been so many red faces in Beantown since that Dukakis fellow lost by 30 states. After Friday's fiasco it appeared certain that Wednesday's Game 3 not only would mark the final basketball game at the condemned Boston Garden, but also that there might not be need for a wrecking ball. The old lady might just crumble on her own under the stress of the Shaq attack.
Then came Sunday afternoon in the Magic Kingdom, and the Celtics created their own Fantasyland, rejiggering the outcome from the opener a mere 54 points in their favor. Somehow they exorcised the 47-point loss and won by seven. Fortunately for Boston, nobody was harping on margins of victory. All that mattered was the line in agate type that read MAGIC 1, CELTICS 1 and the rather astounding fact that beside Game 4, to be played this Friday, it no longer read IF NECESSARY.
And Boston wasn't alone in its reversal of fortune. All around the first-round, best-of-five playoff landscape, lower-seeded visiting teams had been thrashed in a Game 1 and then, stunningly, had won a Game 2. After losing by 25 points to the No. 4-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the opener of their Western Conference series, the No. 5-seeded Los Angeles Lakers resurrected themselves with a two-point win in Game 2 (and on Monday night in L.A. took the series lead with a 105-101 triumph). In the Eastern Conference, after a 24-point drubbing in Game 1, the undermanned, overachieving, No. 6-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back to lull the No. 3-seeded New York Knicks into a 90-84 Game 2 upset (then the Knicks themselves rebounded to win Monday's Game 3 in Cleveland 83-81). The Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls (page 40) also stole one game each on the road (against, respectively, the higher-seeded Utah Jazz and Charlotte Hornets), but those victories were almost expected from two teams that together have collected the last four NBA titles.
There were still two minutes left in Celtic coach Chris Ford's nightmare at the O-rena on Friday when he conjured up the notion that his troops should meet later that evening in the ballroom of the team hotel to bear witness to the crime they had just committed. Ford, whose words often speak louder than his actions, didn't rant and rave this time—he simply screened the videotape of the Magic's 124-77 blowout. "When we were watching the film, he didn't raise his voice even once," said Celtic forward Dino Radja. "He didn't panic, so we didn't panic."
"I'm not a genius," Ford said. "I was going to watch the film anyway, so I figured I might as well have some company. I thought if the players just disbanded then, who knows what would have crept into their minds?"
Among the Magic tricks that Ford uncovered while watching the replay was Orlando's trapping of Boston point guard Sherman Douglas as he charged up the floor with the ball. The Magic's aim: to force a Celtic other than Douglas to create the offense. So Ford instructed shooting guard Dee Brown to bring the ball up and let Douglas run off the picks normally set for Brown. Douglas improved his production from eight points and six assists in the opener to 20 points and 15 assists.
Another critical move occurred during Saturday's practice when Radja asked Ford if he could return to the starting lineup. Radja had begged out of the starting five back in late March, believing he could be more effective off the pine (he was replaced by Derek Strong). But he craved a measure of revenge after being dominated by Orlando's Horace Grant in the opening playoff game, in which Radja scored but 10 points (17 below his season average against the Magic). Radja got his retaliation in Game 2, starting and winding up with 18 points and eight boards.
But the key to the Celtic game plan was simply to stay in the contest and monitor the heart of a Magic team that had lost three straight games to the Indiana Pacers in an opening-round collapse last season. Sure enough, in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Orlando looked as if it needed a defibrillator, shooting only 4 for 23 from the floor and sinking just one meaningless hoop during the game's final 5:29. Said Brown afterward, "They had some guys who looked like they didn't want to shoot the ball at the end."
As the Magic retreated to its locker room, the Orlando players could not ignore coach Brian Hill's cautionary pre-game message that was still on the blackboard. It reminded them that New York, Seattle and Utah had been vanquished at home the day before. At least the Magic had been forewarned.
One of those surprises noted on the blackboard had been manufactured by Los Angeles. Ironically, it was another Celtic beating, this one perpetrated by the men in green, that was used as inspiration to revive the Lakers after their 96-71 surrender in Thursday's Game 1. Following Friday's practice, L.A. vice president Magic Johnson and assistant coach Michael Cooper told the Lakers about the Memorial Day Massacre in 1985, in which Los Angeles lost by 34 points at the Boston Garden in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Magic, Coop, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Co. bounced back to win Game 2 and eventually captured the NBA title (chart, page 37). The current Lakers, many of whom were in grade school back then, nodded their heads and checked flight schedules back to L.A. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.