The Celtics have now beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in The Forum and in Boston Garden, in transition and in half-court, from the outside and from the inside, with their superstars and with their scrubs, in sickness and in health. It now behooves the defending NBA champions to return to their drawing board and their video library and devise a way to whip these guys in green—but it is not immediately apparent how that can be done.
"Right now," says the Lakers' Magic Johnson, "there's no doubt that Boston is a much better team."
No doubt at all. On Sunday in Los Angeles the Celtics beat the Lakers 105-99, a result far more significant than Boston's 110-95 home-court rout of L.A. on Jan. 22. While the Lakers had vengeance as a motive and their own celebrity-strewn playhouse to show off in, the Celtics had power forward Kevin McHale on the bench with an Achilles injury and an exhausting road trip (Sunday's game was their fourth of seven on a western swing) as potential alibis. Logic seemed to say: Laker victory, 1-1 season series, no psychological edge for either when the playoffs roll around. But at crunch time Sunday it was the Lakers who raised the gloves and said, "No m�s."
Why? Is 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar too old to handle the Celtics' double-trouble center tandem of Robert Parish and Bill Walton? Abdul-Jabbar had 23 points on Sunday but only seven in the second half, during which he raised his season airball total against the Celtics to four, two in each game. Is the bruised right knee that has kept Magic out of seven games since Jan. 15 a serious problem? Johnson wound up with a stat line perilously close to a triple-single: six points (including zero field goals), six rebounds and 12 assists.
Is the vaunted Laker reserve strength a myth? Byron Scott, now coming off the bench as the third guard, spent more time on Sunday trying to KO the pesky Jerry Sichting than he did making jump shots and running on the break—he had 10 points on 11 shots to go with no assists. Maurice Lucas, who was hired to crash the Celtics off the boards, played six minutes and had one rebound. A.C. Green, the rookie battery charger, played nine minutes and had no points, one rebound.
Finally—firstly, really—the No. 1 question for the Lakers, and everybody else in the NBA, for that matter, is: How do you handle Larry Bird? On Sunday, Bird merely grabbed 18 rebounds, twice as many as Abdul-Jabbar, 11 more than James Worthy, four more than Parish-Walton. Fourteen came at the defensive end, where Bird played his customarily heady, in-the-paint-and-out one-man zone. He scored just 22 points, but there are only so many even a superstar can get over one weekend. Two nights earlier in Portland, in a performance that showed how high he can soar above mere mortals, Bird sank a 15-footer to put the game into overtime and made the winning basket in a 120-119 victory. His point total for the evening: 47. What's scary about Larry—and the Celtics—is what Bird said after Sunday's game: "I thought as a team we could have played better today."
No player is more influenced by Bird's heavy mettle than Walton. Consider how they two-timed Worthy down the stretch. The forward got his 34th and 35th points on a dunk with 4:26 left, cutting Boston's lead to 100-94. At 3:51 the Celtics called time and Bird was selected to check Worthy for the first time in the game. He promptly made his presence felt—Michael Cooper calls Bird a "wide-body"—and Worthy missed a jumper.
Typically, both teams tried to play down the significance of the rematch. Abdul-Jabbar: "One game during the regular season is not going to change things too much." Boston coach K.C. Jones: "This game means nothing more than just another Laker-Celtic game." Balderdash. Both teams were well aware that the seat of NBA power had taken a transcontinental journey eastward.
"See, the regular season tells you different things," said Magic after the game, icebag taped to his right knee. "Now, we know we have to make little readjustments in our defense."
But what readjustments can the Lakers make? Boston, 41-9 at week's end, is playing like a team without the weaknesses that enabled the Lakers to beat them in the NBA finals last season. The Celtics have: