The Los Angeles lakers sent another purple-and-gold dagger through the defenses of the Boston Celtics on Sunday at the Forum. And though L.A.'s 106-103 victory by no means broke the heart of the defending NBA champions, it certainly drew a little blood.
Do you think the Celtics, who pride themselves on their grace under pressure, enjoyed blowing a 17-point third-quarter lead? Think they were happy watching Magic Johnson dribble under, around and through them for driving layups, then follow up with victory dances that would be banned in the NFL? And what could be less fun than seeing the Lakers' most recent acquisition, Mychal Thompson, play like a veteran down the stretch, in stark contrast to a Celtic bench that collectively produced two fewer points than Thompson (10-8) and the same number of rebounds (4)?
"They're the best team in the league right now," said Celtic coach K.C. Jones. And what does that make one Earvin Johnson, called Buck by most of his teammates? "The best player in the league right now," said Boston guard Danny Ainge. Case closed on both counts. When the Lakers beat the Celtics 117-110 in their first meeting, in Boston Garden on Dec. 12, Magic scored 31. His line on Sunday read 39 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and at least three routines that would've commanded attention on Dance Fever. He's so excited. And he just can't hide it. He'll be the MVP, and he's going to like it.
Let's call a 20-second timeout, though, simply to reflect on the beauty of this rivalry. Boston and L.A. entered Sunday's game with identical 37-12 records—best in the league, of course—and, chances are, only a couple percentage points will separate them at the end of the regular season. It has been suggested that the NBA would be better off if these two marquee teams met every other week, but the fact that they play only twice each season is precisely what makes their confrontations so special.
The Lakers and Celtics have a kind of healthy contempt for each other these days. And it's likely to percolate with the addition of Thompson, an all-NBA jivemaster who's bound to infuriate Boston somewhere down the line, if he hasn't already. Asked after Sunday's game if Celtic forward Kevin McHale deserved the technical foul he drew in the third period, Thompson said, "Darn right he did. He's always complaining. He should've gotten four or five technicals."
L.A.'s beads-for-Manhattan deal with San Antonio went like this: The Lakers got Thompson, a legitimate center-forward who will provide much-needed rest for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well as steady support for A.C. Green; in return, San Antonio got Petur Gudmundsson, Frank Brickowski, a first-round draft choice this year, a second-round pick in 1990 and an undisclosed amount of cash. Sound like a lot? Well, Gudmundsson (back troubles) may never play again. Brickowski never could play. The Lakers probably wouldn't get much help picking late in the first round of a relatively weak college draft this year, and the world may end by 1990. As to cash, that's never a factor for Laker owner Dr. Jerry Buss. "If San Antonio needed money, we would've sent them money," said Larry Bird. "But to go and help the Lakers like that is just terrible."
The Thompson deal particularly galls the Celtics because of the continuing absence of Bill Walton, last season's savior now turned casualty. Walton underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 17 and isn't even jogging yet; the latest word on his return is maybe late March, maybe not at all. "I think the guys are going with the theory that Bill won't be back," said Celtic reserve Rick Carlisle. "Then, if he does return, it will be that much better." The Celtics were unable to make a deal before Sunday's trading deadline, so the first big man off their bench is still Greg Kite, who will never be mistaken for Walton—or Mychal Thompson, for that matter.
But that lack of depth has been the story all season for Boston, which has gone almost exclusively with a Fab Five of Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Ainge and Dennis Johnson, a lineup that is more than enough against most teams. Indeed, the Celtics swaggered into the Forum with their usual optimistic arrogance—or is it arrogant optimism?—having begun a Western road swing with easy wins earlier in the week over Denver, Golden State and Portland.
In the first 157 seconds of Tuesday's 119-105 win against the Nuggets, McHale scored Boston's first 11 points by posting up a helpless Danny Schayes. Said McHale later, "The game plan was for me to score the first hundred and twelve, but I got a little tired." After a 134-112 Celtic rout at Golden State on Thursday, Warrior forward Larry Smith, his jaw still puffed up from morning dental surgery, commented, "The game was worse than the root canal." In the final tune-up for the Lakers, Friday's 131-116 win at Portland, McHale (Mr. Inside) scored 37 points and Ainge (Mr. Outside) scored 26, including three three-pointers. Boston's offense was working to perfection. Parish and McHale were unstoppable inside, Johnson and Ainge were hitting the open jumpers when the ball came back out. And Bird was there to spackle the cracks, scarce though they were.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have also been unstoppable—24 of their 38 wins have been by more than 10 points—but in a different way. Their offense has been a relentless relay race in which Magic always controls the baton. Despite nagging injuries, James Worthy has been steady and, at times, brilliant; Green has matured rapidly at power forward; Byron Scott is having his most consistent season at off-guard; and Abdul-Jabbar has adapted well to reduced minutes (32 per game) and reduced field goal attempts (incredibly, he's only fourth on the team in that category). But without Magic waving his wand over every X and O in the Laker game plan, the Lakers would be merely above-average instead of top-drawer. Rarely has one player done so much for one team in one season.