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CRUNCH TIME
Jack McCallum
June 15, 1987
Los Angeles raced to a 2-1 series lead over Boston in the NBA finals
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June 15, 1987

Crunch Time

Los Angeles raced to a 2-1 series lead over Boston in the NBA finals

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And so, in front of a Forum crowd so celebrity-studded that Robin Leach would have salivated on his tuxedo (see page 24), the Lakers came out running in Game 1 and didn't stop until they had a 126-113 victory. In the first two periods L.A. ran 35 fast breaks and only 10 set plays, a percentage that perfectly fit its game plan. The Lakers ran after Celtic misses, of course, but they also repeatedly got fast-break opportunities—full-scale, official, three-lane breaks—after Celtic baskets. "We just may work on that aspect of the game harder than any team in the league," said L.A. assistant coach Randy Pfund. "When he was a starter, Kurt Rambis was probably the best in the league at getting the ball in-bounds quickly after a basket. Now A.C. Green is doing the same thing."

The Lakers' speed was so overwhelming that even Magic's outside shots (he scored 29 points) amounted to pull-up jumpers. It was entirely fitting that when Cooper left the game in the fourth quarter, he raised his left foot in the air, and Jack Nicholson, sitting at court level near the Celtic bench, slapped it. L.A. had indeed given Boston a lesson in sole.

"The Celtics looked to me like they were keeping up pretty good," said Mychal Thompson with a straight face, "just at a different pace." Equally discouraging for the Celtics was Worthy's performance in the Laker half-court offense. He scored a game-high 33 points, whooshing by his defender—the hobbled McHale or the lead-footed Bird—with an impossibly quick first step. Said Magic of Worthy: "James is playing at the top of his game—and above it." Somehow that made sense. Despite his poor performance in Game 3, Worthy still leads the Lakers in playoff scoring with 24.7 points per game.

As a few Celtics calculated it, they had done exactly two things correctly in Game 1. Parish: "We got here on time." DJ: "We got the opening tap." Clearly, they would have to do better in Game 2, particularly against the fast break. Boston seemed to have two options: The Celtics could either come up and challenge the outlet pass in an attempt to slow down Magic or they could retreat as quickly as possible to fortify the area around the basket. Boston pursued a middle course, with Ainge latching onto Magic as soon as he got the outlet while his teammates turned tail and got back. The strategy worked for seven minutes, as Boston held a 21-18 lead and L.A. scored only two fast-break baskets. But then it was showtime.

Cooper's three-point shots seemed to be coming from the sky. He made four in the first half and two more in the second for a playoff record. Coop also directed the L. A. offense, dishing out eight assists in the second period, equaling a final-series record. When it was all over, L.A. had itself a 141-122 rout.

There seemed to be nothing the Celtics could do to stem the tide in Game 3, other than to depend on the fabled Garden Mystique. Parish had gotten off to a good start in Game 2—scoring 12 points in the first period—but seemed to tire and finished with only 17. Ainge had squeezed off only 10 shots in Games 1 and 2 and spoke of the Celtics' offense as turning "too individual." DJ's confident, rock-solid athleticism was lost on an opponent replete with confident, rock-solid athletes of its own. Walton had played 11 minutes in Games 1 and 2, but he produced no diamonds, only rust.

The biggest downer of all was McHale's physical condition. The Celtic forward has, for all you podiatry freaks, a fractured navicular bone of the right ankle and sprains of various ligaments in that ankle. Team physician Dr. Thomas Silva believes McHale could be risking serious permanent injury or, at the very least, his "ability to play at an all-star level."

McHale discussed his situation with Walton—"Boy, it's really fun talking feet with Bill," he said—but would not reveal Walton's advice. Neither would Walton, who was downcast and virtually silent throughout the series. But McHale, who has taken to shooting fall-away jumpers almost exclusively and who grabbed only seven rebounds in Games 1 and 2, was determined to play in Boston. "I'm just going to let the chips fall where they may," he said.

After Game 2, Boston's sixth straight postseason loss on the road, Bird openly questioned his team's commitment. "If this continues, maybe it's time to make some changes and get some people who will play hard every night and not just in front of their families," said Bird with typical bluntness. So that was the unhappy state of the Celtic nation coming into Game 3.

But all it took was a few minutes on the parquet floor, which does for the Celtics what the waters of Lourdes do for other true believers. Walton got only one token minute in Game 3, but McHale held up bravely, scoring 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and playing tough defense on Worthy, who finally revealed his humanity with an ineffectual 13-point, three-rebound afternoon. Scott (four points) was no factor at all, reverting to his old habit of shooting outside (2 for 9, 0 of 5 from three-point range) instead of driving to the basket; he never got to the free-throw line. And A.C. Green might as well have been a statue for all he did on offense—one field goal in three attempts.

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