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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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A Swatch of celtic green has now appeared on what had been the perfectly purple canvas of the NBA finals. It happened Sunday afternoon in the Boston Garden. So what else is new, right? Once again we were reminded that the Garden is actually Bizarro World, a place where broken bones are ignored, where the best 94-by 50-foot track team in existence sputters to a crawl and where Greg Kite is escorted into the interview room after scoring zero points. Curiouser and curiouser—that's the way things keep getting on the parquet floor during the postseason.

After being blown out twice by the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum, the Celtics regrouped in Game 3 at the Garden and won 109-103, a victory that had seemed unlikely even to Celtic loyalists. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were limping, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were being run ragged by a speedy Laker backcourt, and Bill Walton was missing in action. Trying to stop L.A.'s fast break in the first two games had been like trying to catch the wind in a colander. It appeared that the Celtics had used their supply of miracles in beating Milwaukee and Detroit in seven-game series and that a Laker sweep was not only possible, but likely.

"Nah, we're just too good a team to be swept," said Larry Bird, who helped put away the broom with 30 points. "This was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for Game 4. Now it's going to be easy."

The victory was anything but easy, and if the Lakers came away with any consolation, it was the fact that the Celtics played an impeccable offensive game and still struggled to win. The Lakers, by contrast, had won the first two by 32 points. "I hope that's as well as they can play," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Indeed, the half-court offense simply can't be executed any better than the Celtics did it in the second quarter when they made 17 of 21 field goal attempts to go up 60-56 at halftime, a lead they never lost. That's 81% and none of those 17 baskets came on fast breaks.

"Shooting over 50 percent is one thing," said Magic Johnson, who scored a game-high 32 points, "but shooting like that is just beyond everything." Certainly it was beyond the Lakers' efforts to double-team Bird. He spun out of trouble and found Ainge in the corner. Or he got the ball to Johnson, who was spotting up near the foul line. Or he jabstepped toward the basket, dribbled behind his back and stuck a jump shot that fogged up James Worthy's goggles. DJ (11 of 22, 26 points) continued to pour it on in the third period when he scored the Celtics' first two baskets and a three-pointer that gave Boston a 74-62 lead. The Lakers never got closer than five points the rest of the way.

And now for the scoring line on the incredible Mr. Kite: zero of three from the field, zero free throws, zero points. So what was this guy doing within 20 miles of an interview room, a place he had been only once before ("when I just stuck my head in for a minute")? Here's what: He grabbed nine rebounds; he bodied Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket; and he got back on defense, once rejecting Magic's scooping fast-break layup. Do not underestimate the importance of getting back—the Celtics were so ineffective against the break in Games 1 and 2 that, as Kite put it, "one of the Laker Girls could've scored a layup on us."

It was significant that the Celtics maintained control during Kite's 22 minutes in the game. This allowed Parish to return, rested and refreshed, and score 10 important points in the fourth quarter. It was one of the few times in the postseason that the Celtic bench has provided a clear assist. Indeed, the absence of reserve strength in the wake of injuries to McHale, Parish and Walton was the major reason the Lakers were overwhelming preseries favorites.

While the Celtics battled the Pistons in their enervating seven-game Eastern Conference final, the Lakers stayed in fighting trim by holding several practice sessions at Santa Barbara City College—which is much like going to the French Riviera for infantry training. But the Lakers saw the potential minefield that lay before them. Come in overconfident and unprepared against Boston—as they did last year in the conference finals against Houston—and they would go out losers, never mind how banged up Boston might be. "I don't know anything about the problems they're supposed to have," said Abdul-Jabbar before Game 1. The Lakers had to believe they were playing the Celtics and not just another Denver, Golden State or Seattle, their easily disposed of Western Conference playoff foes.

So the Lakers kept their noses to the grindstone and not the beach blanket, running fast-break drills for the first 30 minutes of their workouts. The idea was to get Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and even Worthy involved as the "push man," the player leading the break. Thus L.A. could best utilize its overall team speed, instead of depending solely on Magic's quarterbacking.

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