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L.A. got exactly what it wanted out of its inbounds play from midcourt. Magic came around picks by Thompson and Byron Scott and received the pass from Cooper on the run as Ainge trailed desperately behind him. Magic took one step and launched an off-balance shot from just inside the three-point line. As the ball headed toward the basket, Laker forward A.C. Green fell to his knees in prayer. The shot caromed off the glass and went cleanly through the basket for Magic's 17th and 18th points, to go with his 17 assists and eight rebounds. "I live to be in those situations," said Magic. Friday's win didn't suddenly make all the Lakers' ills, which are in fact quite similar to Boston's, go poof. And both teams must cure what ails them if they expect to meet in the championship series for the fourth time in five seasons. Consider the factors working against the Big Two:
?Suffering superstars. One wouldn't guess it from their performances, but both Johnson and Bird have been bothered by Achilles tendon soreness, the chic NBA injury of the moment. Magic (left Achilles) missed six exhibition games, and Bird, who has aching ankles to go with tendon troubles in both feet, sat out four regular-season games in November. It's impossible to figure how much Magic and Bird are hurting. Both go out and play all-world basketball, both plunge their aching tootsies into buckets of ice after most games, both smile and say that nothing's wrong.
Rest is the only remedy for the Achilles condition, but neither Johnson nor Bird will get much of that if his team continues to struggle.
?The fragile forwards. James Worthy and McHale are of comparable offensive importance, the former for his ability to get out on the L.A. break, the latter for his post-up mastery, which prevents defenses from double-teaming Bird. Neither is at full strength.
Worthy, who started all 100 of the Lakers' regular-season and playoff games last year, has missed four games because of tendinitis in his left knee. He played only 14 minutes and scored just eight points against the Celtics. Meanwhile, McHale appeared to have made a miracle recovery from off-season surgery on his right foot, which had kept him out of action until Dec. 1. In his first four games he averaged 22 points. But on Friday night he was off his game—he scored 10 points in 37 minutes—and admitted that all is not as well as it seems. "The foot's felt pretty bad the last few days," said McHale. "I used to beat people with quickness, and I just don't have it now."
The Lakers haven't responded well to Worthy's absence—especially Cooper, who is super as a sub but seems uncomfortable in a starting role. He's at his best guarding small forwards, not impersonating them on offense. "Our three-spot [small forward] is called upon to score, and that's a different role for me," says Cooper. "Plus, I hate to say it, but I've had to pace myself a little bit with the extra minutes I've gotten as a starter, and I'm not used to that. I'm an all-out player." But he was outstanding against the Celtics, with 21 points, nine of them on three-point shots. If the Lakers have to play long stretches without Worthy, the suspicion is that Cooper will find a way to get it done. It seems he always does.
The Celtics won't be as fortunate if McHale's minutes are curtailed. Backup power forward Fred Roberts is more of an open-court player than McHale, and, indeed, the Celtics ran an effective up-tempo game without McHale early in the season. When he returned, the offense slowed down and waited for his long arms to arrive in position near the basket. This isn't to say that the Celtics are a better team without McHale, a ludicrous thought, but an out-of-sync McHale is going to retard Boston's efforts to perfect an offense that can run as well as execute in the half-court.
?The graying of the pivot. On the evening of Dec. 4, Abdul-Jabbar scored only seven points in an 85-83 loss at Milwaukee. That game was the first in 787 in which he failed to score in double figures. He came into Boston Garden averaging 16.1 points per game and had one of his better efforts of the season with 23 points and nine rebounds in 34 minutes. Abdul-Jabbar will turn 41 on April 16, just eight days before the-end of the regular season.
As for Boston's center, there are still nights when Parish's long legs get him open to catch long passes from Bird or Dennis Johnson for easy baskets. But those times have become rare this season, and Parish, 34, had an inordinately quiet 15 points in 42 minutes against the Lakers. That fit the pattern of his preceding four games, in which he had scored 12, 10, 12 and 14. They're not bad numbers—if your name is, say, James Donaldson.
Both Abdul-Jabbar and Parish are big-game players. Abdul-Jabbar was certainly effective against Boston with four important fourth-period field goals. Without Bill Walton, who once again is out for the season after foot surgery, to back him up, Parish may just be pacing himself. At least that's what the Celtics are hoping.