Under normal circumstances last Friday night's matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, their first confrontation of 1987-88, would have served as the NBA's version of the Tip-Off Classic, a sign that the season had begun in earnest. But that wasn't the case as the glamour teams dragged themselves wearily into Boston Garden, humility clinging to each of them like a cheap suit. Rather than being a usual Laker-Celtic show-time showdown, this game was a grim struggle for survival. The aura of near invincibility that has surrounded the Big Two for so many years had been eroded by hard times—each had won only once in its last five games, and in both of those victories the losers were the lowly Nets.
"Important? You better believe this game is important," said Los Angeles's Magic Johnson on Thursday. Said Boston's Jerry Sichting, "Both teams are playing poorly. Both teams need a win."
What passed for pregame humor was of the gallows variety. "It's a little strange when the headlines say 'League doormats play big game,' " said Laker coach Pat Riley. His Celtic counterpart, K.C. Jones, had to field this question: Which team is worse? Jones considered it for a moment and then flashed a sly smile and said, "Well, we'll find out tomorrow night, won't we?"
Indeed we did, and Jones didn't like the answer. Never mind that it took Johnson's buzzer-beating, 22-foot miracle shot to produce a 115-114 L.A. victory. It was Boston that blew a six-point lead in the final 2:35. "That's the type of game you should win, especially at your own place," said the Celtics' Larry Bird after getting 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He wiped his face, which has taken on its usual winter pallor, and shook his head. "If we don't pick it up soon, this season's going to be a disaster."
In this case, disaster is relative. Through last weekend Boston still led an Atlantic Division that could only be described as horrible; not another team was playing better than .500 ball. But Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta in the Central Division and four teams in the Western Conference—the Lakers, Dallas, Denver and Portland—had better records than the Celtics' 11-8.
As for the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said after the win in Boston, "One game is not going to turn around a season." He was right. On Sunday the Lakers struggled in L.A. before beating Cleveland 90-89.
But the win over Boston served notice—if notice needed to be served—that the basketball world still spins on the finger of Earvin Johnson, last season's MVP Shots are made that can be dismissed as merely lucky, and there are Magical ones for which there is no explanation available. "You almost expect him to do something like that," said Sichting of Johnson's game-winner.
Had it not been for the Celtics' ineffectiveness on offense down the stretch, Magic never would have gotten the opportunity to pull off this latest trick. After Bird's steal and jumper gave Boston a 111-105 lead with 2:35 left, the Celtics scored just one basket the rest of the way, a Danny Ainge to Robert Parish backdoor layup with 55 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, the Lakers got two good jumpers from Mychal Thompson, a free throw from Abdul-Jabbar and, finally, a three-point jumper by Michael Cooper that tied the game at 113-113 with 45 seconds left.
Magic then stole a pass Ainge had intended for a cutting Bird—remember when Boston was the best half-court offensive team in the NBA?—but, at the other end, the Celtics forced Abdul-Jabbar into a hurried 20-foot jumper that fell short. Bird rebounded the ball and threw a bomb to Ainge, who was streaking down the right side. Johnson fouled Ainge to prevent the layup, and that put Ainge on the line with three seconds left. Ainge, who was the league's second-best foul shooter last season, behind Bird, made his first free throw but missed the second, whereupon Thompson and Parish began battling for the rebound. While that was going on, Johnson, Mr. Presence of Mind, motioned for a timeout. Referee Mike Mathis granted Magic's wish, even though Thompson didn't have possession of the ball. In fact, Boston's Kevin McHale ended up with the ball after Thompson and Parish had batted it around. When Mathis signaled for the clock to be stopped, it still read :03.
The Celtics protested the call but didn't make too big a deal of it when the game was over. Clearly they had no one but themselves to blame for even being in position to lose the game by one tweet of the whistle.