If nothing else, the outcome served the Lakers notice that they were no longer playing in the Sun Belt Conference. L.A.'s waltz through the West had included victories by an average score of 131.2-117.5; five first halves in which they had scored at least 75 points; and seven games in which Mike McGee, their ninth man, had scored at least 15 points. Riley delivered a philippic to his team before Game 2, promising fines for muffed rebounds and lazy defense.
The Lakers made the adjustment, which was less a matter of transmission overhaul than of simple downshifting. Said L.A.'s Bob McAdoo, "You don't get to the finals without rebounding and hitting people." And hit people the Lakers did. They flagellated the Celtics inside in Game 2, Kevin McHale in particular. It had been McHale whose clothesline shot on a breaking-away Rambis in Game 4 was credited with igniting Boston last spring, inciting the Celts to win that game, two of the next three and the series. And it was McHale who last week jousted with Riley in the press, contrasting the Celtic "longshoremen" with the Laker "movie stars."
To defend their honor, the Lakers banked on their deeper bench. They quite happily spent nine more fouls in Game 2 than in Game 1, even though that meant losing both Worthy and McAdoo in the process. These weren't the "movie stars' " agents who were suddenly beating McHale to rebounds, or stripping him clean as he began a move, or rerouting his shots into the orchestra. Could that have been Fred Gwynne in the role of McHale? "Boston's a work-ethic team," Riley said. "My only problem is with the perception that we're not."
Boston's other frontcourt power, the 7-foot Robert Parish, hardly fared better than McHale. Parish had consistently beaten Abdul-Jabbar down the floor during the Game 1 rout, but in Game 2 The Chief took an elbow to the rear and suffered what was officially called a "contusion of the right buttock."
Parish encountered an even bigger pain in the butt in The Begoggled One, who led the Laker assault on the backboards with 17 rebounds, added 30 points (Mike Cooper repeatedly baited the skyhooks with unerring outside shots) and showed an intensity that was gnarly to the Max. "Kareem was just awesome," said Maxwell, who went on to call the Celtics' play "dorsal." He meant "docile," but, as McHale said, "We did play like fish."
The Celtics were completely out of water midway through the second quarter of Game 3. For the first time in the series, the Lakers sustained a stretch in which they converted turnovers and long rebounds into baskets at the other end. Worthy led the 10-1 tear that made up most of Boston's 48-38 lead and closed out the half with a jumper and two free throws to push the Lakers in front by 65-59. Someone asked Jones, who was inadvertently locked in the Celtics' locker room at halftime, for his assessment of the quarter. "Worthy," he said. "That would be my assessment."
After Boston made a run to within four points, Abdul-Jabbar, with 9:05 left in the third quarter, chose to throw in the skyhook that made him the NBA's alltime leading playoff scorer with 4,458 points. "The record," he said, "was not the thing I was after."
Instead, the Laker captain was trying to banish forever the lethargy that had plagued him and his teammates in Game 1. He studied film of the opening debacle, watching it, in Riley's words, "like a little kid with big eyes." He passed off for 15 assists in the two L.A. victories, waiting patiently for the Boston defense to collapse on him before flipping the ball to open teammates. "He's the hub of our wheel," Rambis said, "and when he's playing like that, our whole wheel runs better."
The Hub's hub, Bird, was stuck in the mud. He shot 17 for 42 in the two Celtic losses, and remained typically taciturn about the combination of injuries that have contributed to his playoff-long shooting slump. "I don't know if it's his [bad] finger or [bad] elbow," Jones mused. "He never says."
Bird did, however, start a rugby scrum that formed in pursuit of a loose ball in the second half of Game 3. He landed on the Forum floor, followed by Rambis, and they were joined by the ever-combative Ainge. "We should meet them out in the parking lot and have a fight to get it out of our system," Bird said. "I don't know if the league is up for it, but the Celtics are." Sock!