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With each fast-break basket scored by Los Angeles in the NBA Championship series—i.e., Magic Johnson passing to Michael Cooper or James Worthy or any other flashing bolt from the blue—the Lakers' fascination with pyrotechnic explosions becomes more and more apparent. And in the wake of Sunday's 137-104 thrashing at the hands—or feet—of the Lakers in Game 3 at the Forum, it was clear that the Boston Celtics obviously had forgotten one of childhood's basic tenets: Play with fire and you'll get burned.
"It's out, it's gone, it's everybody," said Johnson, trying to explain his team's incendiary ways after he dished out a championship-series record 21 assists as the Lakers took a 2-1 lead in the finals. "It feels so good and happens so fast...there's just nothing a defense can do."
Especially when the opposition "played like a bunch of sissies," which is how the Celtics' Larry Bird summed up his team's effort. "We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again," said Bird, although his 30 points were far from sissified. "Guys aren't running back on defense, and you can't have that. Sometimes you can anticipate things like this happening because one team is going to be more up than the other. It's just too bad that all the bad things are happening to us."
Not quite all the bad things. After blitzing Boston in Game 1 by a 115-109 score, the Lakers handed Game 2 to the Celtics on a silver platter, blowing what seemed to be a safe lead in the final moments when Worthy's crosscourt pass was stolen by Gerald Henderson, who tied the score at 113-113 with a layup; then Johnson inexplicably allowed the final 13 seconds to run down without getting off even a desperation shot. The Celtics rallied to win in overtime, 124-121, and with the series tied 1-1 it appeared that a classic was in the making. But except for those strange happenings in the last 18 seconds of regulation in Game 2, the Celtics would have found themselves down three games to none, a hole from which no team in championship series history has ever escaped. "I know that we should be up three-zip," Worthy said.
After their defeat in Game 1, the Celtics seemed to understand Problem No. 1: the Lakers' blistering break. Magic and his fellow speedsters had turned the Boston Garden parquet into a track, breaking clear to score 52 points. "We haven't seen anything like it so far in the playoffs," said Boston coach K.C. Jones. "Hell, we haven't seen anything like it all season, except for the two times we played them." The Lakers won both of those games. For the finals, L.A. added a new wrinkle. When Boston had the ball, Laker coach Pat Riley had the 6'9" forward Worthy guard 6'4" Celtic guard Dennis Johnson. If D.J., a fine inside player, chose to play down low, that put Worthy closer to rebounding position; if he shot from the outside, definitely not his strength, Worthy was that much closer to filling the lanes for one of Magic's passes.
Everything the Lakers tried in Game 1 worked so well, it seemed nothing could stop them—except the fire alarms in their Boston hotel, the Marriott Copley Place. The Lakers were rousted by fire alarms no fewer than 10 times (often in the middle of the night) during their six-day Boston stay. Hotel officials blamed the alarms on dust, but an unsuspecting maid was probably close to the truth when she said, "They could be set off by a man with a cigar."
Nah, Red Auerbach wouldn't do that. Or would he?
To stop the break in Game 2, the Celtics would have to sink perimeter shots early and then slow the Lakers into a half-court game. And that's just what happened. Spurred on by the noisy Garden crowd, Boston scored the game's first seven points and had a 36-26 lead after the first quarter, despite 14 points by Magic, eight on bombs from the outside. Boston got some scoring help from a totally unexpected source—that former Toronto Blue Jays infielder, Danny Ainge.
Ainge had played just 17 minutes in the Celtics' previous three games, but he hit his first three shots, the shortest being a 16-footer. For the game, Ainge scored 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Despite Ainge's contribution, the Lakers were able to run enough in the second quarter to cut what was once a 13-point Celtic margin to two (61-59) at the half. Boston increased its lead to seven midway through the third quarter, but then Worthy—who is called Clever by his teammates because after a haircut earlier in the season, the barber told him it made him look clever—scored 11 of L.A.'s next 12 points on an assortment of jumpers and flying jams, and the Lakers were in striking range again.
With 1:12 to play, Worthy made a three-point play to tie the game 111-111, and with 35 seconds to go Johnson hit two free throws to give L.A. a 113-111 lead. When Kevin McHale missed a pair for Boston with 20 seconds to play, it seemed to be all over. But L.A. gave it away. With a swarming full-court press, the Celtics forced Magic to pass off to Worthy and then overplayed Magic, denying him a return pass. Under double-team pressure, Worthy then uncleverly attempted a crosscourt pass and the ball was picked off by Henderson, who scored the tying hoop with 13 ticks left.