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Early Sunday it appeared as if the Fates had conspired against the Los Angeles Lakers in their NBA championship series with the Boston Celtics. At 1 a.m. Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's world was spinning all around him, his head rocking with his sixth—and by far worst—migraine headache in two weeks.
Abdul-Jabbar was in the starting lineup that afternoon at the L.A. Forum, but for almost three quarters he and the rest of the Lakers were reaching for Excedrin, Tylenol and smelling salts. The Celtics were on a roll, leading 84-73 and only 17 minutes away from being crowned NBA champions. To complicate matters for L.A., Magic Johnson had just left the lineup because his right knee was aching, and his replacement, rookie Byron Scott, had been so erratic in earlier games against the Celtics that for most of the time he had been riding the pine.
A gunner, Scott missed his first shot, but that was the last thing he and the Lakers did wrong. On his next attempt, Scott drilled a 16-foot jumper, and then he dunked on a fast break. After that, he fed James Worthy for a breakaway, and suddenly it was L.A. that was on a roll. Two more baskets cut Boston's lead to 84-83. With 6:41 to play and the score tied at 93, Scott buried a three-pointer, and the Lakers were off to the races.
The Celtics never recovered from Scott's explosion, and L.A. won 119-108 to even the series at three games apiece. Indeed, Boston scored only five baskets in the entire fourth quarter as the Laker fast break, which had disappeared after Game 3, made a triumphant return. Abdul-Jabbar, his headache only a bad memory, scored a game-high 30 points while grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds in 42 minutes. As always, the 15-year veteran led by example, but before the game he delivered a rare speech in which he exhorted his teammates to pull together. "That meant so much to us," Magic said. "When your leader has strength like that, you have to follow him."
L.A. coach Pat Riley refused credit for the masterstroke that inserted Scott into the game. He said he "wasn't making an adjustment but just groping." As for Abdul-Jabbar, Riley said: "Two trucks rolling on the top of his head wouldn't have kept him from going to the post."
With Sunday's game, the NBA set a record for encroachment into the baseball season. Basketball was never meant to be played in an un-air-conditioned 97° arena, as it had been in Game 5 on Friday night in Boston Garden, or on June 10, the latest date of any championship series game—breaking the June 8 record set in 1982. Or, for that matter, on June 12, when the seventh game was to be played back in the Hub.
Actually, the Celtics and Lakers haven't just been playing basketball; the series turned into a sports festival of sorts. There was the track meet in Game 3, with L.A. fast-breaking to a 137-104 rout. Then Boston used full-contact Australian rules football very effectively to win Game 4 129-125 in overtime. In Game 5 Boston parlayed the insufferable heat and some efficient basketball (finally!) to win 121-103. And on Sunday, there was some early Celtic efficiency that was ultimately overcome by some late Laker pyrotechnics.
"People should have expected a seven-game series because what you have here are two quality teams," said L.A. assistant coach Dave Wohl. "But each win has brought such exultation and each loss such deflation that everyone has gotten caught up in that instead."
True. After the Lakers blew them away in Game 3, the Celtics were thought to have nary a ghost of a chance in Game 4 at L.A. on Wednesday. Even some Celtics were convinced that the Lakers had exorcised the fight right out of their team. "It's probably too late now," said pugnacious Boston sub M.L. Carr, "but what we should've done right from the start was set Worthy or Magic or someone on his can and then we should've done it again so they would've known what we meant. Then maybe they wouldn't have been so fearless going inside."
If the thought of someone taking out either the 6'9", 215-pound Johnson or the 6'9", 219-pound Worthy seemed ludicrous, then going after 6'8", 220-pound forward Kurt Rambis had to seem only slightly less appealing. Yet that's just what 6'10", 225-pound Celtic forward Kevin McHale did midway through the third quarter of Game 4. After taking a pass from Magic for what looked to be a routine fast-break hoop, Rambis was lassoed around the neck in midflight by McHale, and McHale made no attempt to make Kurt's landing a happy one.