Celtics, 76ers at it again in pro basketball playoffs

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some like it hot, and for those that do the National Basketball Association playoffs are the perfect microwave oven for two teams like Boston and Philadelphia.

Over the years these rivals have engaged in their share of hoop wars, and find their current best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship heating up as expected. After splitting a pair of games in Boston, the series shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 this weekend (Saturday at 2:30 EDT and Sunday at 1, both on CBS).

In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs find their series cooking over a low flame. The Lakers have taken charge with a 2-0 lead, but in Texas things could be different in the next two games (tonight at 10 on a tape delay and Saturday at 8:30, EDT).

Recommended: Magic Johnson: 11 quotes from the basketball legend

Folks in San Antonio know what it means to hold the fort (remember the Alamo) , and now the Spurs will dig in or get buried in their basketball shoes.

Two games don't make a series, but Los Angeles has reached freeway speed in the playoffs, where it has yet to lose. The Lakers seem to have benefitted from a valuable lesson taught them by the Houston Rockets, who upset the defending NBA champions in last season's opening round.

In racing to six straight post-season wins (including a four-game sweep of Phoenix), Los Angeles has looked fairly awesome. Defensively, the club has thrown a blanket over San Antonio's George Gervin, holding the league's leading scorer well below his 32 point average. Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has come to play, guard Norm Nixon is shooting well (53 points in two games), and Magic Johnson is running the show as only he can.

Magic has a little bit of everything up his sleeve -- baskets, rebounds, steals, assists -- yet some people feel his greatest feat so far was making Coach Paul Westhead dissappear earlier this season. When Johnson found he didn't see eye-to-eye with Westhead, he asked to be traded, whereupon Westhead was fired and assistant coach Pat Riley named to fill the vacancy. Magic took a lot of flak for the change, which he claims not to have sought. Anyhow, it's practially all forgotten now and the Lakers seem quite intent on the job at hand.

The prospect of a Boston-Los Angeles final has a lot of fans licking their chops. Such a clash would pit Abdul-Jabbar against Robert Parish, another great center, and be the second meeting of Johnson and the Celtics' Larry Bird in championship play (Magic led Michigan State over Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 college final). This matchup would also serve to renew an old rivalry that saw the Celtics and Lakers meet in five NBA championships during the 1960s.

For a moment, it looked as though they might march easily to the conclusion of Showdown '82, as the NBA calls the current playoffs. While L.A. was getting a leg up in the West, Boston was demolishing the 76ers' 121-81 in the lopsided Eastern opener.

Boston Coach Bill Fitch normally wears the expression of a man six months behind on his mortgage payments, but even he managed a discreet smile late in this textbook outing. ''It's a game Bill would like to get into a bottle and save,'' said 76er Coach Billy Cunningham afterward. ''We'd just like to throw the bottle away.''

No one knew how this Mothers Day Massacre would affect Philadelphia, which had given chase to Boston in the regular season only to finish five games behind them with the NBA's second-best record (58-24).

The Celtics appeared to have Philly's number, just as they did last year, when, after falling behind 3-1, the eventual NBA champs staged an incredible comeback to win the next three games and the semifinal series. If their memory of this weren't enough to plant a huge seed of doubt, they could worry some more about the injury that has shelved starting guard Lionel Hollins for the rest of the season or center Darryl Dawkins' leg problem.

Philadelphia's muscular, young center had often been an intimidating force against Boston, but in Game 1 Chocolate Thunder was no more than distant thunder -- a nonfactor who eventually repaired to the bench.

If the team seemed disspirited, it at least had the perfect inspirational tool. ''If anyone ever had the chance to make a Knute Rockne speech without opening his mouth, it's Billy (Cunningham),'' said Fitch. ''He'll just have to turn on the projector before the next game.''

That's probably not all he did, but it might have been enough judging from the gritty effort Philadelphia put forth in winning Game 2 121-113 and silencing all the short series talk. The 76ers got strong games from Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks, but the real man of the hour was stoical center/forward Caldwell Jones, he of the unchanging countenance and supposedly limited shooting ability. Jones scored 22 points and hit five straight baskets during a critical stretch.

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