Celtics now have homecourt edge as NBA finals head into stretch

For the second year in a row, to borrow Mark Twain's famous phrase, the report of the Boston Celtics' demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Indeed, anyone who just returned from a trip to Tahiti and tuned in the 1985 National Basketball Association finals these past couple of weeks could hardly have been faulted for thinking the TV networks must have started their summer reruns early.

First off, just as they had a year ago, the favored Los Angeles Lakers put themselves quickly in the driver's seat by splitting the opening two games in Boston Garden. Then in a dazzling display before their own adoring fans at the Forum, they put on one of their patented ``showtime'' routines in rolling to a lopsided victory.

Still following last year's script, it was now time for the so-called experts to conclude that the Lakers just had too many guns. Their awesome fast break, their ``lights out'' shooting, and the dominating presence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar added up to a combination too tough for any team -- even the Celtics -- to handle.

All this made eminent sense, too -- especially to anyone who had seen how easily Los Angeles won that third game. But -- d'ej`a vu -- just when most everybody was writing their epitaph, the Celtics dug in for a gritty 107-105 fourth game victory that tied the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

And so once again the championship struggle between these two great teams comes down to a best-of-three series -- with two of those games scheduled for Boston Garden. That has to give the advantage back to the Celtics -- and indeed, if the teams keep following last year's pattern Boston will emerge victorious in the full seven games. But of course Laker coach Pat Riley and his staff are busily trying to rewrite that 1984 script -- preferably starting with tonight's pivotal fifth game.

One change is already in effect: because of the new 2-3-2 format, Game 5 will be in L.A. this time -- thus putting the Lakers in a virtual ``must win'' predicament.

That was Boston's situation in Game 4, trailing 2-1 and facing the possibility of being closed out before ever getting back to their home court. Or, as coach K.C. Jones put it prior to that contest: ``If we go down 3-1, our backs aren't against the wall; our backs are part of the wall.''

After a runaway win in the opener, Boston hadn't offered much resistance in Games 2 and 3 -- and the reasons were clear. For one thing, the guards weren't hitting enough to keep L.A. from ganging up on big men Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, whose inside game is a key to the team's success. But most of all Larry Bird, the regular-season MVP for the second year in a row, was battling injuries and struggling with his shooting.

For a while Wednesday night it looked as though Game 4 might be more of the same as the Lakers led most of the way and looked on several occasions as though they were ready to blow things open. The defending champions kept hanging in there, however, and eventually pulled it out in a vintage Celtic effort that will certainly rank well up there in the memory book -- especially if this team, like so many of its predecessors, goes on to win the title.

Indeed, for sustained excitement and game-long intensity climaxed by one clutch play after another through the final minutes, Game 4 belongs on anyone's all-time list. And fittingly it was some of the very people who had struggled earlier who came through in those hectic final minutes -- Danny Ainge with a couple of big shots near the end, then his backcourt partner Dennis Johnson firing in the game-winning 20-foot jumper at the buzzer.

Johnson, who hadn't been that much of a factor earlier in the series, finished with 27 points in a very big effort. McHale also was tremendous in this game, as he has been throughout, playing the entire 48 minutes, banging the boards as always, and leading all scorers with 28 points. But the key man, as everyone knew he would be, was Bird, who again seemed to be struggling for much of the game, but who finally exploded for 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and whose play down the stretch turned the tide. And never was this more apparent than in the final, pulsating 19 seconds.

After a see-saw last few minutes, McHale tied it at 103 on a pair of free throws, the Lakers missed, and the Celtics had the ball with a minute left. It was here that Ainge hit the second of his two pressure-packed late jumpers, but when Magic Johnson rebounded a Kareem miss, it was deadlocked again -- this time with 19 seconds to go. The Celtics patiently ran down the clock and worked the ball to Bird, and just as he so often does, Larry drew two men to him, spotted the resulting open teammate (Johnson), and passed to him at exactly the right moment for the tiebreaking shot that couldn't be answered.

Now both teams must put all this out of their minds as they look ahead toward the rest of the series. For the Celtics, of course, it's a more reassuring look in terms of both the home advantage and history. For incredible as it seems, since losing to the old St. Louis Hawks in 1958, Boston teams have reached the finals on 14 occasions -- including eight against the Lakers -- and have emerged victorious every time. That's an imposing bit of tradition for the Lakers to overcome -- and in Boston Garden to boot. Anyone who thinks they can't do it, however, must not have noticed how quickly this team can blow any opponent out anywhere when it gets going in high gear. Clearly this is still anybody's series -- as both of these talented, fiercely proud teams are well aware.

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