The interminable National Basketball Association playoffs, which begin in mid-April and generally melt away in early June, have produced just the sort of ending that demands attention. In fact, the league couldn't have ordered up a better finish to its 38th season, which ends tonight with the Boston Celtics hosting the Los Angeles Lakers in a seventh and deciding game.
Thoughts of baseball and company picnics have temporarily been laid aside as a pair of storied old foes prepare to complete their latest melodrama on prime-time TV (9 p.m. EDT, CBS). Laker Coach Pat Riley has called it ''the ultimate game,'' and few would disagree that all the elements are here: perennial league powers, super-talented players (including first-team NBA all stars Larry Bird of Boston and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson of L.A.) , coast-to-coast national interest, and, of course, all the white-knuckle suspense normally associated with seventh games.
The NBA championship series hasn't gone the distance since 1978, when Washington beat Seattle. During the 1960s, though, Boston and L.A. engaged in seven-game combat on three separate occasions - 1962, '66 and '69. The Celtics won each time and held a 7-0 playoff record against the Lakers entering the current finals.
L.A. started off clearly the stronger team, however, handing Boston its first home-court defeat of the '84 playoffs in the series opener. Given the fact Los Angeles had beaten the Celtics twice in as many regular-season meetings, some suspected the Laker fast-break offense was just too potent. But the Celtics salvaged a split in Boston with a wild overtime victory.
Convinced they had let Game 2 slip away, the Lakers asserted their superiority in a most convincing manner in Game 3, handing the overmatched visitors a 137-104 defeat as the series shifted to the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. This embarrassment found the normally gritty Celtics impersonating a sieve, allowing wave after yellow wave of L.A. players to flow through for practically uncontested layups. It was a patented display of Laker ''showtime'' basketball.
It also was a pivotal point in the series, since Boston used infamy to generate inspiration. Bird called his teammates ''sissies,'' and TV commentator Tom Heinsohn questioned whether guard Dennis Johnson, who had disappeared into the woodwork, was a true Celtic - which was to doubt his character.
The fire and confidence returned in Game 4; the Celtics got back quickly to shut down the Laker break; Bird roamed far from the basket to spread out the L.A. defense; and Johnson and Robert Parish came to life offensively with 47 combined points. The end result was a character-building 129-125 overtime victory and a reawakened team.
Laker Coach Pat Riley even felt the Celtics had become too exuberant and was critical of a show of muscle that he said changed the whole mood of the series.
The momentum swing seemed total as the Celtics dismantled L.A. 121-103 back in the sauna-like Boston Garden, where ceiling fans did little to dissipate the 97-degree heat. The sweltering conditions wilted the Lakers, and especially Abdul-Jabbar, whose assortment of sky hooks and short jumpers clanged off the rim in a 7-of-25 shooting nightmare. Bird, however, scorched the nets for 34 points, and Dennis Johnson threw a sack over Magic Johnson, who suddenly wasn't pulling passes like rabbits from a hat.
So with just one travel day and a transcontinental flight to regroup, the Lakers appeared to be on the ropes - a strange twist for a team that came within a few baskets of a 4-0 sweep. L.A., in fact, trailed Boston by 11 points at one second-half juncture of Game 6. But in a move of ''quiet desperation,'' Riley went to his bench, inserting rookie guard Byron Scott.
The next thing anyone knew, Scott had ignited the Lakers with his shooting and scrambling defensive work. The Forum was rocking and Dancing Barry was boogalooing in the aisles as L.A. surged ahead with a 30 to 10 spurt to lock up a 119-108 victory and ship the series back to Boston for tonight's piece de resistance.