Celtics still wary of Lakers despite first-game rout in NBA finals

And so after nearly 1,000 meaningless regular season games and six weeks of playoff window dressing, Boston and Los Angeles are meeting for the National Basketball Association championship -- just as everyone knew they would all along. Oh, there were some mildly anxious moments -- as when the Celtics found themselves 2-2 against a so-so Detroit team, or when the Lakers blew the home court advantage against Denver. But seriously, from the first day of play in October, wasn't it obvious that the finals were going to be a rematch of last year's Celtics-Lakers battle?

Well, now we have it -- except that the opening game didn't exactly turn out to be Armageddon. The Boston Massacre is more like it -- a 148-114 Celtic rout that left everyone asking where the ``invincible'' team that rolled through the Western playoffs had disappeared to.

Perhaps it will surface tonight when the teams meet in Game 2 of the best-of-seven series -- also in Boston. If not, this could be a short series indeed. And even if the ``real'' Lakers do stand up, the Celtics will be a tough team to handle on their own court if they play anything close to the game they put together in Monday's opener.

The pre-series hype had it the other way, of course. Boston might win some games -- maybe even the series -- but if there was any blowing out to be done, surely the perpetrators would be the explosive, talent-laden Lakers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, & Co. are, the acknowledged masters of the fast break. They are the ones who put on ``showtime'' at the Los Angeles Forum before all those camera-hogging celebrities in the ridiculously expensive courtside seats.

The Celtics, meanwhile, march to a different drummer. Larry Bird is your typical working-class type of hero -- a ``lunch pail guy'' far removed from his jet-set counterparts in L.A. Center Robert Parish is unquestionably the least visible of the league's outstanding big men -- a rugged rebounder and defender who battles the Moses Malones and the Kareems on at least even terms without anyone seeming to notice -- until they look at the scoreboard. And the whole team under Coach K.C. Jones plays a more balanced defense-oriented game compared with the Lakers' racehorse style.

Boston can blow you out too, though -- as it showed Monday. Most accounts of that game attribute the rout to an incredible display of outside shooting, and indeed Boston did get some perfomances that aren't likely to be repeated -- such as reserve Scott Wedman's 11-for-11 from the floor, including four three-point baskets.

But basically the Celtics just outplayed the Lakers -- period. They executed a patient offense, passing and passing until they got the good shots. They got back quickly on defense to defuse the feared L.A. fast break. And in general they controlled the tempo of the game.

One game doesn't make a series, though, as both teams are well aware. It was only a year ago, after all, that the Lakers won the opener in Boston only to eventually lose out in seven games.

Furthermore, lopsided victories in a series like this frequently affect the losers less than the winners, who can't avoid the gnawing thought that a close loss next time will nullify the whole spectacular display. Three years ago, for instance, the Celtics humiliated Philadelphia 121-81 in the opener of the Eastern finals only to see the 76ers win Game 2 and the series. Similarly, last year's 137-104 Laker rout in Game 3 of the finals spurred Boston on to eventual triumph.

So the Celtics aren't getting measured for ring sizes just yet, nor are the Lakers making vacation plans for next week. Still, it's impossible to ignore one piece of history and tradition: this is the ninth time the Celtics and Lakers have met in the championship finals (including once in 1959 when the latter team was still in Minneapolis), and the score so far is 8-0 Boston.

Some of the series have been oh, so close -- turning on one bad pass or missed shot -- but always it has been L.A. which came up short. Last year, for instance, the Lakers were generally considered the better team -- and indeed they might have won in four games. But they threw away two of those first four with costly late mistakes, and wound up losing the whole ball of wax.

This year the handwriting seemed to be on the wall. Surely these Lakers, hungry to make amends, would nail down the title they let slip away a year ago. But then came Game 1, and now the doubts are there again.

Thus tonight's game is pivotal -- especially with the new 2-3-2 schedule for the finals. Another Boston victory would assure the Celtics that the worst they could face was an eventual showdown on their home court. A loss, however, would turn the advantage over to the Lakers, who would be in position to close it out at the Forum.

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