Lakers' fourth title in eight years a basketball tour de force

It was a better National Basketball Association championship series than it probably had a right to be, even though the Los Angeles Lakers pretty much blew out the Boston Celtics in three of their four victories. By beating the Celtics four games to two, the Lakers: (1) won their fourth title in eight years; (2) provided the series Most Valuable Player in Magic Johnson; and (3) became the only team to whip the Green twice in Boston this season. Of course the first time was in December.

On paper, before the finals began (because four of the Celtics five starters were fighting injuries and because they had virtually no scoring punch off the bench), it looked like the Lakers in five games, maybe even four. Much of that was confirmed when the Lakers won the first two games at home by a total of 32 points.

But once the best-of-seven series moved to Boston Garden, where the Celtics have a leprechaun on retainer, it was the Green who became more aggressive, improved their defense, and still had something left in their reserve tank for the fourth period.

Yet as well as Boston played on its home parquet floor, winning the third and fifth contests, Game 4 went to L.A., 107-106, when the Lakers overcame a 16-point deficit to win on a junior skyhook by Magic Johnson.

After the Lakers shattered Boston's dream of a second consecutive NBA title in Game 6 at the L.A. Forum, 106-93, Johnson said: ``This is the best team I ever played for. No question this is a super team. I never played on a team before that had everything. Each one had something you had to get around. Not this team.''

Back in February, Johnson had praised Laker general manager Jerry West for getting the final piece to the puzzle by acquiring Mychal Thompson from San Antonio to back up 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center.

``The reason we're a great team is because what we did so well during the regular season we were able to carry over into the playoffs,'' Magic said. ``When the Celtics left the floor at halftime [in Game 6] leading by five points, there was never any real concern on our part. We made some corrections on defense and then we wore them out offensively with our running game.''

These corrections were extremely obvious in the third period, when the Lakers began to pressure the ball. They stopped the Celtics from penetrating and forced them into taking terrible shots. The Laker defenders stayed on top of Boston's best shooters, and in a rare display of frustration, Larry Bird & Co. actually lost their poise.

When the third period ended, Boston had scored only 12 points, Los Angeles 30. Bird's contribution during that stretch was five shots taken and one basket. Oh, they played a final period because the rules say you have to, but by then the Celtics had been exposed as too tired, too slow, and too vulnerable.

``One thing I've noticed about Boston is when it gets behind, it has a hard time playing catch-up,'' explained Abdul-Jabbar, who ended any retirement speculation by saying he will be back next season. ``The tendency among the Celtics in times like that is to force shots, instead of being patient. All teams are guilty of this sometimes, but the Celtics in this series seemed to have that problem a lot.''

Laker coach Pat Riley, who doesn't get enough credit for the always-difficult job of molding a collection of super individual talents into a cohesive team, said all the right things during the playoffs. Pat never once suggested that the Celtics were anything but great, and when it was all over he acted like someone who had been relieved of a heavy mental burden.

``Because everybody expected us to dominate the playoffs, I always felt like we were in a no-win situation,'' he observed. ``If we won, almost nobody would be surprised. But if we lost, then summer would never end for any of us. As a coach, I was always concerned with the unexpected, where you know you're the better team and you play well but lose on a fluke.''

Now it's L.A.'s turn to try for back-to-back titles - a feat last accomplished by Boston in '68 and '69. And while Riley wouldn't talk about repeating, this is clearly a team whose talent, defense, balance, and running game are superior to those of any potential challenger.

With three all-stars in his starting lineup (Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy), plus at least five other players who can be used safely in almost any kind of pressure situation, Riley has no visible problems.

But for the Celtics, who allowed an average of 117 points in their last nine road playoff games (as well as going 20-21 away from home during the regular season), the future won't be so easy. Only Dennis Johnson, who played 46 minutes and scored 33 points in Game 6, looked like a winner down the stretch.

First off-season suggestion to the Celtics: give Bill Walton permission to permanently join his musical friends on the ``Grateful Dead.'' Second suggestion: find some shooters who can come in off the bench cold and score as well as play defense.

As for the Lakers, Bird summed things up as well as anyone when he said: ``L.A. is the best team in the league. They ran everybody they played this season into the ground, including us. Sure they had some close games, but you always knew ... who was going to win.''

In the final game, the normally unstoppable Bird probably scored the quietest 16 points of his career, so quiet you could hear a dynasty crack!

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