Laker tormentors from way back, the Boston Celtics were not about to give in Sunday afternoon at the Forum simply because people say they no longer are among the NBA's elite. Resembling the Celtics of old, Boston took a 12-point lead in the first half and still led by four early in the third quarter. Far from surprised, the Lakers simply reverted to a strategy nearly as old as the Laker-Celtic rivalry and, in the end, pulled out a 116-110 victory.
To jump-start their running game and neutralize the Celtics' physical advantage, the Lakers went to a small lineup featuring Michael Cooper at small forward and James Worthy covering Robert Parish in the third quarter. It changed the game's flow, neutralized the Celtics' inside game and opened up the Laker offense.
The result was a succession of Laker fast breaks and a spate of three-point shots by Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, enough to give the Lakers' their fourth consecutive victory over the Celtics at the Forum.
"Defense was the reason we won today," Cooper said. "When Coach Riley put myself in the game and we concentrated on defense, it turned the game around. Our defense has always triggered our offense. We get our running game going from defense."
Through three quarters, the Celtics made 68.3% of their shots and led, 94-92, after the Lakers led by as many as five points earlier in the quarter. But the Celtics made only 38% of their shots and commited five turnovers in the fourth quarter.
But even after the Lakers expanded the lead to nine points with 2:42 left, the Celtics made a run and pulled to three points with 12.6 seconds left before the Lakers reasserted themselves. Alternating between big (Mychal Thompson and Vlade Divac) and small (Cooper and Worthy), the Lakers were able to hold Boston to 16 points in the fourth quarter and improve their record to an NBA-best 37-12. The Celtics (30-20) suffered their second consecutive loss midway through an eight-game trip.
Johnson scored 30 points and had 13 assists. He made 10 of 21 shots, including consecutive three-point shots in a 24-second span of the third quarter that gave the Lakers a one-point lead.
Scott, who waged a game-long battle with Celtic guard Reggie Lewis, scored 24 points and made all three three-point shots he attempted. Scott's three-point shot with 6:01 left in the game gave the Lakers a 104-100 lead. After the Lakers' half-court trap resulted in a missed jump shot by Dennis Johnson, Scott finished off a fast break with a dunk.
After that flurry, the Lakers led by six points with 5:34 to play and did not let the lead dwindle below three points from there.
"We needed to play more physical, get the ball and do what we do best, which is run," Scott said.
"We just kept pushing the ball up court and got it going in the third quarter. Our small lineup is one of our best weapons. It gives us a lot of quickness and helps our press. We've always liked that lineup."
The small lineup meant that A.C. Green sat for most of the second half and Worthy was forced to guard Parish for most of the third quarter and part of the fourth before Divac made a late contribution.
Worthy, playing with a severe bruise on top of his right (shooting) shoulder, held his own against Parish and, offensively, added 25 points and seven rebounds in 42 minutes.
Parish had 20 points, but only eight in the second half. With Cooper guarding him, Larry Bird also scored only eight of his 20 points in the second half as well. McHale (21 points) and shooting guard Lewis (24) were the most consistent Celtics, but nobody stepped forward in the fourth quarter to make a run at the Lakers.
"We just played for 40 minutes instead of 48," Bird said.
"They had some breaks going their way, and when you give up six or eight points to a good running team, it's going to kill you. But we didn't get the ball to who we wanted. They started double-teaming, and we took poor shots. We had a breakdown at the wrong time."
Even when the Celtics got the shot they wanted in the fourth quarter, the Lakers' defense intervened.
After cutting the margin to six points with a minute left, the Celtics had possession. McHale received a pass in the low post and shot, but Divac crossed the lane and swatted the ball away.
Divac, who logged almost as many minutes as Thompson, had 13 points and six rebounds. Thompson scored only six points but had eight rebounds and spent most of the afternoon trading bumps and bruises with Parish and McHale.
But the difference was that the Lakers gradually transformed the game from a bruising, half-court style to a running game. They did it, as they have so many other times, with defense.
"With this team," Woolridge said, "when our defense is playing well, our offense is playing well."
Pat Riley, rumored as a possible color analyst when NBC takes over the NBA television coverage next season, said neither he nor agent Ed Hookstratten have been contacted yet by the network. "I've read that in about 10 columns around the country," Riley said. "Right now, it's all hypothetical talk." But would Riley consider leaving coaching to return to the broadcast booth? "You can never say never to anything," Riley said. "But (coaching) is what I feel like I want to be doing for the next couple of years. I've got a couple of years left on my contract."
The Lakers made six of 10 three-point shots Sunday. In their last three games, the Lakers have made 18 of 42 three-point shots. Magic Johnson has made eight of his last 17 from long distance. Riley said he approves of the three-pointer as a weapon. "I think with the flow going and when you're not shooting the three as a desperation shot, I'll take that," he said. "Earvin has been hitting them regularly lately." Said Johnson of his three-point shooting: "It just happens. You never know when or how. I was just in the rhythm. Once you hit one, you're in the rhythm and want to shoot more."
The Lakers, to a man, said they still consider the Celtics a serious championship contender. "Boston is always capable of getting there," Mychal Thompson said. "As long as Boston is on top of its game, they could beat Detroit and come back to play against the Western Conference." . . . The Lakers held a 34-33 rebounding advantage, the first time in three games they out-rebounded the opposition. . . . The Lakers are off today and will play at San Antonio Tuesday night.