Just in from their joint tour of Texas after setting attendance records and dashing hopes throughout the Lone Star State, the Lakers and Boston Celtics find themselves facing an opponent today they can really get into, namely each another.
A lot has changed since they went bump in the night so classically in Boston Garden on Dec. 11, the game Magic Johnson won, 115-114, with that 22-foot whatever-it-was at :00.
And nothing has changed.
Remember the four-losses-in-five skid each came in with?
Remember the speculation the league had caught up to them, and Kevin McHale even saying: "Right now the gap has closed completely"?
Remember Magic Johnson slowed by a sore Achilles' tendon, Larry Bird sitting out five games with two of them, James Worthy's sore left knee, McHale's late start after foot surgery?
Tough luck, league. All that's over.
The Laker victory that night started the 26-3 spurt that has all but retired competition, once more, for the top spot in the West. No National Basketball Assn. champion has repeated in 20 years, but the Lakers' 37-9 record is the best for any defender at this point since the Trail Blazers started 38-8 in 1978-79.
The Celtics regrouped after Magic's shot fell and have gone 23-6 since.
Johnson, Bird, Worthy and McHale are averaging 20.8, 28.9, 19.0 and 21.9 points a game, respectively. The lowest shooting percentage among the four is Magic's 50.3%
Bird is in one of his lapses of consciousness. Since going into the All-Star game in his annual slump, and straightening out his shot (and collecting his $12,500) in his annual clinic, otherwise known as the three-point competition, he has gone nuts:
--44 points, 15 rebounds and 3 assists in a loss at Houston, shooting 17 for 27.
--39, 17 (all defensive) and 10 at San Antonio, shooting 13 for 23.
--39, 10 and 6 at Dallas, including the three-pointer at the buzzer that won the game, 105-104, shooting 16 for 25.
So once more, these two great rivals start eyeing each other. Since they only see each other about once in three months before their customary summer appointment, aren't they always trying to leave the other with some message?
"Well, yeah," Johnson said after Friday night's game in San Antonio. "You want to let the other one know you've got the upper hand."
Of course, when you have the home court, you look forward to dropping off your messages.
And when you're the visitor?
"I don't know about leaving a message," McHale said, munching a hot dog Saturday in the Dallas airport.
"We just beat Atlanta in Boston in a big game. It was for the best record in the East, to determine who'd coach in the All-Star game. The next day, we turned around and lost to Cleveland. In the regular season, a win is a win."
Doesn't his heart beat a little faster when he has Lakers in his cross-hairs?
If the Forum crowd and the TV audience get a little present of a Sunday game--meaning neither team had to wake up at dawn that day and fly and take the court in a coma--this is still the regular season. The Celtics are on a long, long trip. The three members of their troupe and their coaches who went to the All-Star game left home Feb. 4. They won't play in Boston Garden again until Feb. 24.
But denials notwithstanding, these teams have a way of saving their best for each other.
The Celtics looked out on their feet in last season's playoffs, needing a seventh-game fourth-quarter rally to survive the Milwaukee Bucks and the Bird/Isiah Thomas inbounds miracle to escape the Detroit Pistons. And then, down, 2-0, to a Laker team that was counting on winning some votes for most-dominant ever, they won Game 3 in Boston, lost Game 4 on Johnson's junior skyhook, and won Game 5.
What happens if Magic's shot doesn't fall, or if Bird's desperation shot at the buzzer doesn't bounce off the back of the rim? Laker fans can't like the thought.
Similarly, last December, when neither team had done anything right in two weeks, they hooked up in a game as great as anything they had produced the preceding spring. The Celtics took a 71-58 lead in the third period and were still ahead by six with 2:33 left. The Lakers tied it, 113-113. Danny Ainge, shooting two free throws at :03, made only one for a 114-113 lead. The Lakers asked for a fast time out, and referee Mike Mathis gave it to them--despite the fact that McHale was in the process of wrestling the ball out of Mychal Thompson's hands.
So the Lakers set up that shot for Johnson, who shoved this ungainly, one-handed, one-legged 22-footer off the backboard . . . and in?
What was that, the Laker gods asserting themselves at long last? Nobody aims that shot off the backboard, do they?
"It doesn't matter," Johnson says, happily. "It went in.
"Robert Parish jumped out. I was going straight for the rim, but Robert jumped out, so I had to change the shot. I went off the glass. I had no other alternative."
Well, seeing as how he was changing his shot quite late, does he consider this one of the more fortunate of the great shots he's made?
A huge smile.
"Oh yeah. One of the most fortunate? I would have to say that. When you're that far out, and kiss one off the glass, you got to have some luck. I was on the three-point line."
With luck, the series could have new lore by midnight.