For a while there the last few days, it was uncertain just what the B in NBA stood for.

Was it for Brawling?

Or Badgering?

Perhaps Bickering.

More likely Bush, since Round 3 of the championship playoffs had little more style than tag-team rasslin' -- and led to all manner of sandbox gamesmanship, initiated by the Celtics.

Coach K.C. Jones and President Red Auerbach did a tap dance on several hundred minds after the Celtics lost by 25 points Sunday: on reporters, who can write; on league officials, who can read; on the Lakers, who can think.

Reacting to scare stories, league leaders got Jones and Lakers Coach Pat Riley together before Game 4 Wednesday night and told them that what Magic Johnson calls "dirty physicality" would not be tolerated.

This is exactly what cagy K.C. wanted, because the Lakers' deeper bench allowed them to give more fouls by superior players. In an elbow-swinging war of attrition, L.A. would win.

Even a former celebrated member of the Celtics' family called Riley's aggressive strategy "brilliant."

Evidently impressed by the warning from Scotty Stirling, NBA vice president for operations, Riley returned to the Lakers' dressing room and cautioned his players.

Jones yawned, and said nothing to his guys.

The Lakers scarcely lifted an elbow, let alone swung one; Boston controlled the game's flow, from tipoff to Dennis Johnson's winning 22-footer at the buzzer.

Whatever the results, whoever benefited, it was terrific of the league to reiterate forcefully that its B still is for Basketball.

Or Bird.

Very often, they're synonymous. Larry Bird was the league's most valuable player the last two seasons; in one few-minute stretch in the fourth quarter Wednesday, he carried his team to victory -- and his sport to a seldom-seen level of enchantment.

Casually, he says: "I figure the fourth quarter is mine."

Mr. June has a rather hollow ring to it, although Bird frequently is to the NBA finals as Reggie Jackson was to the World Series and Roger Staubach to the two-minute drill.

You want your fate in their hands.

"Seemed like I was in on everything for a little bit in the fourth quarter, didn't it?" Bird admitted.

Every play.

In every way.

If Bird wasn't stealing the ball from Magic, he was putting it in the basket from afar. Or wrestling it from Bob McAdoo; or drawing a foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with it; or passing it to D.J. for the deciding basket.

"Like the old Bird," Jones gushed. "Those flying jumpers."

Bird's right index finger still is swollen and purple-ugly. Painful chips evidently are floating about in his right elbow. He shot miserably in Game 3 and a good deal of Game 4.

Still . . .

"I wanted us to lose the game on my jump shots or win it on 'em," he said. "I don't know what the trouble had been before, cause it wasn't the injuries. But I'd been tentative.

"I talked to Red and he said I'd even been second-guessing myself on defense. I was very pleased with my defense this game, especially in the fourth quarter.

"I try to get off to a good start (in each fourth quarter), and when I backed off on (James) Worthy and it went down, I knew I was in control."

His brilliance was contagious.

Danny Ainge had been four for 16 his last seven quarters; he tried two long jumpers at pivotal points in the fourth period and buried both. The erratic Dennis was a magical Johnson, with 27 points and 12 assists; his seven rebounds were one more than Abdul-Jabbar.

"We've always been confident in close games," Bird said. "We're not the type of team that chokes. I'm not sayin' the Lakers are. But with their backs to the wall, lots of teams can't do it.

"We usually can.

"For some guys (down the stretch), the rim starts to shrink. For us out there this time, it looked like the basket was very large."

Game 4 was memorable because three players among the best at their positions in the history of basketball got isolated on each other during the final-quarter drama.

Forward Bird once took a long pass from Kevin McHale on the run; several feet away, directly in his flight pattern, center Abdul-Jabbar set himself fencepost straight, trying to arrange a collision.

Abdul-Jabbar takes a charge about as often as rivers flow north or McAdoo hands out assists. So you knew this was the supreme gut check.

The crash, it developed, was nothing more than a fender-bender. But Abdul-Jabbar was called for the foul.

"He took two steps," Abdul-Jabbar later insisted, "and I never moved my feet."

The effort was deeply appreciated.

Another time, Bird was face-up on Magic just beyond the free throw line; incredibly, the ball slipped off Magic's hands and into Bird's.

"I was trying to fake him and then drive," Magic explained, "but when I faked, it went out of my hands."

To some Celtics, the bobble was deja vu, only a bit earlier this time this season. His indecision, bad pass and missed free throws in the finals last season had haunted Magic for months. To emphasize that this turnover, with nearly five minutes still left to play, came more from tenacity than timidity, Magic dried his hands on his shorts.

"Wiping his hands off when he threw it away," Celtics charmer M.L. Carr clucked. "Can you believe it!"

Later, Magic stole a pass from Bird and fed Byron Scott for a fast-break dunk; he also tied the game with 19 seconds left on a follow-up of Abdul-Jabbar's miss. Looking ahead to Game 5 Friday night, he said: "Can't sulk too long."