After nearly wasting a 17-point lead through sheer bullheadedness, the Los Angeles Lakers weathered the Boston Celtics' fourth-quarter rally to win Game 5 of the NBA championship series tonight, 120-111. The Lakers took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, which will move to Boston for Game 6 on Sunday.
The Lakers' fast break increased a 64-51 halftime lead to 89-72 in the third period. At the start of the fourth quarter, though, they bogged down trying to funnel the ball to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on nearly every possession. By the time 3:55 was left, the Celtics had closed to 107-103.
But, looking at the end result, it would be hard to fault Lakers Coach Pat Riley's strategy. After all, Abdul-Jabbar had a game-high 36 points. He's totaled 92 points in the Lakers' three victories and 33 in their two losses.
"We were a lot smarter this game than in the last one," he said. "We didn't play into their hands in this game. There were things that they wanted us to do, which they were waiting for but we didn't do them."
"It was grit," Riley said. "We stayed, we hung, we took their best shot and we came back."
"Everybody realized what we had to do tonight," forward Kurt Rambis said. "People were tired, but that's when you have to dig down. We all knew that we had to win this game."
Had the Celtics won, they would have been almost assured of becoming the first team to take consecutive titles since 1969.
"We felt good about what we able to do and where we were in the game," said Jimmy Rodgers, the Celtics' assistant coach, who took over when his boss, K.C. Jones, was ejected in the third period.
Robert Parish led the Celtics with 26 points. Teammate Kevin McHale had 24 and Dennis Johnson 22.
Besides the evenness of the series going into tonight's game, the Lakers and Celtics were amazingly close in nearly every statistic over the first four games of the series. Los Angeles shot .499 from the field to Boston's .496. The Lakers had slightly outrebounded defending champion Boston, 173-166. Each team had 125 assists. The Lakers had 37 steals and Boston 35. The Celtics had 58 turnovers, three more than Los Angeles. In the category that counted most, total points, Boston had 468, an average of 117, Los Angeles had 464 for a 116 average.
That statistical balance carried into tonight's game. Midway through the opening quarter, Boston led by 17-16. With 2:11 to play in the quarter, Los Angeles had come back to take a 28-25 lead, with Abdul-Jabbar scoring eight points in the run. He had 12 in the period, which ended with the Lakers in front, 35-31.
Only McHale, who scored the Celtics' last eight points of the quarter, kept it close. After Boston pulled even at 44-44 with 6:52 left in the half, the Lakers surged ahead, 53-48, three minutes before halftime.
Things got worse for Boston in the third period. Magic Johnson and Rambis scored on layups and James Worthy, who finished with 33 points, made two foul shots to make the score 70-52 with 10:04 remaining in the third quarter. Boston's point came from Larry Bird, only his third of the night. In the first half, he shot only one of five from the field.
The action got hectic at the eight-minute mark of the quarter. Protesting what he thought to be a foul against Bird, Jones drew a technical foul from referee Darrel Garretson. Upset with that, Jones stormed onto the court, getting another technical and, with it, ejection.
Magic Johnson made both the foul shots for a 76-59 lead, but the Celtics came back to close to 76-68. Momentarily stunned, Los Angeles regrouped and proceeded to a 85-70 lead that forced the Celtics to spend a timeout to stop the Lakers' momentum.
After the break, the Celtics cut it to 91-81. But by the time the third period ended, the Lakers led, 95-81. Worthy scored 11 in the entertaining 12 minutes and Bird recovered from his slow first half with 12 points in the period. He finished with 20.
"It was a great win, but we have to go back to their home court," Riley said. "But I like our chances. Our guys are stoked."