One of the few times guard Magic Johnson's effervescent smile lit up his face during the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA playoff series with the Houston Rockets came a few minutes after his team's elimination by the Rockets in the Western Conference final.

Looking at a locker that would go unused until the 1986-87 season, he managed a vintage grin and said, "What I'm really kicking and screaming about for me and the team is that we don't get to see how good Boston really is. I'd heard so much. . . . I guess I'll watch it the championship series on television, but it won't be the same."

How good are the Boston Celtics, who will be seeking their 16th NBA title when their best-of-seven series against Houston opens at Boston Garden Monday afternoon (WDVM-TV-9, 3 p.m.)?

All indications are that Johnson and his teammates will be better off watching from their collective beaches and pools. Even though the Lakers took the Celtics to the limit two years ago before succumbing in a seventh-game steam bath and returned here last June to win the title, it would have been difficult for Los Angeles to defeat Boston again.

Houston does match up better against the Celtics and would appear to be the team with the necessary ingredients to derail Boston. Still, popular opinion says it would be straining the boundaries of credibility to believe Boston needs more than five games to win the title.

Milwaukee Bucks Coach Don Nelson is familiar with Boston, having been swept in four games in the Eastern Conference final by the Celtics. His team's early exit gave Nelson the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to watch Game 5 of the Rockets-Lakers series.

"As much as I respect the Lakers and Rockets and head coaches Pat Riley and Bill Fitch, the more I watched the more I kept thinking that both teams were only playing for second place," Nelson said.

Following a 67-15 regular season, the fourth-best record in league history, and 11 wins in 12 playoff games thus far, Boston would finish the season with 82 victories if it takes the title. The Rockets' 36-5 regular season record at the Summit in Houston appears remarkable, except when compared to the Celtics' 40-1 mark at Boston Garden. Throw in seven postseason triumphs and the Atlantic Division champions have won 38 consecutive times on their home floor.

Boston forward Larry Bird soon will pick up his third consecutive NBA most valuable player trophy, and front-court teammates Robert Parish and Kevin McHale are fixtures on the all-star team. The backup center, Bill Walton, recently was named the best sixth man in the league.

The Celtics are easily the best passing team in the league -- an indication of their unselfishness -- and are far superior to the 1981 team that took the Rockets out in six games for title No. 14.

So why aren't the Rockets quaking in their rhinestone boots?

"Because we beat the world champions to get here," said guard Robert Reid. "In 1981, it was sort of flukish; we were in people's living rooms before they knew what had happened. This time we knocked on the door and came right on in the front."

That accomplished, how can the Rockets -- who went 0-2 against the Celtics this season -- manage to sit down and stay for longer than a four-game visit?

"Every team has tried every which way to do it, but Houston, with Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, has the size and strength to match up with the Celtics," said Dave Wohl, coach of the New Jersey Nets. The Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers were the only teams to beat Boston more than once in the regular season, each beating the Celtics twice.

Wohl suggests that the Rockets try to push the ball up the floor as often as possible.

"You can't turn the game into an overall talent match because Houston will definitely lose," he said. "What you want to do is make it a stamina battle, making people like McHale and Parish run back on defense as much as possible."

Nelson said the Celtics "can beat you any way you want to play, slow or fast, inside or out, but it is important to get some easy transition baskets against them."

Whatever the Rockets try, Johnson said he can sense the outcome of the series.

"Houston will play them tough, especially if Boston takes them lightly at the start," he said. "In the end, though, they've got no one like Larry Bird."