BOSTON, JUNE 9 -- Overcoming a 16-point third-quarter deficit, the Los Angeles Lakers proved perhaps once and for all that they are far more than a group of finesse players, toughing out a 107-106 victory tonight over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the NBA championship series.
The win, which gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, was clinched in the final two seconds of play when Lakers guard Magic Johnson hit a driving hook shot over Boston all-stars Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Larry Bird. Ten seconds earlier, Bird had given the Celtics a 106-104 lead by hitting a three-point field goal.
Following a timeout called after Bird's shot, the Lakers moved the ball to center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the NBA's all-time leading scorer was fouled with eight seconds remaining while attempting a hook shot. Abdul-Jabbar hit his first foul shot but missed the second; however, the rebound caromed out of bounds off the hands of McHale, setting up Johnson's last-second drive past McHale and into the lane.
Following Johnson's shot, the Celtics called a timeout to move the ball to midcourt. From there, guard Dennis Johnson hit Bird in the corner, however his rushed attempt bounded away from the rim.
Of the winning shot, Magic Johnson said: "I started to take the jumper, but I saw it was Kevin on me and I thought he'd block it because I don't really jump; I'm not a jump shooter per se. I went into the middle. I've been shooting the hook shot all year and it was the best shot at the time. I never saw it go in -- someone jumped in front of me. I guess I'll watch it later."
Whenever he reviews the tapes, Johnson should watch more than just the last of his game-high 29 points. Also of note was the defensive effort that keyed a comeback based not on the fast break but rather on a grind-it-out effort that matched the Celtics' style but exceeded their performance.
"The game was the way we wanted it played. We were bumping and playing physical and everything else," said McHale. "It was the type of tempo, the type of game, that we wanted to play."
When Dennis Johnson scored on a layup 3:30 into the game to give the Celtics a lead, 6-5, that they wouldn't relinquish until the closing moments, the crowd of 14,890 -- the Celtics' 321st consecutive sellout -- began roaring.
What had been a relatively genteel series through three games rapidly turned rough. While driving for a layup in the second quarter, Lakers forward James Worthy was clotheslined by Dennis Johnson while being low-bridged by center Greg Kite. Worthy came up off the floor and went for Kite, emptying both benchs. Kite and Worthy were assessed technical fouls.
In the third period, Los Angeles forward Michael Cooper drew another after a brief exchange with McHale, and later in the quarter, McHale and Lakers guard Byron Scott were hit with another double technical for another altercation.
The series of events just seemed to make the crowd hungrier for the Celtics to finish off the Lakers. That had seemed to be the inevitable outcome when a 20-12 spurt put the Celtics ahead, 79-63, but the roughhousing appeared to set something off in the Lakers.
"It definitely gets a team excited if another team takes cheap shots at them," said Scott. "It always seems to get us more into the game."
Los Angeles started its move with dunks by Worthy and reserve forward Mychal Thompson (16 points, nine rebounds). Scott hit two foul shots and Cooper two more to make the score 85-78, Boston, after three quarters.
In the final period, the Lakers continued to take the game right to the Celtics. Of their first 15 points of the quarter, six came from shots within the lane and another seven on free throws. The last two were by Thompson and tied the score at 93 with 6:14 remaining.
At this stage, the Boston fans, still not quite believing what had transpired, came up with even more noise, exhorting their team. And the Celtics players responded, scoring 10 of the next 12 points to move ahead, 103-95, with 3:29 to play.
That kind of cushion, especially in the Garden, where Boston had won 85 of its previous 87 games, normally means victory for the Celtics but this hasn't been a normal season for the team. Before practice Monday, McHale said that the Celtics were perhaps the best in the league at taking a six-point lead and squeaking out a two-point victory.
One night later, they wouldn't even get that. Abdul-Jabbar hit a free throw, as did Thompson. Then the Celtics went into an uncharacteristic siege of brainlock. First, double-teamed in the low post, Parish lost the basketball to Abdul-Jabbar. Speeding the other way, Cooper connected on a three-point field goal to make it 103-100 with 1:32 left.
On their next possession, Bird was guilty of a major error, throwing away the ball at 1:19. That led to a fadeaway basket by Worthy with 59 seconds remaining.
"We gave it away, no question about that," said Bird. "The last couple of months we've done that -- lost leads we shouldn't have."
The Celtics' generosity became official a short time later. Bird missed a jumper, which led to a slam dunk by Abdul-Jabbar on an alley-oop feed from Magic Johnson, giving the Lakers a 104-103 lead with 29 seconds to play. At the time, Bird (six for 17 from the field) seemed set to be fitted for goat's horns but, following a Boston timeout, he drilled his three-point basket to put the Celtics on top.
"We both do what we have to do to win -- that's the difference between us and a lot of other players," said Magic Johnson. "We'll take those shots . . . I won't shoot a three-pointer like him, though."
Instead, as he has done so often in his most valuable player season, Johnson played Houdini, snaking his way through traffic for the game-winner, a shot that left the Celtics very much aware of the hole into which they'd been placed.
"I know that when I'm up 3-1 in a series I say that it's over with," said Bird. "We're not a good road team so even if we win here on Thursday I don't know if we can beat them twice out there."