BOSTON -- They were joking now, a couple of one-legged basketball players whose seasons -- and careers -- would go on at least one more game.

"My man," bellowed Kevin McHale, pointing toward Bill Walton and the small ring of reporters surrounding him in the Celtics dressing room as Thursday became Friday. "Hey, I took the ball to the hoop like a man once, interview me."

McHale was referring to a golden moment in an otherwise lackluster Game 5 of the NBA championship series, a blast from the past by his buddy with an even worse right foot.

For moments all too brief, Walton was the best passing center in the NBA. He was the hub of a Portland team 10 years ago that this collection of Lakers will be measured against if they win once more.

Sadly, the last few seasons, Walton's playing time has been limited to minutes. Lately, it's been second by tenuous second.

"Haven't even practiced since the Milwaukee series," he admitted. "The team won't {before Game 6 Sunday in Los Angeles} because we don't have enough {healthy} guys."

Walton was on the Boston Garden parquet near the end of the third quarter of the Celtics' 123-108 victory -- and in position to execute one of the game's loveliest plays with a player his mental equal -- Larry Bird.

They were on the right side, with Walton setting a pick for Bird and then rolling toward the basket. Naturally, Bird slipped the ball to Walton, and the only near-7-footer who doesn't do dunks took it hard for a two-handed layin.

McHale hugged Walton when his allotted 120 seconds were over; he threw an affectionate needle toward him as they were about to leave the dressing room:

"What's the percentage of times I beat you in practice?"

Walton sat in red-faced silence.

"Go on. Tell 'em. We keep the percentage."

Walton shook his head.

"Ninety percent."

Knowing this was on the order of Joe DiMaggio razzing an ancient Babe Ruth for popping a double, McHale added: "That's my man, though."

NBA men. There had been enough of them pass through earlier. Bill Russell and John Havlicek. Red and the Cooz. To say nothing of the present coach, K.C. Jones, who has 10 championship rings.

Probably, that is why McHale and the others played so well Thursday. They didn't want the men who made the Celtics the Celtics climbing out of their seats and spanking them for not at least delaying the inevitable.

Face facts. The Lakers are faster than the Celtics; they are deeper than the Celtics; they are healthier than the Celtics. If they fail to win the title, in two tries at home, it will be a choke of historic proportion.

"But as long as we're going out there," McHale said, "we might as well play hard."

And they might as well laugh a bit on the way to the gallows. Did someone mention Danny Ainge?

Walton volunteered that the Celtics have not one play designed for the fellow who shot lights-out Thursday, going five for six on three-point tries and scoring 21 points.

Maybe, someone said, the off days could be used to create one crumb for Ainge. An X in his honor, or perhaps an O, if not both.

Laughing, Walton said: "First of all, the other four players wouldn't allow it. And K.C. would say: 'Okay.' "

Meaning Ainge lets fly often enough on his own.

"A helluva shot if it goes in," McHale said of Ainge's three-point bombs, "but a fast-break starter if it doesn't. Maybe it {his burning the net so often} was a bad omen."

The last thing the Celtics need is to light the fuse that ignites the Lakers. Most teams emphasize defense against the Lakers; the Celtics preach offense, patience and ball control and sensible shots. Whatever keeps James Worthy from imitating Carl Lewis.

"When he gets going," McHale said, "he gets going with the best of them. When he goes completely crazy, it usually starts with five or six dunks in the first half. After that, the basket looks like the ocean."

Celtics pride was thrust at McHale, in the form of a question about their being in desperate playoff trouble before and rallying brilliantly.

Yes, replied McHale, a smile starting to perform, the Celtics were down, 0-3, to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals back in '83. And . . . and . . .

"We got blown out the fourth game, too."

Why McHale is lighthearted mystifies many. Listen, as he says: "When they tell you you've got a broken bone {in your foot} and there's a possibility of 21 {playoff} games left, it works on your mind.

"You fight the pain, and you fight a lot of things mentally {such as whether playing on the injury might end your career}.

"Just two more games on it, and it's fixed {by surgery, he hopes}. The last X-rays showed the fracture is completely through the bone. So the worst scenario that can happen has already happened.

"But you've gotta keep going."

Russell and Havlicek would. Walton has. McHale relishes big-victory exchanges such as this one after Game 5:

M.L. Carr to Russell: "You're a household name."

Russell to Carr: "Yeah, trash."

To keep the mood upbeat, the Celtics need something as miraculous as anything in their storied past.

"The Lakers still are on the doorstep, with the key {to the title} in their hands," McHale admitted. "But at least we've moved from the street into the driveway. What we've got to do is mug 'em, grab the key out of their hands and charge through the door."