BOSTON — The first one came with the final seconds dripping away in the first half. Greg Kite threw him the ball off a rebound and Danny Ainge started dribbling downcourt, but, time, time, there wasn’t enough time, so he heaved it, he just heaved it while he was running, a desperation shot from 40 feet. And the ball went up, up, came down, down. . . . Bang.
Three points. The scorers marked it clean as the Celtics ran off the court to deafening cheers, the music of victory. They had a 63-48 lead. But they had just begun. That shot was a warm- up, a tease, the crescendo note of the overture. Do you like what you hear, audience? Stick around. In the third and decisive quarter, they would come down again and again, like a judge’s gavel, like a fist on a bar. Again and again and again. And again.
“Did you come out in the second half looking to shoot those?” someone asked
the Celtics guard, whose five three-point baskets helped lead his team over Los Angeles, 123-108, forcing a Game 6 in this NBA championship. “Did you just have the feel for it? Was that it?”
“Actually, I missed my first one,” said Ainge, laughing, “and all the coaches were screaming, ‘No! No! Don’t shoot those! We don’t need those!’ It’s a good thing I made the next one or I would have been on the bench.”
As it turns out, the first one wasn’t really a three-point attempt. It was close. But, whatever. He made the next one. And the next and the next. With 7:34 to go in the third quarter, the Celtics were leading by nine (and nine is not very much against the Lakers) and Dennis Johnson got him the ball in the left corner and Ainge squared, fired, it went up, up, came down, down. . .
He made the next one. And the next. And the next. He ran to the top of the key, Johnson again got him the ball, it went up, up, it came down, down.
Same spot, two minutes later. Bang. A little to the left, four minutes later. Bang. By the time the quarter was over, he had scored 14 points, the Celtics had a 19-point lead, and the Garden fans put away the handkerchiefs they had brought in case the Celtics lost. And they began to sing.
How big were those three pointers? As big as they get. As big as the 20-plus points scored by each of the Celtics starters. As big as the sudden arrival of a Celtics bench — Kite, Darren Daye, Jerry Sichting and even
(gasp!) Bill Walton. As big as the airplane tickets back to LA that the Celtics earned by winning this night, cutting the Lakers’ lead to 3-2 in this best-of-seven dance.
How big? That big. Each shot sent the Garden crowd into hysteria, leaping to its feet. Is there anything more thrilling for a home crowd than watching a high archer drop from beyond that magic line? Is there? Really? Is there anything that burns the opponents more?
“How much did those three-pointers hurt you?” Lakers guard Magic Johnson was asked afterward.
“They hurt,” he said. “They came every time at the right time . . . bam, he hits another one, and then another one.”
This was a switch. Johnson answering questions about losing, about being outperformed by the opposition. Hadn’t Ainge suffered that role early in this series? He all but disappeared from Games 1 and 2, scoring 11 and six points, respectively. Even in Game 3, the Celtics’ only other win, he contributed just 12 points and no three-point baskets. This was a shooting guard saddled with the ugly task of covering Johnson, who is four inches taller, the league MVP, and playing magnificently.
“I consider him a power forward,” Ainge had said earlier. “I mean the guy’s 6-foot-9. He’s like Buck Williams and those guys. I gotta cover him?”
Yes. He gotta. But on Tuesday night, it was Ainge giving Los Angeles the slip. He would set picks for Larry Bird, and when Bird went past, Ainge would roll away to an open spot, quietly, as if on tip-toes, and the ball would swing around to him and ba–
Well, you know.
“I think they have to first be concerned with Larry,” said Ainge, who finished with 21 points. “That’s who they’re looking for. Tonight I was just spotting up at the three-point line and letting them fly.”‘
And as a result, so now do the Celtics. Back to LA. This basketball season is not over yet. There is no weekend off for Bird and Johnson and Kevin McHale and Kareem. No return to baseball games on Sunday afternoon. No barbecues. No pool parties. Not yet.
“How are you going to win out there?” someone asked K.C. Jones, the Boston coach, whose team has lost both games in LA and has performed miserably throughout the playoffs on the road.
“We’re going to have to transport this parquet floor, piece by piece,” he said, laughing, but certainly open to suggestions. “That one they got out there is too pretty.”
Yes. A pretty sight to the Lakers, who really did not play at full-effort this game. Perhaps they wanted to win this thing back home. Perhaps they simply let up a bit with a big lead. But there was no give up from Boston. That was clear from the start.
Here was Larry Bird, diving for a ball and saving it, slashing his elbow, bleeding, but saving it for a basket by Robert Parish. Here was Kevin McHale, bum foot and all, leaping six, seven, eight times on a single play to tap the ball, keep it alive. Here was Walton — Walton? — and Kite and Daye, the second string, out there trying to stay alive. Here was a final scoresheet that said just one thing: Everybody contributes. McHale, 22 points. Bird, 23 points. Parish, 21 points. Johnson, 25 points.
And mostly, here was Ainge, snubbing his nose at the coaches on the bench. Checking his feet, making sure the line was in front of him, and letting the ball go up, up, come down, down. . . .
Ready for Game 6? CUTLINE: Boston center Robert Parish rejects a shot by theLakers’ A.C. Green.