BOSTON — Not yet. Not over yet. This NBA season has at least one more game, this Celtics-Lakers slugfest has at least one more round. Larry Bird is not through. Magic Johnson is not through. There is no weekend vacation for the only two teams left playing basketball.
“Can we turn this off already?” the country seemed to ask. “Can we go on to baseball now? And barbecues? All that summer stuff?”
“Not yet,” said Boston.
Celtics win. Celtics breathe. Celtics take plane to Los Angeles for Game 6. Thursday night was the most interesting game yet of this series, only because of the pyschological stage on which it was played. Would the Celtics simply put up a decent fight, but succumb to the knowledge that winning three straight from the Lakers is like killing three musketeers with a slingshot? Would the Lakers have enough of the killer instinct — a quality they have lacked in the past — to bury Boston in its own backyard? Which way would it go? Who wins this mind game? Would it be all over? Would it?
“Not yet,” said the Celtics.
The signs were all there. From the Lakers’ first shot of the game, a clanking miss by Byron Scott, to the Celtics’ final shot of the first half, a desperation heave for three points by Danny Ainge that swished through the welcoming net.
“Not yet,” said the crowd.
There was no Boston give-up. That was quickly established. Courage? Here was courage from a team that had only to climb an ice mountain on one leg to win this series. Down 3-1 to LA? Oh my.
And yet, 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 Danny Ainge, driving into the land of the giants, twirling a backwards scoop lay-up that had fans twisting their heads. Here was Bill Walton — Bill Walton? — and Greg Kite and Darren Daye, the second string, out there trying to stay alive.
Here was the slow team playing like a fast team in the third quarter, matching fast break for fast break, three-pointer for three-pointer. They knew a nine-point lead was not enough against LA, so they pushed and pushed and they’d look up and it was still nine points. That’s what playing the Lakers is like. But the third quarter came and the third quarter turned into a Boston barrage, basket after basket, Danny Ainge hitting from the outside like destiny. The crowd was hoarse and deaf and throbbing before the fourth quarter ever began.
Of course Celtics fans would have preferred a win. But before the ball was ever thrown up for this Game 5 championship clash, the watchers here had their papers in order, their goodby notes all licked and stamped.
Call them what you will. Celtics fans are not stupid. When they walked out of this creaky arena Tuesday night, stunned by Magic Johnson’s hook shot that gave the Lakers a come-from- behind 107-106 victory, they weren’t silent simply from sadness. That was grim reality you heard, or didn’t hear, as feet walked down the ramps and out onto Causeway Street. Down 3-1 to LA? Come on.
“How do you think I feel?” Larry Bird had said after that Game 4 loss. “If we were up 3-1, I’d be thinking it was over now, too.” Yes. And Bird has always spoken close to the heart of this team and their fans. He knew it. They knew it. Everybody knew it. Los Angeles was faster, deeper.
The facts of this series spoke for themselves. The Lakers simply blew away the Celtics in the first two games. In the third, with LA completely out of its game plan, bumbling, missing shots, facing the Boston Garden mystique for the first time in these playoffs, with that, and the Celtics clicking on all cylinders, shooting 81 percent in the second quarter, the Boston victory was still only by six points. And then came Game 4, the kind of game that tells you who has the magic in a series like this. Clearly the Lakers have the, well, Magic.
So here were the Celtics, facing the possible end of the road — not for the first time, not for the second time, but for the third time in a month. Milwaukee had taken them to the limit. Detroit had taken them to the limit. But both of those finales had been one game crescendos played on the then-still magical Garden parquet. This was different. Even a win in this Game 5 in Boston meant the need for two more back in Los Angeles.
All day long, the city’s radio stations played hopeful messages for the home team. “Go get ’em tonight, Celtics,” a disc jockey would scream, “but if you lose tonight, hey, we still love you. . . . “
You get the idea. The crowd which filled the Garden on a breezy summer night was fully ready to wave goodby, say “nice job,” and turn to baseball. After all, hadn’t these Celtics endured countless injuries, countless minutes, a lack of bench strength that led to those things in the first place?
Wasn’t this a season played out on tape and splints and ice bags? How long had Kevin McHale been limping? How long had Robert Parish been less than 100 percent? Wasn’t Bill Walton on the bench forever? Clearly this was not the powerful team that defeated Houston for the title last season. This was a team of moxie, spit and glue, a team that kept fishing in its pockets every game, feeling around for something they hadn’t used yet, a scrap paper jump shot, a rolled up steal, a gummy blocked shot or rebound.
And finally, finally, the scoreboard didn’t matter anymore. Win or lose on this night, Boston had fallen in love with the Celtics again, respected them for their courage, adored them for their persistence, their proper use of miracles. The Celtics, at worst, could only be defeated on this night. They couldn’t lose.
And on this night they did not. Over?
“Not yet,” said Boston.
Here we go again.