Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 43 vs. the Lakers

Celtics (32-10) vs. Lakers (30-15)
January 13, 1980
Boston Garden

Defense.

The Los Angeles Lakers employed a stifling defensive strategy to hold the Celtics scoreless during a 21-0 run in the third quarter, drastically altering a 67-53 Celtics’ lead into a 74-67 deficit.  Yet the Celtics refused to surrender, and the game — a 100-98 victory for LA — ended on a controversial whistle.

Cooper-Bird

Bob Ryan’s article in the January 14, 1980 Boston Globe provided extended coverage of the game, as well as the call that put Norm Nixon on the line with three seconds remaining:

A majestic basketball game deserves a more fitting climax than a questionable call that places a man on the foul line with the score tied and three seconds remaining – for being fouled on the passoff.  And yet the fact that it was two foul shots by Norm Nixon, and not, say, a sweeping hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an up-fake jumper by Jamaal Wilkes (or even one of Nixon’s artful drives) that decided yesterday’s Celtic-Laker extravaganza hardly diminished the impact of this superb contest. It’s just that it would have been nice to end the proceedings without controversy.

But you pays your money and you takes what you get in this league, and what the 15,320 hoop worshipers got at the Garden yesterday was a spectacular second-half performance by the Lakers.  They injected themselves into the game with a memorable run of 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, then outlasted the Celtics in a dramatic final period of play to earn a 100-98 triumph on the aforementioned foul shots by Nixon, who, according to referee Jack Madden, was slapped by Nate Archibald while trying to divest himself of the basketball.

Though the game delivered, the suspense behind a nationally televised bout between  Larry Bird and Magic Johnson turned out to be a letdown.  Johnson only played 21 minutes, limping around the parquet for only 21 minutes with a groin pull.  Bird played 36 minutes and added 12 boards, but after shooting 6-6 from the field in the first half, was hampered by the defense of LA’s Michael Cooper in the third and fourth quarter.  Bird was limited to two points in the second half and did not attempt a free throw all day long.  Larry Whiteside’s recap in the Globe detailed Cooper’s big day:

“I think if you look to one key to our turnaround,” Laker coach Paul Westhead said afterwards, “it would be the job Cooper did on Bird. He had killed us in the first half, yet in the third quarter especially, Cooper went out and denied him the ball.

“Bird is such a great player and can do so many things. But he can’t do it if he hasn’t got the ball. We played defense and it got us back into our game. We got our break going off it, and we think we’re one of the better fast-break teams in this league. I won’t say we’re better than the Celtics. But if we play defense, we can run with anybody.”

The ploy has been tried many times against Bird, but its success has been marginal because the 6-9 Celtic forward is so strong that he can post most guards and simply overpower them. But for some reason, that didn’t happen yesterday, and the rhythm, timing and shooting that had carried the Celtics to a 14-point lead all but vanished while the Lakers took charge.

Cooper’s nine points and four rebounds tell little of the job he did against Bird. The former University of New Mexico star was not to be denied his moment of glory – not by the Celtics or the fan who accidentally doused his face with a cup of beer while Cooper was making a brilliant save of a loose ball.

“I had never played against Bird until I saw him last time in Los Angeles,” said Cooper, “and I couldn’t have stopped him all by myself. I concentrated on denying him the ball. I’m quicker than he is, but I’m in trouble if they (the Celtics) start lobbing passes over my head. They never did. Maybe it was because they were worrying about the big guy (Abdul-Jabbar) in the middle blocking shots. Maybe it was because everybody was helping out on defense.”

It was argued later that Bird wasn’t the only one having his problems because of the Laker defense. The Celtics got only 12 points in the period, and hit only 5 of 28 attempts from the field. Not only was shot selection a problem, but so were execution and overall judgment against a Los Angeles club that was later described as “awesome.” But to a national television audience and the Garden crowd, the feat of stopping Bird ranked right along with the 33-point effort by Abdul-Jabbar.

“They are a very good club,” said Bird. “We can’t say we’re better than they are because they’ve beaten us twice now. What happened today was not one guy’s fault. It was everybody’s fault. I thought I might have been able to do more inside. But I never got the ball. The shots were there and we just didn’t execute.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Fifteen of the final eighteen fouls were whistled against Boston, yet overall fouls (Boston 22, LA 20) and free throw attempts (23-22 advantage for the Celtics) were even.  In addition to the Celtics’ second offensive slump, similar to the one suffered a week prior in San Antonio, the inability to stop a premiere post player again reared its head as an issue.  Abdul-Jabbar was the high scorer with 33 points, but Dave Cowens did all he could to deter LA’s big man, as he needed 29 shot attempts to get there.  Whiteside looked in the Globe at Kareem’s resurgence:

“He was unstoppable,” said Nate Archibald of Jabbar.  “I mean, Dave Cowens did a hell of a job, but he’s a 6-8 guy trying to stop a guy who is 7-2.  And when he’s throwing that sky hook, he’s 10 feet tall. In the past, we’ve concentrated on stopping everybody else, and letting him get his points.  But the way he was going, Dave needed some help and we just didn’t give it to him.”

Abdul-Jabbar still uses the Sky Hook as a major weapon.  He tossed in several over Cowens, but in Los Angeles’ 21-point surge in the third quarter that carried it back from a 14-point deficit, Abdul- Jabbar scored two of his three field goals on short jumpers.  He also turned passer to aid Wilkes and Chones, the major leaders of the surge. And he became an intimidator inside, even if by no more than his mere presence.

“That’s what I find is the beauty of the man,” said Johnson. “Even when he is not having a good night, he can help this club by his presence. He can carry a club, but he doesn’t have to with this team.”

Ray Fitzgerald also wrote a piece on the former UCLA star and how, despite advanced age (who could know he still had eight more years left to play?):

Pat Riley, once a player with and against Jabbar, is now a Lakers’ assistant coach.

“I never thought he was as into the game as he is now. He’s more inspired,” Riley said yesterday after Jabbar had splintered the Celtics with 33 points, 12 rebounds and about 100 intimidations around the basket.

Riley thinks it has also helped to have others around to attract the media.

“He’s relieved to see the writers flock to (Magic) Johnson and the others. He’s never liked being the focal point.”

Jabbar feels he’s a more complete player now because he understands the game more.

“You never swim the same river twice,” he said. “When I played for Larry Costello (in Milwaukee), I was under strict orders to shoot the ball. But I’m not playing with the same people now, so I’m not the same. When you see your teammates diving for the ball, you feel kind of bad about laying back.”

Nate Archibald has known Jabbar since they played against each other in high school – Archibald for DeWitt Clinton and Jabbar for Power Memorial – and worked with kids in an organization called Sports Rescue.

“He was the biggest thing in New York, next to the Empire State Building,” said Archibald.

Tiny Archibald

“He always seemed into the game to me. If I drove into the middle, I always knew he was in there somewhere, waitin’. But you can’t carry a team on your back all the time.”

It is difficult for a crowd to relate to a basketball player who is 7 feet 2. It seems such an obvious advantage. And so the crowds go for the flash of a Julius Erving, the guts of an Archibald driving through the forest, the ebullience of a Magic Johnson, the gutsiness of a Dave Cowens.

Jabbar’s sky hook, his ability to find the open man when double- teamed and his mere presence in the middle on defense are fearsome to opponents, but taken for granted by fans.

But Archibald has it right. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, aging gracefully at 32, is still the single most dominating player in pro basketball.

The Celtics still had their chances to walk away victoriously, but Bob Ryan wrote of how the Lakers earned Boston’s respect by completing the season-sweep:

It was tied as late as 91-all (4:09 left), before LA ran off seven straight (including one on an ill- advised Fitch technical at 93-91). But the Celtics gave it one last shot, coming from that 98-91 state of affairs with 2:17 left to tie the game at 98 apiece on a spectacular fast- break basket by Cedric Maxwell with 21 seconds to play.

All that remained, however, was a wait until the Archibald foul, a call disputed by Boston, but a call that could not change the fact that Madden and Ed Rush had worked a great ballgame. The Celtics were out of timeouts (Fitch had called three in the third period during the LA blitz), and still Cowens got off a makeable 20-footer that hit the rim as the buzzer sounded.

Spencer Haywood

Diving deeper on the subject of defense, LA’s Spencer Haywood added 10 points for the Lakers.  The 1971 Haywood v. National Basketball Association “was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled, 7–2, against the National Basketball Association’s old requirement that a player may not be drafted by a NBA team unless he waited four years (which meant playing at the college level in most cases) following his graduation from high school.”  Years later, this decision would allow for players such as Moses Malone and Shawn Kemp, and then Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, to enter the NBA directly out of high school.

Around the NBA, expansion dominated the talk around the league.  Red Auerbach spoke out against the move, fearing it would hurt the overall product.  Larry Whiteside from the Globe added more coverage from the January 11, 1980 edition of the Boston Globe.

The NBA is thinking about expanding again, and yes, the proposal will get stiff opposition from Red Auerbach of the Celtics.

An expansion committee decided yesterday in New York to recommend to the National Basketball Assn. Board of Governors that Dallas be invited to become the 23d franchise for the 1980-81 season. Celtic owner Harry Mangurian was a member of the committee, whose proposal will be voted upon Feb. 2, the day before the NBA All-Star game at Landover, Md.  But Auerbach, the Celtics’ influential and volatile general manager, said yesterday that he doesn’t think the NBA needs another expansion, if, for no other reason, than it will “dilute the product”.

“We had the merger and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” said Auerbach. “The salaries didn’t go down, did they? We got some money, but that didn’t change anything. Instead of bringing in somebody new, I’d rather we take care of our own people who are in trouble.”

The expansion committee selected Dallas, a franchise group headed by Norman Sonju, and said it was the only city ready for an NBA franchise at this time.

Whiteside also noted that the league was further investigating the fight from Friday night at the Garden between Dave Cowens and Hawks’ center Tree Rollins.

The NBA said yesterday it is reviewing films of a fight last Friday night …  A decision is expected in a few days.

Both players were assessed a technical foul for their duel at the Garden and were ejected from the game by veteran official Joe Gushue, whose report was received by the office of Comr. Larry O’Brien yesterday, along with videotapes of the fight. Each will be fined $275 for being ejected from the game, won by Boston, 108-93.

On the way to 60 wins, the Lakers would continue to roll through the league in the next couple of weeks, winning 16 of their next 19 to create some distance between themselves and the Seattle Supersonics in the Pacific Division standings.

The Celtics return to action at the Garden on Wednesday night against the Bulls.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.