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Celtics buy a stay of execution - seek a reprieve - in NBA finals

Robert Parish, the Boston Celtics' durable center, was driving in his Jeep Wagoneer a couple months ago, not long after the Celtics had watched a third-quarter lead of 17 points slip away as the Los Angeles Lakers kept coming and coming at them. ``Sometimes, when they are on top of their game,'' he said, patiently steering his car through Boston traffic, ``no matter what you do, it's just not enough.''

Then, again, sometimes it is enough.

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On Sunday afternoon, for instance, with their backs against the wall, in a do-or-die situation, the Celtics found the things to do to stop the ``unstoppable'' Lakers. Tonight they will try again.

What they did Sunday - racking up a 109-103 win to keep from falling behind in the series 0-3 - is a textbook case study for what they must do in Game 4. Certainly if they hope to make a respectable showing against a team that twice in this best-of-seven series has made them look old, tired, and irrelevant.

It could be argued that the Lakers were not on top of their game as the battle between these two archrivals moved from Los Angeles to Boston. About the only thing consistently connecting for the showboat offense was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook, and he had to work hard to find a position to swing it from. The Laker offense came up empty at the basket often enough to make one wonder where all the magic had gone.

And in fact Magic Johnson got his legs and intentions so crossed at one point that, in an easy uncontested transition, he just up and traveled with the ball.

The fact is, however, that a Boston Celtics team, pumped up by a roaring, not-to-be-denied home crowd, simply took the Lakers' game away from them. Challenging the guards further upcourt on almost every possession, getting back down court, they shut down the Lakers' running game.

Los Angeles' deadly shooters - James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, et al. - suddenly found themselves firing from the wrong places at the wrong time. ``Boston stopped our running game totally,'' an exhausted Mychal Thompson told the Monitor in the locker room after the game. ``They looked like the racehorses out there. They got back on defense faster than Custer beating a retreat at his last stand.''

If, indeed, Game 3 is not to prove the Celtics' last stand, however, Boston will need much more of the same to throw at the sleeker, generally far younger team in this bicoastal face-off, in the second of three games in the Boston Garden (9 p.m., EDT, on CBS).

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Time and again, Boston built healthy leads, only to see them quickly crumble to much scarier margins as L.A. came back with streaks of genius reminiscent of their first two victories. There were no images of Cooper hanging crazily from the basket, after making yet another patented ``Coop-a-loop'' slam dunk, to haunt the nightmares of Boston fans. But the cross-court passes, quick hands, and intelligent eyes that enabled cruise to an 11-1 playoff record entering the final series made frequent mincemeat of Boston's best defense.

It's hard to imagine Celtics head coach K.C. Jones looking at the strange chemistry of Game 3, and feeling overly confident that he can duplicate it tonight. Too many unaccountable elements set the beaker to boil.

Consider, for instance, the following almost science-fiction-like development:

In the second period, Robert Parish picked up his third personal foul, and Jones replaced him with Greg (Egg Roll) Kite, who earned this nickname from his teammates during the regular season by coming up with so many goose eggs and by being unable to develop an easy finger-roll in his lay-ups.

Well, Sunday afternoon, Kite was not only good. He was brilliant. He scored no points. But forget that. Remember instead that he found the key to almost ruining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's day. The Laker center got his shots, but he had to work hard for them, and that did as much as anything else to sludge up the pace of L.A.'s game. In addition, Kite grabbed big rebounds. He made himself unpopular with the entire Laker offense. He blocked a Magic Johnson lay-up and then caught his own deflection at the baseline. He inspired his teammates with hard work, sudden grace, heart.

How often can Jones and the Celtics count on that happening?

``I wouldn't have been here as long as I have, if I couldn't do something,'' the heavyweight perenniel bench warmer told an assembly of reporters in a semi-darkened Boston Garden. Maybe not, but most teams in the NBA have found a way to counter the something that Greg Kite can do. Far more troublesome to L.A. coach Pat Riley will be the prospect that Boston's starting five - widely acclaimed as the best in the NBA - may just come out again, with those glowing eyes, prowling the court.

If so, what will L.A. do to adjust?

``They're not going to change their whole game just because of one loss,'' Boston reserve guard Jerry Sichting observed. And, indeed, the Lakers do not appear to consider this game a life-changing experience. Said Thompson: ``We'll just have to take the rest of the day off, relax, try some of Boston's great seafood restaurants, and regroup tomorrow.''

Both teams realize, however, that the Celtics will face another do-or-die situation tonight, which fact alone may inspire them to play the kind of burn-up basketball they did on Sunday.

``If they come out like they did today,'' Magic Johnson concluded, ``we're going to be in trouble.''

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