The only thing wrong with us," said Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics coach, after his team had been thrashed for the second time in a row by Washington in the Eastern Conference playoff finals, "is that we just are not putting the ball in the hole. Now, I don't understand why that is so difficult for people to understand."
All week long, Heinsohn had been swamped by explanations for the two defeats—and remedies. Dave Cowens and John Havlicek, for instance, supposedly were not "involved" enough in the offense. Or the Celtics weren't running in fast-break fashion, but in confusion. Stop playing Havlicek so much, he's too old. Or why isn't Havlicek playing more? Boston was wasting too much defense on Elvin Hayes, who was going to score anyway. Or not enough: double-team the Big E, that'll do it.
"Bull," Heinsohn snapped. "People are saying we've overprepared. How can you be overprepared for a good team like Washington?
"Contrary to what anyone says, the fact is that we are getting a man open but the ball isn't going in. It wasn't our execution. It wasn't Washington's defense. It wasn't our shot selection. The ball just isn't going in the hole. And when you don't shoot well against a tough team like Washington you are in trouble."
In those opening two games, which Washington won 100-95 and 117-92, the Celtics somehow managed to miss 127 of 207 shots. Between them, Cowens and Havlicek sank only 27 of 80 shots, which seems like a fair amount of involvement, if not very helpful involvement. But then, only Jo Jo White was hitting with any consistency for the Celtics. The all-star guard scored 27 points in the opener, 18 in the second game.
Meanwhile, Washington, led by the magnificent Hayes, was playing with a hot hand. For the first two games, more than half of everything the Bullets put up went in. Hayes had 34 points in the first one—when Washington came from 12 back at halftime to win—and 29 in the second. And the Bullets apparently had found an effective blockade for the Celtics' fast break.
Actually, it is a simple defense, and when Washington is scoring it works beautifully. As soon as one of the Bullets puts the ball in the air, Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter and Mike Riordan turn and run for the other end of the court, leaving Hayes and Wes Unseld to worry about possibly grabbing an offensive rebound. Sometimes, even Hayes will turn and retreat with his three smaller teammates. "We don't get too many offensive rebounds," says Riordan, "but it sure kills their fast break."
On Friday, after the defeats, the Celtics held a tough practice. They made some adjustments in their offense, mainly looking to get Cowens in lower, and to get Havlicek more open. "I'm best when I'm moving without the ball," said Havlicek. "That's when it is the toughest to guard a man—when he doesn't have the ball."
"We've finally got it together," said Heinsohn after practice. "We're more intense now than we've been in a long time. We're going to win this thing in seven games. And if we don't, then come and tell me what everybody is saying."
A year ago the Celtics were a hungry ball club. Now they were an embarrassed one. And Havlicek was bridling about references to his age. "I'm going to come out firing," said the 35-year-old Celtics captain.
No one has ever faulted the Celtics' defense. They had always been tough, and from the beginning of Saturday's Game Three they went into a press, slashing and cutting at Washington's running attack. The Bullets were no less fiery, and on offense they still held the hot hand. Washington hit on 12 of 23 shots in the first quarter; Boston on only 10 of 25. But the Celtics picked up 11 points at the foul line and stayed close.
Then, under pressure from the Celtics' defense, Washington's shooters began to falter, hitting only nine of 23 in the second period. With Cowens and Paul Silas again dominating the boards, the Celtics were getting more shots and, with their slightly improved accuracy, led at halftime 60-57.
The third quarter was a disaster for the Bullets. Boston managed to make only 29.6% of its shots and still outscored Washington by 11 points. The Bullets scored just 10 points—their record low for one quarter this year.
At the end, the game turned into a YMCA pick-up rumble, with the two teams managing only eight baskets each in the final quarter. Through one particularly horrendous stretch of steals and bad passes, four minutes and nine seconds went by without a point being scored, and when it was finally over, Boston had won 101-90.
Drained, Heinsohn slumped in one corner of the dressing room and explained that the day's strategy had been simple. "We went out to play them one quarter at a time and try to win each quarter. I thought we played a really fine defensive game."
A local radio man shoved a mike into the coach's face. "Do you think this now makes you the favorite to win?"
Stunned, Heinsohn managed a weak laugh. "Aw, come on," he said, "are you kidding me?"
Across the room, a very tired Havlicek began peeling off his wet uniform. As he had promised, he had come out firing, finishing with a game high of 26 points.
"We've just got up one half of a mountain today," he said. "We still have the other half to climb just to get back on the same level."
"You tired, John?"
Havlicek laughed. "This time of the year all the ballplayers are very tired mentally and physically. It's now that you have to push yourself. You're tired but you can't worry about it. You know the other team is having the same problems."
Boston's victory narrowed the Bullets' series lead to 2-1, but otherwise didn't seem to prove much, except that Washington had showed that it could match the Celtics in scoring slumps. Boston's offense had picked up some—although 39% from the floor is not exactly a gaudy figure—but it was nowhere near the attack that carried the Celtics to 60 victories in the regular season and a 4-1 margin over Houston in the Eastern semifinals.
There were, nevertheless, some positive signs. Havlicek's 26 points was only one fewer than he scored in the first two games combined. Cowens had 24, up six from his previous high. And White's 21 maintained his consistency.
Boston can do little to improve its defense or rebounding, what with Cowens and Silas taking charge of the boards. Silas has been especially devastating. He finished the third game with 25—as many as Hayes and Wes Unseld combined—and eight of them came at the offensive end. In all, Boston had an amazing 21 offensive rebounds, which explains why the Celtics were able to take 100 shots and the Bullets managed only 87. Overall, Boston outrebounded Washington 62-46.
And Washington may have some new problems. "We've finally caught on to the rhythm of their offense," Heinsohn said. "We didn't know what they were going to do. Now we know. We know the patterns and we know the options."
After Boston finally took away the Bullets' running game, the Bullets had to struggle for everything they got. The same thing had happened in their playoff series against Buffalo. Whenever the Braves managed to force Washington into a patterned offense, the Bullets had to strain to score.
"That was a problem against Buffalo," Riordan said. "When we had our running game we were good. When we didn't our patterns didn't work. In the first two games against Boston we were converting our fast breaks and making our shots. They tried to control the game by stifling us, looking for mistakes. Only we didn't make any."
The mistakes were there Saturday. Washington was forced into 15 turnovers and Boston converted them for 21 points. The Celtics finished with nine steals.
"I think we won the game yesterday in practice," Heinsohn was saying. "Everybody got superinvolved, really got it together. But I don't think we could be any more intense than we were today. We played them as hard as anyone could play them. And we got our two guys involved. We got Dave down low, ran stuff down low, low, low. And we got the other guy involved. If he goes, he goes. Today he did."