Maybe this was an NBA championship series that was destined to happen, the best against the worst to prove what the league would have all of its fans believe: That once the playoffs begin, forget everything, it's "the second season."
In this case it was the Boston Celtics, with the best regular-season record in the NBA, against the Houston Rockets, the worst of the 12 clubs that qualified for post-season play. The series could have ended in a flash, especially after Houston's Game 3 performance on Saturday, which tied a record for final-round ineptitude. But it didn't, because despite" the impatience of the Celtics' fans, the NBA steadfastly refused to raise championship banner No. 14 to the rafters of Boston Garden until the Celtics beat the Rockets four times. And after Houston lifted itself on Sunday, much like the space shuttle Columbia, which is the Rockets' newly adopted mascot, the fact was that the Celtics would need to play at least six games to win four.
On the other hand, who believed Houston would be tied 2-2 with Boston in the finals? The Rockets. Who believes Houston can win the championship? Right. The Rockets.
May 17, 1981
The Rocket players gathered all their good-luck talismans and stuffed them into their duffel bags for the opening two-game trip to Boston. They had their record-tying seven playoff road victories, the cosmic energy they had presumably picked up during a visit by space shuttle Pilot Bob Crippen and the miracle from on high conjured up by Brother Dominic of Xerox TV commercial fame.
"Brother Dominic turned the season around for us in November," said Houston publicist Jim Foley. "He was at a game when we were behind the Lakers by 19 in the third quarter. Brother Dominic looked to Heaven and we won the game. Next thing, he was hugging Moses Malone in the locker room."
Rocket Coach Del Harris was clearly delighted to be in a race he figured to be out of long ago. Houston had finished 40-42 in the regular season and had become only the third sub -.500 club in league history to reach the finals. "We've been written off more times than a Cape Cod cottage," he said, recalling the wit, not to mention the snow-white hairdo, of erstwhile presidential candidate John Anderson. Obviously, Harris knew that he couldn't finish third.
Thanks to CBS (the Camouflaged Basketball Service) and the miracle of delayed videotape, the telecasts of the Rockets taking out San Antonio and Kansas City in succession were aired when many of those who cared—in Texas and elsewhere—were fast asleep.
One late-night TV freak was Captain Video, a/k/a Boston Coach Bill Fitch. Fitch had recently become an insomniac, partly because of a sore sciatic nerve, partly out of fear of flying—one-way back to Cleveland, whose Cavaliers he previously coached, should the Celtics lose the series to a team they had beaten 13 straight times over the past two years. Thus, there was little chortling from Fitch after Boston narrowly escaped with a 98-95 victory in Game 1.
Still, Boston was able to beat Houston at its own ugly walk-the-ball-up game that permits the Rockets to send Malone after offensive rebounds as though they were so many gold nuggets. The Celtics all but obliterated Malone this time. He got just five of his 15 rebounds and five of his 13 points in the second half. Overall, Boston beat the Rockets on the offensive boards 25-19. "That was the ball game," said Fitch.
Meanwhile, the individual rebounding wizard turned out not to be Malone, but Boston's Larry Bird, who proves with every game that he has more developed basketball talent—not to be confused with "natural ability"—than any other player in the game today. Bird got 21 rebounds—going into the finals he had been in double figures off the boards in every one of his 11 playoff games—to go with nine assists and 18 points. Two of those points came after Bird followed his own missed 18-foot shot from the right wing, grabbed the rebound as it bounced high off the rim, shifted the ball from his right hand to his left in midair and flipped it in before he went sprawling beyond the baseline. The other players on the premises—let alone most of the crowd—froze in awed disbelief.
Boston General Manager Red Auerbach called it "the greatest play I've ever seen" and said, "Larry Bird is a player of destiny."
Did Red really say those things? Bird was asked.
"Aw, Red's always mumblin' in his mouth," said Bird. "I don't listen to nothin' he says. I just let it go in one ear and out the other."
On the Houston side, Harris kept hearing the same inevitable question: Did Houston really belong here? "I'll tell you," he said. "Boston hasn't seen the last of Moses Malone."
Forty-eight hours later, after Houston had evened the series with a 92-90 win, Harris said, "I'm very happy to say I told you so." Malone had scored 31 points with 15 rebounds, seven offensive, which was more in line with his playoff norms of 27.6 and 14.1.
"I figure if I get involved, it's a different game," said Malone. And remember, Moses did this figuring without benefit of having gone to college. Not only that, but his fellow University of NBA alumnus. Bill Willoughby, out of Dwight Morrow High in Englewood, N.J., popped in 14 big points.
Malone was supposed to be held in check by Boston's three-headed monster of a center—Robert Parish, Rick Robey and Kevin McHale. But all they did was waste 15 fouls—starter Parish played but 14 minutes before fouling out—and Malone went to the line 18 times, hitting 11 shots, compared to his 5 for 6 in Game 1. The Celtics, meanwhile, had 22 turnovers (Houston had 10), which the Rockets converted into 31 points. Bird had another brilliant game, with 21 rebounds and 19 points, but Boston can't depend on him alone any more than Malone can do it all for Houston.
Boston's performance tightened the already-tight knot in Fitch's gut. He found praise only for Bird and Robey who, said Fitch, "did a good job filling in for whoever was wearing Parish's uniform tonight." At halftime Fitch had put a fist through the locker-room blackboard. After the game he ordered his players to pull up their jerseys and search their persons for on-off buttons.
The Rockets, meanwhile, were in sub-orbit. Notably, they had won with Forward Robert Reid, a 17.4 scorer in the playoffs, going 0-7 from the field and Guard Calvin Murphy, their 20-point. 51% shooting spark plug, coming up 4 for 13. Instead, it was Willoughby, Forward Billy Paultz and guards Mike Dunleavy and Allen Leavell, a reserve who hit the winning basket, who gave Malone his best support.
"We're like a rampaging pack of little wolves fighting for survival," said Murphy, the littlest wolf. "If one strays, another says, 'Hey now, you can't be doing that!' We proved we belonged."
So the Rockets broke their jinx after 14 straight losses to Boston and took the home-court advantage. What advantage? Home teams had won just 24 of 49 games so far in the '81 playoffs. Still, it was the first time any Houston team in any sport had hosted a world championship event, and it may be remembered as the greatest rout since the Alamo.
When the invaders from the north were through the score read 94-71 and if you remember 1955, that wonderful year when the 24-second clock was invented, you might also remember Syracuse being nipped by Fort Wayne 74-71 in Game 5 of the finals in Indianapolis. No team had come up with such a paltry score in the finals since then.
Surely the Celtics played their own game this time, getting more than a third of their points off their devastating fast break. Boston's defense was astounding, too, but it was hard to tell where defense left off and Houston ineptitude took over. Houston had two players—that's right, two—in double figures, Malone with 23 and Willoughby with 12. Houston's biggest basket was by reserve Forward Major Jones. It came with 10 seconds left and insured that the Rockets wouldn't break Syracuse's record.
Houston was so bad it shot 30.4% for the game, including a 17%—3 for 17—second quarter. It was so bad that after Parish picked up three fouls in the first 5½ minutes, Boston's lead zoomed from one point to 17. It was so bad that Murphy, on his 33rd birthday, shot 3 for 10 and missed a free throw, stopping his streak of conversions at 49, seven shy of old Celtic Bill Sharman's playoff-record 56.
Had Murphy ever had such a lousy birthday? "The day I was born it was storming," said Calvin. "Well, it was storming today." And it was, outside as well as inside The Summit.
Bird scored just eight points, but he also had a team-high 13 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals as well as two blocked shots. And he seemed flushed with an extra measure of Celtic Pride as he watched his teammates do the scoring: Cedric Maxwell (19), Chris Ford (17), Gerald Henderson (12), Robey (11), Parish (11) and Tiny Archibald (10).
Almost forgotten were the words of Reid, who had said before matching up with Bird in the series, "I'm going to cover him so close I'll tell you what kind of cologne the——is wearing. I'm going to be able to count the——hairs on his neck. He'll be seeing my number in his sleep." Bird and Reid went nose-to-nose after a shoving match in the second quarter. Reid went on to shoot 2 for 11. Bird, meanwhile, had some fun with a taunting Houston fan, goose-stepping and dribbling between his legs during a play stoppage. Bird never hot-dogs. "I liked having the crowd against me," he said. "It was good to get out of Boston. The pressure was building too much."
There seemed to be a couple of things the Celtics hadn't counted on when they returned to The Summit on Sunday afternoon. Little things, like the Rockets' slamming the boards for a season-high 28 offensive rebounds, 10 for Reid, nine for Malone; like Houston getting off 103 shots from the field, 29 more than Boston; like Dunleavy, who hadn't scored in double figures in the series, putting in 28 points.
Of course, Boston didn't expect to lose 91-86 after it had so humiliated the Rockets the day before. But the Celtics didn't know that the Rockets brought in a couple of genuine NASA astronauts for the game or that Brother Dominic would be making his second visit of the season to The Summit.
"Brother Dominic! Brother Dominic!" a fan called as the short, paunchy, brown-robed "monk" passed out buttons that read THE MIRACLE CONTINUES before the game. "Did you say Mass for us today?"
"Are you kidding?" he answered. "I was in shul all day yesterday. A Jewish monk. How can you lose?" Brother Dominic, it turns out, is really an actor named Jack Eagle from the Bronx.
As the word WAR flashed repeatedly on the giant scoreboard, bodies slammed on the floor below. At halftime the score was 50-50, but Houston had taken 20 more shots than Boston and Harris had played just six men, a strategy he would use for the rest of the game. "Substituting messes up a game," he would say afterward. "Why mess with the chemistry when it's working?"
In the second half Malone proved he could read Harris' blackboard commandments, one of which was "Hammer it in." So Moses, on his way to 24 points and 22 rebounds, hammered—four times in Parish's face in the first four minutes of the third quarter, while the Celtics scored but a single basket. From there, Dunleavy took over, driving past Archibald, Parish, Maxwell and Bird for layups, picking himself up off the floor to hit free throws, pulling up from outside, even popping a three-pointer. His face was a mass of welts after the game, leading Reid to say, "Mike looked like he had been beaten with a club."
This time Bird was truly shut down by Reid, who outscored him 19-8 and outrebounded him 13-12, 10-0 at the all-important offensive end. And Fitch, who normally refuses to criticize officials, indicated that he felt Malone was allowed more contact than Boston's less celebrated big men. "From here on out," said Fitch, "we're going to do unto Moses as he does unto us."
As the Celtics headed home knowing there would be a Game 5 in Boston and at least a Game 6 back in Houston, an exhausted Bird said, "I know there's got to be some sunlight at the end of this tunnel somewhere. I can play three more games if I have to."
So can the Rockets. After all, what's one more week of war when there's a miracle in the offing?