With a few seconds remaining in their 103-99 overtime defeat of Washington on Sunday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics' Larry Bird and Gerald Henderson stood by the Boston bench, slapping fives. Not the confident, high variety, but more a medium "We've got it, don't we?" "Yeah, I think."
One could understand their uncertainty. Although the victory gave the Celtics a 3-1 lead in games, it was a hard-earned 3-1. The NBA champs were supposed to beat the overachieving chumps from Landover in a walk, but they had been given all they could handle. "Is there anyone here who doesn't think the Bullets are a good basketball team?" Boston Coach Bill Fitch asked after Game 4. "That might have been the case when the season started and they were still getting to know each other, but now they're a very good team. We're playing hard out there and they're staying right with us."
In fact, the difference between the teams in the first four games had been a bad pass here and a missed shot there on the part of the Bullets. The Celtics' superiority in talent had been overcome to a surprising degree by Washington's postseason intensity. "Coming in we didn't have to tell our team, 'Let's get ready for the playoffs.' " said Coach Gene Shue, whose Bullets had won 10 of their last 15 regular-season games. "We were there already."
The Bullets, 39-43 a year ago, had lost Wes Unseld to retirement, Mitch Kupchak to Los Angeles via free agency and Elvin Hayes in a trade to Houston. Generous forecasters conceded them no more than 25 wins this season. But, spurred on by holdover Greg Ballard, castoffs like Spencer Haywood and rookies Frank Johnson and Jeff Ruland, the club reversed itself in the regular season, went 43-39 and made the playoffs with relative ease.
Meanwhile, Boston was the class of the league, breezing to a 63-19 regular-season record. Nonetheless, some observers felt the team played tight at times and that Fitch was particularly tense under the pressure to repeat as champions and no longer the jovial wisecracker of his days with the expansionist Cleveland Cavaliers.
Fitch downplays such talk. "When I was at Cleveland there were only six people there to run the whole show," he says. "I'd coach a game and barely have time to look at the box score because I was making sure all the bills got paid and the towels were cleaned for the next day. That was pressure.
"Everybody has been after us all year because we're the champs and people say that we have to win, but I don't think that's pressure. If we don't win, it won't be because of anything me or my players can control."
The Celtics couldn't control injuries to Bird and Nate Archibald after the All-Star break, but Henderson and M.L. Carr performed like all-stars as Boston won a team-record 18 straight games.
Still, if any club was capable of banging it up with Boston, the Bullets were it. While the Celtics had swept the six-game regular-season series from Washington, four of the games were early in the season. In the three games played at Capital Centre, Boston failed to score 100 points every time, and had to rally to win two one-point games.
In the playoffs Washington, which had disposed of New Jersey in a mini-series, was proving to be more than just a nuisance to the Celtics. Haywood, who returned from playing in Italy to make the Bullets in a tryout last fall—he had been released from Los Angeles during the 1980 playoffs—was averaging 22.5 points. "I didn't know he still had any get-up left," Archibald said after Haywood's 28-point effort in Game 4.
"I'm satisfied, but not completely," Haywood said of his semitriumphant return to the NBA, where he played for 10 seasons for the Sonics, Knicks, Jazz and Lakers after a remarkable ABA career. "I'm reintroducing myself to everyone who had forgotten about Spencer Haywood and what he could do, but I know I can play better and I will play better.
"This means a lot to me. I've forsaken my family during the playoffs. My wife [leading fashion model Iman] would come down from New York at least two times a week during the regular season, but I don't allow anyone to see me now. It's bad, but I need to be hungry, starving and aggressive."
The Bullets hung tough for three quarters before the Celtics won Game 1, 109-91, in Boston Garden. As the second game, also in Boston, began, some Celtics were waving four fingers—signifying four straight wins—at the Bullets' bench. But despite controlling the game most of the way, the Celtics found themselves ahead by a mere two points, Washington's ball, with 10 seconds to play.
Enter rookie Guard Johnson. Moving behind a double screen from Beef Brothers Rick Mahorn (6'10", 235 pounds) and Ruland (6'11", 240) Johnson canned a 29-foot three-point shot with three seconds left to give the Bullets a 103-102 victory. Disdaining a try for a two-point bucket and overtime, Shue had expressly ordered the three-pointer.
"They have a right to be confident, winning a game on our home court, but we'll see what happens today," said Archibald before Game 3. What mainly happened was 15 blocked shots by the Celtics, six by Center Robert Parish, who also scored 25 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and so frustrated the Bullets that Mahorn was ejected for throwing a ball at Henderson's head, and Ruland looked ready to take on the entire Celtics' team to stop the taunts of rookie Charles Bradley. Final score: Celtics 92-83.
Even though Washington led much of the way in Game 4—indeed, Haywood missed a makable 10-footer that could have won it in the last second—Parish delivered more of the same: 28 points and 15 rebounds. In overtime Kevin McHale took over, scoring six points, making a steal and blocking a three-point try by Kevin Grevey.
After the game McHale expressed relief. "If we win this series, I'll give great praise to the Bullets for pushing us to our limits," he said. "Last year Chicago wasn't a test and we got into a struggle with Philly in seven games. Now we know what we have to do to win. That's what you want out of your first series."
Still, one really could not blame McHale and the Celtics if they were saying, "Just don't scare us so much next time, guys."