After a while it finally began to come clear that in an odd sort of way, Larry Bird and Bernard King really needed each other. Not in a very friendly way, of course, because the playoff series between Bird's Boston Celtics and King's New York Knicks had become a rumble. And like all rumbles, this one was about winning turf and holding it. King and Bird needed each other like Sharks need Jets and Macy's needs Gimbels—as a way to measure each other. Last week they took what could have been an ugly street fight and made it into something special. When it was over, the Celtics had advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, and Bird and King had proved exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And that can be the hardest turf of all to hold.
The two of them had played spectacularly for 15 days, often transcending the rough play that led to 10 technicals, three ejections and one brawl during the series, but just as often getting down in the gutter and doing the grunt work themselves. King had games of 44 and 43 points in New York, where the fans chanted "M-V-P" when he was at the foul line. But Bird averaged 30.4 points per game during the series to King's 29.1, had a better shooting percentage (58.5 to 54.5), and outrebounded him by a wide margin (74 to 34), and the Boston fans chanted "M-V-P" for Bird. Then, in Sunday's seventh game, Bird scored a career playoff high of 39 points, took down 12 rebounds and dealt out 10 assists, while King finally fell (or was more than likely pushed) off the head of that pin as the Celtics scored a lopsided 121-104 win. "The Knicks' MVP won the games in New York," said Boston's Kevin McHale. "The league's MVP won the games here."
The series was no less compelling than the matchup between its two great stars, and the games quickly fell into a pattern from which they never deviated. When the Celtics shot 51% from the field or better, they won; when the Knicks could hold Boston to 47% or worse, they won. The home team always won. Always. Quick starts became absolutely vital, especially to King, who was carrying most of the scoring load for New York. The team that scored first rarely relinquished its lead (there were only six lead changes in the entire series, an astonishing statistic) and always won. Always. So when the Celtics jumped out to a 14-6 lead Sunday while King was missing his first five shots, the Knicks were dead and everybody in Boston Garden knew it.
This was the first postseason competition between these NBA originals in 10 years, and whatever it may have lacked in delicacy and finesse it more than made up for in passion. Even during the regular season series—which the Knicks and the Celtics had split 3-3—it had become apparent that the two teams weren't terribly fond of each other. New York coach Hubie Brown had infuriated Celtics coach K.C. Jones with some disparaging remarks he made in an Oct. 31, 1983 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED article about Jones's old teammate, Bill Russell. Jones, in turn, had annoyed the Knicks when he walked into Madison Square Garden and stayed around to watch New York run through plays before an early-season Knick-Celtic game. When Knicks assistant coach Rick Pitino walked off the floor, he looked at Jones and snapped, "Did you get everything you needed, K.C?" With such an obvious lack of comity on both sides, it stood to reason that in this series, trouble was just looking for a place to happen.
Even before the first forearm shiver was fired in anger, Boston's M.L. Carr, a little-used sub who's chiefly renowned for his strong-arm stuff, publicly predicted, "Bernard has scored his last 40 points. We've got somebody who can stop him." That somebody was 6'8" forward Cedric Maxwell. Stopping King promised to be no mean feat because in the Knicks' five-game playoff series with Detroit, the 6'7" King had averaged a remarkable 42.6 points a game, including 44 in the decisive game. But Maxwell was unmoved by this feat, and the day before the series began he said, "He ain't getting 40 on us. We're going to stop the bitch."
Maxwell later insisted he had only been kidding, but when King scored 26 points in Game 1 and then was held to 13 in Game 2—subpar performances that contributed to Boston's 110-92 and 116-102 victories—it seemed as if Carr and Maxwell had known what they were talking about. King became so frustrated by the constant pounding in Game 2 that at one point he grabbed Maxwell and spun him around hard. He had even worse luck with the 6'10" McHale, whose long arms frequently blotted out King's view of the basket. McHale was so pleased with himself after Game 2 that he crowed, "They're in the grave and we've got the shovel in our hands. We've just got to keep pouring dirt on them."
As McHale would later put it, when the series resumed in Madison Square Garden, the Knicks "pulled a Bela Lugosi and came flying out of the grave." They won the next two games—100-92 and 118-113—and evened the series at 2-2. And to make matters even worse, in Game 4 King scored 43 points on Maxwell and McHale. "We held him, we pushed him, we were draped all over him," Maxwell said. "The guy was just unreal. The shots that Bernard hit are shots that not too many people are going to hit."
King had gotten some valuable help in Games 3 and 4 from one of his own guards—the mercurial Ray Williams—and from the Boston backcourt as well. Celtic starting guards Gerald Henderson (26.7%) and Dennis Johnson (30.8%) couldn't shoot straight in Games 3 and 4, and sub Quinn Buckner was heaving bricks, shooting 11.1% through the first four games. "It's pretty obvious that they're going to make us beat them from the outside, and we're not hitting our shots," Jones said.
This lack of firepower in the backcourt is a shortcoming as perennial in Boston each spring as the tulips that bloom in the Public Garden. "I don't understand why everybody's ridiculing our backcourt," Johnson told Leigh Montville of The Boston Globe after Game 5. "I can understand why Hubie is dropping off us, daring us to shoot, but I'm not upset about that. I'm a 35 to 40 percent shooter from the outside. That's me. The only way I could be a better shooter is to stay after practice and shoot the ball two hours a day. I'd rather be out on the street for those two hours a day, making deals for my future."
Meanwhile, Williams was beginning to look less and less as if he had a future in New York. He hadn't played well for the Knicks in their series with Detroit, then missed Game 2 in Boston to attend the funeral of his older sister, Martha, who had died of cancer. When he returned Williams was still shaken, but he averaged 20 points and seven assists in Games 3 and 4, and almost every play he contributed was a big one. After they had evened the series at two games apiece, the Knicks were particularly pleased. "There's definitely more satisfaction in beating a team when they're always running off at the mouth," Williams said.
Ray-Ray himself seemed so determined to end all the cheap talk that he tried to throttle Buckner during the second quarter of Game 5 when the two squared off for some pushing and shoving. Buckner took exception to this but let it pass because, after all, the extracurricular activity seemed to affect Williams, who was 0 for 7 with four turnovers as the Knicks were trounced 121-99.
In that game the Knicks had been attempting to come back from a third-quarter deficit that had reached 27 points when rookie guard Darrell Walker came roaring up the right sideline with the ball. Walker was met there by Celtic guard Danny (Baby Face Half-Nelson) Ainge, who clubbed Walker with both arms. When Walker came up swinging, both benches emptied, the Knicks charge led by the ever-combative Brown, who ended up in the middle of a pile of bodies. When order was restored, Ainge and Walker were both ejected. King, who had left deep slash marks on Johnson's back when he raked him with his fingernails in Game 3, had to be restrained from going after Carr, who had sneaked into the pileup and begun throwing punches. "He's a dirty player," King said of Carr, "and that's unacceptable, especially from someone as insignificant as him."
The war of words was now a flat-out war. When the teams returned to New York for Game 6 on Friday, they were greeted by a headline in the New York Post that yapped KNICKS PREPARE FOR BLOOD BATH IN DO-OR-DIE BATTLE VS CELTS. The sellout Garden crowd roared throughout the national anthem, and for the next two-and-a-half hours the roar rarely subsided. King scored 14 of the Knicks' first 21 points and had 18 at the end of the first quarter. "He wasn't running down the baseline," Maxwell said, "he was flying." Bird didn't start as quickly, but he scored 12 points in the second period and 10 in the third to keep the Celtics close.
With Boston pressuring relentlessly, King kept racing from endline to endline, slicing through arms and bodies, bouncing off bigger defenders for 10 of his 44 points in the final period. "The Knicks ride with Bernard emotionally, and when he's going good he's like the magic carpet, carrying everybody else along on his back," Buckner said.
King's fallaway jumper with 3:31 to play gave New York a 13-point lead, 104-91, but that was the Knicks' last field goal of the game. Haifa minute later it was Bird, flying to the basket, who found himself carrying one of King's teammates on his back. Rory Sparrow hit him with a forearm to the back of the head, a flagrant foul that led to Sparrow's ejection by referee Earl Strom. Even Brown agreed later it was a good call, although he also pointed out that Bird's was the body most impolitic to foul hard in that situation. "You have to remember it happened to Sir Lancelot," Brown said. "It didn't happen to the 12th guy on the team."
Boston had closed to within 106-104 when, in the last six seconds with the Garden about to rock off its underpinnings, Bird missed a short bank shot, and Maxwell's rebound attempt bounced long as the buzzer sounded. "There's no way we thought we'd be in this situation," said Henderson. "I think we may have gotten caught looking around, thinking about who we'd play next."
But on Sunday the Celtics—including Johnson, who tossed in 21 points—were strictly in a New York state of mind. "All I knew was we had a basketball game we had to win," Bird said. "So I had it in my mind that I was going to give myself every opportunity to do that." If winning is all about turf, then perhaps God's most glorious little half acre is the head of whatever pin Larry Bird happens to be dancing on.