Relax, NBA fans. You've got your Philly-Boston playoff matchup for the first time since 1982. But history must hold its breath. The Celtics still have a long way to go in their struggle to become the first NBA team in 16 years to defend its championship successfully.
The Celtics and their star forward, Larry Bird, looked more mortal than immortal last week as they shook off the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference semis. But, ah, on Sunday, with 39 hours' rest, they jumped out to a 1-0 lead over the 76ers in the conference finals with a 108-93 win in Boston.
That victory was particularly meaningful because the Sixers had lately looked like a formidable challenger and had had six days off after sweeping Milwaukee. The Celtics, meanwhile, had hardly resembled the Celtics of 1968-69, the last championship team to repeat. It was alarming enough to see the scions of pro basketball's greatest dynasty muddle past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, but as their series with Detroit moved back to Boston, tied 2-2, a playoff that was supposed to have been quickly resolved had become a best-of-three miniseries. Could the Celtics possibly be bounced by the Pistons?
The answer was no, 335 times no. That's the number of shots Bird took by himself a few hours before Game 5 as he tried to break out of a slump he denied ever having been in. He made, according to an observer who counted, 274 of those shots. That's 82%, mortals.
It has long been Bird's habit to engage in these solitary pregame shooting sessions, but those familiar with the ritual noticed he was unusually purposeful this night. "There's nothing you can do about a shot once it leaves your hand," Bird would say in his plainspoken Hoosier manner. But, by implication, that heightens the importance of exactly how the ball leaves one's hand. So he stepped back and launched one. Swish. He leaned in and flicked one. Ka-swoosh. Bird may have been trying to purge the memory of the missed 15-footer that could have won Game 4. Or perhaps he was bothered by a startling stat that showed he had scored only two points in each of four of the previous five quarters against the Pistons. (If nothing else, this proved just how difficult it is to quantify a Bird negative.) But he refused to pawn any of this off on the painful bursitis in his right elbow, much less on a slump. "I wasn't in a slump," he said after he had broken out of it. "I've been in a groove for the last month. I was just missing some shots I shoulda hit."
Nevertheless, through the first half of Game 5, Bird's putative poor spell seemed to dog him still. He did shoot 7 for 12 but had no offensive rebounds and committed four turnovers. Few noticed, however, because Detroit's Vinnie Johnson and Boston's Dennis Johnson had hooked up in a battle of the veejay vs. the deejay. Dennis had been treated for a bad back before the game and had forgone his own pregame shot work, but he bit his lip and—more platter, less chatter—sank 10 of his first 13 shots. Meanwhile, like some hot video getting heavy MTV rotation, Vinnie launched into a reprise of the unconscious, 10-for-11, off-the-bench shooting he had exhibited in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 102-99 Game 4 victory. Here he scored from the key, the foul line, off the dribble and once from a half-sitting position in the lane. Four other times he scored. So scintillating was VJ's first-half performance that official Jake O'Donnell, for once letting down his slicked-back hair, cruised press row at the intermission to ask, "Has he missed yet?"
He had, once. And while both of the Js cooled off a bit in the second half. Bird began to sing. He wound up with 43 points, a career playoff high, working hard enough to score 31 of them in the lane or from the line. "Ugly," The Boston Globe pronounced admiringly.
It didn't matter which of four Pistons was assigned to guard him; Bird didn't miss the shots he shoulda hit. "There's no question I play against each of these guys differently," Bird said later. "But I'm not gonna tell you how."
Bird first schooled Kent Benson, the 6'10" Piston forward who, a decade ago, was a BMOC at Indiana while Bird was briefly a misfit there, destined to transfer to the happier environs of Indiana State. Bird's strategy against Benson, who moves laterally as easily as a locomotive, became obvious with 4½ minutes remaining in the third quarter and the game still close. Bird faked left, Benson hedged and the beaked one bolted by him for a layup, foul and free throw, stretching Boston's lead to 83-77.
On came 6'9" Earl Cureton as the fourth quarter began, looking like a Bakuba tribesman because of the bone-colored mask he wore to protect a broken nose, perhaps hoping to scare Bird into mortality. While Cureton did hijack one Bird shot, that highlight was lost among Bird's 19-footer, three drives to the hoop and foul shot. "He uses his head," Cureton said, referring either to Bird's smarts or to his adeptness at the head fake, or both.
Enter 6'6" Kelly Tripucka, who had boasted to the press of his ability to resist Bird's fakes. But now Bird goaded him into going for a couple of pumps and twice in a row made spinning scoring moves to maintain the Celtics' cushion at 116-108. "We saw it happen with [Houston's] Robert Reid in the '81 finals and then with [L.A.'s] Michael Cooper last year," said Boston's M.L. Carr. "They say they're Birdbusters but they don't understand how much Larry likes a challenge."
At that point, 6'8" Dan Roundfield came on to play Bird, who, no doubt wary of Roundfield's shot-blocking ability, stayed outside. He trimmed a jumper over Roundfield's graying head. He whipped a behind-the-back pass to DJ on a break for a pull-up jumper and he fired a pass inside to DJ, who drew a foul and bagged two free throws. Boston hung on for a 130-123 win. "You've got to take it a quarter at a time," Bird said. "It doesn't matter if you play three great quarters if you play poorly and get beaten in the fourth. Just as long as I make 'em when we need 'em."
On Friday night Boston didn't need 'em, so Bird didn't make 'em. He shot 7 for 22 in Game 6, and was benched for more than eight minutes of the third quarter in favor of his understudy, Scott Wedman. "Larry couldn't have put it in the ocean tonight," said Boston coach K.C. Jones, who had excused Bird from a 9:30 shoot-around that morning after Bird phoned him, pleading a poor night's sleep.
Jones nonetheless sent Bird back in for the final quarter, in which he scored nine of his 17 points and grabbed five of his nine rebounds. But this game would be a sort of confirmation for the rest of the Celtics, proof to themselves that they could win with their star struggling. Detroit's Isiah Thomas, taking repeated advantage of one-on-one situations, scored 37 points and led a 9-2 Piston charge that trimmed Boston's lead to 105-101 with 5½ minutes left to play. But on two subsequent Piston possessions, Boston struck back. First DJ picked the ball from Pocket Magic and hit two free throws. Then Celtic center Robert Parish stripped his counterpart, Bill Laimbeer, for another steal that led to two more foul shots. The Celtics had repulsed the last Piston thrust in a 123-113 victory.
The crucial defensive plays came, felicitously enough, from Johnson (22 points and six assists) and Parish (24 points and 13 rebounds), two stars in their own right who are often outshone in Bird's firmament. Boston finally played with the poise to match its lineage, setting a playoff record with only six turnovers. And the Celtics' much-maligned bench, outscored a whopping 230-137 by the Pistons during the series, showed some vital signs. "Why can't I do it like Scotty?" Bird muttered to teammate Ray Williams as he sat down to watch Wedman work on an 8-for-9 shooting night.
Bird came back with 23 against Philadelphia on Sunday while the rest of Boston's starting frontcourt, Kevin McHale and Parish, combined for another 54, knifing through the Philly defense as if it were parquet margarine. Perhaps the Sixers had been softened, rather than strengthened, by their idle week. They committed 21 turnovers, grabbed only two offensive rebounds in the first half and seemed sluggish. "[The layoff] hurt us on instinct plays," said 76er guard Clint Richardson. "They were quicker on loose balls and things like that."
So maybe, just maybe, the Pistons had done the Celtics a favor by extending them to six games. Boston and Philly don't prepare for one another by lying down to rest. "It's not like there's tarnish on a ring if you don't play Philly on the way to winning it," Carr explains, "but it does shine a little bit brighter."