The Houston Rockets were perched on a precipice above the deep, dark abyss of a 2-0 deficit in the NBA finals when Akeem Olajuwon looked down and stuck out his tongue.
"I just don't see any way they can beat us here," said Olajuwon on Saturday afternoon. "Now that we're at home, in our own building, in front of our own fans and feeling comfortable. No way." He said it again and again, with feeling. He told anyone who asked him about a possible 4-0 Celtic sweep: "Ha, that's a joke! That would be a very big joke. I can't believe you are really serious to even ask me that question."
The Rockets did indeed beat Boston 106-104 in Sunday's Game 3 at the Summit, just as Olajuwon said they would, although heaven knows how many miracles they had to call in to do it and whether or not they have any left.
But give the Rockets credit—the fifth sweep in NBA championship history seemed not just possible, but likely, before Houston shucked its chains on Sunday. Invective lower than a snake's belly was being hurled at that familiar target, Ralph Sampson, as well as at Houston's starting guards, Robert Reid and Lewis Lloyd, who, in Games 1 and 2 in Boston Garden, were outscored (70-34), outrebounded (24-12) and outstolen (9-4) by the Celtic backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. Even Olajuwon found no very big jokes in the Garden. "It was our worst game of the year," he said after Game 2. "I was ashamed."
Actually, if there was a scarlet letter to be worn, Sampson deserved to wear it. In Game 1, a 112-100 Celtic victory, Sampson drew his third foul less than five minutes into the game and sat out the rest of the half. He returned in the second half, sort of, missing 12 of 13 shots to finish the game with two points, seven rebounds and frown lines that didn't disappear until the Rocket plane touched down in Houston four days later. Nor was he much of a defensive force inside—Kevin McHale had 21 points, Robert Parish 23. Parish was particularly effective and appeared no more nervous than his wife, Nancy, who sang the national anthem before the game.
Almost all of the Rockets' red glare was provided by Olajuwon, a man who saw no allure in the lore of the Garden. "I don't know that tradition," said Olajuwon. "I'm not from around here." But he plays as if he were. In Game 1 he scored 33 points, had 12 rebounds and won the enduring respect of the Boston defense, which took to doubling him in the second half. "We felt we could not play Olajuwon one-on-one," said Celtic coach K.C. Jones. "We had to go make him give it up." And whom, Jones was asked, did the Celtics assign to that task? "Hell, I don't know," he said.
Hell he didn't. It was Larry Bird, who has the hands to strip basketballs, the bulk to block big bodies and the reputation to keep referees from blowing whistles as he does so. Bird finished the game with 21 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists and 4 steals, a line that heralded the fact that the week—even including Sunday, when he had a triple-double in defeat—would be Bird's. Two days after Game 1, he received his third straight Most Valuable Player Award and showed considerable stage presence before the media horde.
Only two other players had won three straight MVPs, and Bird mentioned both in his acceptance speech. "I'm proud to be in a group with Bill Russell," said Bird. "But Wilt Chamberlain talks a little bit too much for me." Then Bird went on to talk a little bit, too. He said: "I just felt there was no one in the league who could stop me if I was playing hard." Or: "For the first time every team tried to double me. Trying to beat two guys was a lot more fun." Or: "What makes me tough to guard is that once I'm near the three-point line, I can score from anywhere on the court. It's kind of hard to stop a guy who has unlimited range."
The Celtics won Game 2 117-95 in a Garden so hot that vendors could have panfried scrod on the parquet. Bird did panfry Houston with 31 points, 8 re-bounds, 7 assists and—get this—zero fouls. Letting Bird play without a personal foul is like giving Fred Astaire an extra set of taps on his shoes. And the way he put up those numbers was as impressive as the line itself. Early in the second quarter he had given up his dribble deep in the corner, just a step inside the three-point circle. After a defensive switch, Olajuwon covered him. Bird stuck out his arms as if to make one of his familiar two-handed passes, and Olajuwon turned around and headed for the boards. But Bird pulled the ball back, went into his rocker step and stuck the jumper. The resulting tableau suggested a dog taking off in pursuit of a stick that his master only pretended to throw. It was later that evening that Olajuwon (21 points, but only four in the second half) would mention the word "ashamed." And he would also say of Bird, "He's the greatest player I've ever seen."
By then three things were obvious: First, the Rockets' defensive rotation was too slow or simply nonexistent—the Celtics had been able to whip the ball around and get off an open jumper almost at will. Second, Olajuwon needed help to deal with the double-and triple-teaming that made the lane more congested than a fern bar at happy hour on Friday. Third, Sampson's level of play would have to improve. In Game 2 he had 18 points but only three more rebounds than stitches. He received five of the latter when Parish inadvertently elbowed him under the left eye during a stratospheric scramble for a loose ball.
To reverse their fortunes, the Rockets first had to do something about Bird. Defensively, he had been successfully doubling down on the inside men and still avoiding illegal defense calls. "It's more Bird's individual defensive skills, his quick hands, than a team defensive concept," observed Rocket center-forward Jim Petersen. And, on offense, Bird was certainly primarily responsible for the Celtic ball movement. During stretches of Game 2, Boston's half-court offense consisted exclusively of isolating Bird on Rodney McCray. One-man isolation play can get tedious and generally results in some kind of awkward, buzzer-beating, one-on-one move, but not the way Bird and his Celtics run it. The closer Bird backs in and the closer the shot clock gets to zero, the more exciting the play becomes. What will he do? Turn in and drive the lane? Step back and shoot? Thread the needle to a cutter? And what are his teammates doing? Watch how they spread themselves out so one man can't cover two. Whatever happens, Bird has thought it out beforehand:
"I'm always looking for a double-team and trying to get myself into a position to pass the ball first. If the clock gets to around 10, I'm just gonna try to get a shot up because we haven't got time to move the ball around two or three times.
"If they send their big man over to double me, then our big man just follows him to the basket and I give it to him. That's easy. If a guard comes over to pick me up, maybe I can shoot over him. If we cut a man through to the basket and nobody picks him up or his man stops to double-team me, then I can make the pass to him. If the defender goes on with our guy, then they might have to send someone else over. Then I either have the guard that went through on the low post or the other guard coming over from the top of the key for a jump shot."
Get it? The whole routine is no doubt engraved in Bird's brain. As Rocket coach Bill Fitch put it after Game 2: "When that little picture machine goes off in his mind, he's in his own little world."
It was the Celtics who had come to the Rockets' own little world for Game 3, and management wanted to make sure they knew it. So they trotted out Lone Star icon Willie Nelson to wave to the crowd and get the Rockets all tingly before tip-off. The tastes of Olajuwon and his teammates run a little funkier than Willie, but, hey, maybe it worked for a while. The Rockets led 62-59 at halftime.
By midpoint of the third period, though, Willie was forgotten and the Celtics were wailin'. A moment of divine basketball beauty from the third period: Bird rolls off a pick and drives to the basket. He's picked up inside but left-hands it back to Bill Walton, who has come chugging down the lane. Walton is covered, also, but he shuffles it over to a wide-open McHale on the other side of the basket. McHale dunks it. Johnson, out by the free throw line, jumps for joy. The entire Celtic season is crystallized in that one play—the court presence of Bird, the added ingredient of sixth-man Walton, the inside finishing power of McHale, the exuberance of the backcourt. The Celtics lead 76-65.
Then, strangely, something happened. With the table set for a 3-0 Celtic series advantage, the Rockets came along and trashed the place settings. First, McCray went to the bench and Reid took over on Bird. Bird would later insist that the change made no difference, but he unquestionably had more trouble with Reid, who has long arms and quick feet. "I jab at the ball so he knows I'm there," says Reid. "But I don't let him feel my body because when he can he just spins around me." Reid does his jabbing with his left hand and keeps his right behind him to avoid a reach-in foul. Bird, who had scored 21 points until Reid came along, thereafter had only four, including just one basket in the fourth quarter.
Sampson, meanwhile, had finally pushed the lid off his coffin and stepped into the bright light. He was steady through the first three periods, hellacious in the fourth when he made two key baskets and owned the boards (he would finish with 22). The Celtics stood around, seemingly powerless to stop the 9-0 Houston run that gave the Rockets a 103-102 lead with 1:07 left. "We just kind of hit the wall offensively," said McHale. After Ainge made a jump shot to restore a one-point Boston lead, Houston's reserve guard Mitchell Wiggins—who by next year may become a starter if Lloyd, the self-proclaimed Magic Man, doesn't stop making himself disappear—tapped in an Olajuwon miss for a 105-104 Rocket lead with 31 seconds left. "When you're small, you got to rise quick," said Wiggins, " 'cause you don't get but one chance." There was plenty of time for the Celtics to get a good shot, but once again they hit the wall. As the 24-second clock neared zero, Parish put up a desperation jumper in the lane. It missed, but referee Jake O'Donnell blew his whistle. Foul on Olajuwon? Three-second call on Parish? Neither. O'Donnell ruled that his whistle had been "inadvertent." In today's world, it is possible to interview presidents, premiers and popes, but not referees, so there was no further explanation from O'Donnell beyond the terse statement on the postgame quote sheet: "When the ball is loose and there's an inadvertent whistle, it becomes a jump ball in the center circle between any two players." That suited the Rockets just fine because, as Wiggins says, "We got the tall guy."
Sure enough, the 7'4" Sampson out-jumped the 7-foot Parish and tipped it to Olajuwon, who was immediately fouled by Bird. Olajuwon made one of two to give Houston a 106-104 lead. After a timeout, the Celtics inbounded at midcourt. Would it go down low to McHale or Parish for the tie? Or out to Bird, Ainge or Johnson for a three-point shot and the win? No, it went to hell in a hand basket. Parish was the only one able to shake free and he was far too close to Johnson, who was making the inbounds pass, when he caught the ball and flipped it back to DJ. O'Donnell's whistle blew again, this time to rule that Parish had stepped on the sideline before he made the pass, and that was the game, the one the Rockets felt could be the turning point of the series.
"We haven't played to our potential," said Olajuwon, still spitting into the strong wind that blows around that abyss. "We can play a lot better." But another prophet speaketh. "I think we're the best team in the league, and the best team usually wins." That was Bird's opinion. And this, after all, has been Bird's year.