The Boston Celtics limped into the Eastern Conference final for the fourth straight year Sunday afternoon, another day older and deeper in oxygen debt. They outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in a grueling seven-game semifinal series only because a champion's heart beats beneath their bruised and groaning exterior. "I guess the old adage is true," said Kevin McHale. "The most dangerous bear is a wounded bear."
The Celts, vying to become (as the NBA liturgy goes) the first team to repeat since 1969, beat the Bucks 119-113 in a rousing Game 7 at the Boston Garden to go into the conference final against Detroit. They won it, as they won so many others this season, with a mixture of guile and guts supplied by the best starting five in basketball and with scant but timely help from the bench. And they won it because Robert Parish has more raw courage than anyone ever gave him credit for and because Larry Bird can shoot free throws a little.
With 5:52 left in Game 7, the Bucks led 108-100, and there seemed to be no way the Celtics could win. The mystique of Boston Garden? Milwaukee had shattered that in Game 5 with a 129-124 victory. The legendary cool of Bird down the stretch? In the second halves of Games 5 and 6, both Celtic losses, he had shot a combined 4 of 20 from the field, and here he was once again, clanging jump shots he usually makes in his sleep. The wily Celtic backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge? It was now a solo act, Ainge having been carried off to the dressing room in the third quarter with a sprained knee. Boston's legendary reserve strength? Puh-leeze. Milwaukee had a passel of clones at its disposal—tough, speedy, athletic—while Boston had what it has had all season, guys who didn't do much more than sit within reach of the Poland Spring watercooler.
Furthermore, Milwaukee was playing inspired ball, knowing that coach Don Nelson, currently embroiled in a feud with team owner Herb Kohl, was perhaps wearing his last fish tie on the Buck bench.
May 24, 1987
"Yes, it looked grim," said Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Maybe a little grimmer than usual. But you've got to remember that we've been in these situations so many times before. That's when our experience, our character, takes over. That's the x factor."
And it proved to be X-rated for the Bucks. Over the next three minutes, Boston outscored Milwaukee 11 to 5, to creep within a basket at 113-111 as the Garden noise level maxed out. With 2:32 left, the Bucks' Paul Pressey, the best player in the game on this afternoon (with 28 points, 8 assists and 4 steals), collected his sixth foul when he grabbed Bird, who was carving out offensive position on the right side. Nelson saw a bad moon rising.
"The biggest point of the game was losing Pressey," Nelson said. Correct. The gangly Pressey was clearly Milwaukee's only real hope of defensing Bird, who, hot or cold, was going to take over this game in crunch time.
Though Bird's marksmanship from the field was shaky throughout (he finished 9-of-21, but 13-of-13 from the line), he swished both free throws to tie the game. On Boston's next possession, Bird posted up Ricky Pierce, drew the foul and buried two more for a 115-113 Boston lead. Then, with 1:31 left, he posted up Sidney Moncrief, spun away for a drive, drew a foul from Terry Cummings and drained two more free throws, just as if he were playing 21 back in French Lick. "Once I get to the line," said Bird, "I'm pretty comfortable."
Sixteen seconds later, Parish and Dennis Johnson combined on a play that both iced the game and crystallized the Celtics' intensity. Jack Sikma went up for a baseline shot and Parish jumped out at him. A badly sprained left ankle had kept the Chief out of Game 6 (a 121-111 Milwaukee victory), and his mobility was obviously limited on Sunday. "You could hear him groaning all the time," said Bucks' guard John Lucas, "but he didn't get the name Chief for nothing." Parish cleanly swatted away Sikma's shot, his fourth block of the game. Out of nowhere came Johnson, who tapped the ball off Sikma's leg while flying toward the Milwaukee bench. Celtics' ball. "DJ keeps you in the game even when you're out of the game," said Pressey, who had ducked out of Johnson's way. The ball landed in Bird's hands. And DJ landed—if you like your symbolism rough and sweaty—in Nelson's empty seat. Game, set and match, Boston.
The Bucks had done all they could, but in the end they were worn down by the worn-down. In the final 5:23, they scored but three points, all free throws, missing all nine of their shots from the floor; they were shut out in the last 3:30. Boston outrebounded Milwaukee 57-27 (including a season-high 25 offensive boards), blocked four more shots (8-4) and drilled five more free throws, including the six in a row that Bird made down the stretch, none of which touched anything but net.
But it was Johnson who may well have been the most important Celtic warrior, for it was he who handled the ball almost exclusively against the Milwaukee pressure in the final 16 minutes. Ainge's injury came as no surprise to the Celtics, who have seen the guardian angel that protected them from infirmity last season transmogrified into a snarling sadist. Only Bird and DJ have escaped the sadist's prod, which has touched McHale, Parish and now Ainge in the playoffs and Bill Walton throughout the season. And as far as the Celtic bench goes, rarely have so many contributed so little to so much.
By contrast, along last year's championship road, coach K.C. Jones frequently used the Green Team, Boston's name for its reserves, as a unit, playing either Bird or McHale with a foursome of Walton, Sichting, Scott Wedman and Rick Carlisle. So why is this year's Green Team a Rarely Seen Team? "I think that should be obvious," says Jones. "Look around." By around, he meant the mobile hospital ward that includes Walton and Wedman. Walton, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 17, played in only 10 regular-season games, and Wedman played only 78 minutes—his career is in jeopardy due to repeated problems with his heel. "It's not crazy to think that, at age 34, it might be over," he says. Carlisle, uninjured, is currently on the outside looking in, a 13th man, cast off in favor of rookie Conner Henry.
There are those, however, who say Jones should have given players like Jerry Sichting, Fred Roberts and Darren Daye more playing time to prepare for playoff pressure. Jones, normally as unflappable as General Secord, is tired of hearing that argument. "We've made the best of a difficult situation," he says. In Jones's defense, the factor that made last year's Green Team mean was Walton, whose enthusiasm, rebounding, passing and defense were usually strong enough to overcome any deficiencies of the unit as a whole. "Not having experienced players like Bill and Scotty makes all the difference in the world," said Sichting. "It's much harder for the young players to adjust in limited playing time."
Indeed it has been. What does it mean when a coach has no confidence in his bench? It means that when Parish went down in a heap and came up limping, as he did late in Game 5, Jones didn't even pull him out to take a look at him. It means that, during a 14-3 run in the first six minutes of the fourth period that turned Game 6 in Milwaukee's favor, Jones made nary a momentum-stopping substitution. (A few times he looked longingly down his bench hoping, perhaps, to spot John Havlicek but seeing only Greg Kite; searching, possibly, for Frank Ramsey but finding only Sam Vincent.) It means that, as a unit, the bench is almost a nullity in the statistics columns. Though McHale, Parish and Ainge all missed significant playing time, Boston starters still got 80% of the total minutes, with 89% of the points, 84% of the rebounds and 85% of the assists in the seven games against Milwaukee. Those numbers were reminiscent of another team that reached the Eastern Finals almost entirely on the backs of a Fab Five—the 1969 New York Knicks, who went almost exclusively with a lineup of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett and Bill Bradley.
Herewith a capsule portrait of the Celtics' Sit-down Seven:
Bill Walton, center: The redhead played 76 minutes in five playoff games before reinjuring his right ankle in Game 2 of the Milwaukee series. He was back in Game 7, but played only one minute in the second quarter. His prospects for playing against Detroit? "I still have a lot of pain when I run," said Walton. Is that a definite no? "No, but it doesn't look real good."
Fred Roberts, forward: The versatile Mister Roberts did a creditable job this season, considering that his minutes came in a wildly oscillating pattern. "It's almost like you're not part of the team sometimes," said Roberts, who is known as Norm because his unusual appearance—angular face, short hair and perpetual five o'clock shadow—suggested, to one Celtic, Tony Perkins's Norman Bates character in Psycho.
Jerry Sichting, guard: Ralph Sampson's 1986 playoff sparring partner averaged 20 minutes per game during the season, about the same as last year when his straight-as-a-string jumper and adhesive defense contributed to the Celtic championship. But he has played sparingly in the playoffs (12 minutes per game) and, until he hit two key jumpers in the fourth quarter on Sunday, not very well (22 points on 10-of-26 shooting). More than anyone, Sichting misses Walton, who would draw the defense in and free him for his spot-up jumpers. "You have to find Jerry, and that's what Bill did," says Bird. Sichting is still the first guard off the Celtic bench, but that doesn't mean as much as it used to.
Darren Daye, forward: It was Daye, plucked from the waiver wire in December, who gave the Green Team its finest playoff moment when he hit a jumper and two free throws down the stretch in Boston's 138-137 double-OT victory against the Bucks in Game 4. Like Roberts, Daye is a versatile player who, at times, can defend, shoot, pass, rebound and run the floor. But not at all times.
Greg Kite, center: Injuries to the front line have forced Kite onto active standby. In 45 playoff minutes, however, he has scored only three points and committed 10 personal fouls. During one sad stretch in January, he made only one of 17 free throws. Veteran Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan called Kite "the least talented player in the NBA," and a story in The Boston Herald cited him as the most boring athlete in Boston. But his lowest point of the season came when a stat sheet in Indiana listed him as Tom Kite. "I hit eight fairways and 10 greens in regulation," said Kite.
Sam Vincent, guard: He's the Green Team mystery man, a talented offensive player who was Boston's first-round pick in the 1985 draft. But he has never gotten untracked, partly because he is mistake-prone and partly because he hasn't had the minutes to really strut his stuff. "Most teams have some sort of substitution pattern, but we seem to have absolutely none," says Vincent. He has played only 16 postseason minutes in six games.
Conner Henry, guard: Opinion is divided in Celtic Land about who is the more valuable asset, Henry, a 6'7" point guard with off-guard shooting skills, or Carlisle, a less gifted player who rarely makes a mistake. But it's not exactly a red-hot issue—Henry has played only five postseason minutes.
Surely, the Celtics could have used more help from the Green Team, especially with the cocky and well-rested Pistons waiting in the wings. Just as surely, the Celtic starters were tired of answering questions about being tired—particularly Bird, who said things like, "I get paid to play 48 minutes" and "I could play two games a day." Asked about his feelings when Ainge went down in the third quarter, Bird said: "My feeling was, let's get him off the court so we can get on with the game."
But that was the man's pride and arrogance talking. The reality was something else. In their protracted battle with Milwaukee, during which they blew a 3-1 series lead, the Celtics saw glimpses—if not a giant mural—of their own limitations. But they obviously had those other things going for them, the experience, the mental toughness, the character. Look at Bird's face at the free throw line in clutch situations. Look at Parish suck up the pain and grab 19 rebounds, as he did on Sunday. Look at DJ sail headlong into the courtside seats. You're looking at the x factor.
And at a team unwilling to become ex-champions.