Like two Back-Alley Brawlers, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons had fought each other through six evenly matched games of the NBA's Eastern Conference final. There had been fines and fists, cheap shots and long shots, low comedy and high drama. And now, as they neared the Game 7 finish line last Saturday at sold-out, sauna-hot Boston Garden, the Celts and the Pistons were still running neck and neck. Four minutes left, score 99-99.
Earlier, near the end of the third period, the poltergeists who inhabit the dark, spooky recesses of the Garden had worked their mischief on two of the Pistons' top guns, Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson. They had met head-on in a violent collision under the Detroit basket. Dantley was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital with a concussion (he was released on Sunday), while Johnson, suffering from a sore neck, didn't play the final seven minutes.
But now, as Boston's Danny Ainge released a three-pointer with a little more than four minutes left, the poltergeists really got into the flow. Ainge's shot missed, but Larry Bird got the rebound. Bird tried a three-pointer that missed, but Kevin McHale retrieved. Bird tried another shot, and McHale got it back. Then McHale misfired on a driving jumper, but Robert Parish, who played 42 courageous minutes on a badly sprained ankle, came up with the rebound. It was crazy, improbable, illogical. No, it was simply Boston Garden in a seventh game. Parish's shot underneath, the fifth of the sequence, was swatted away by Detroit's Dennis Rodman. And the poltergeists swatted it back to Bird. Then to Ainge, to Dennis Johnson, back to Bird, over to Ainge, still in three-point range. "By the time I got it back, I was rested," said Ainge.
He let it fly, and this time it swished—one minute and five seconds after his first attempt. Not only did it give the Celtics a lead—102-99—they never lost, with 3:06 left, but it also served surrealistic notice that the Pistons simply were not going to win an Eastern title in Boston Garden. Not in Game 7, not with Red Auerbach sitting in his seat near the parquet floor, not with K.C. Jones on the bench, not with Bird playing 48 exquisite minutes.
Final: Boston 117, Detroit 114. The win sent the bruised and battered defending champions into the NBA final against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics' fourth-straight shot at the title.
"Bounce of the ball," said Detroit's Bill Laimbeer. "That's what won this series." And for the 13th time in 15 postseason seventh games in Boston Garden (and the 93rd time in their last 96 games there), most of the bounces found their way into Celtic hands.
But other Pistons, frustrated and altogether sick of the Garden—where they have now lost 18 in a row, dating back to April 10, 1983, and where, just four nights earlier, they had blown Game 5 in heartbreaking fashion—did not think that bounces alone could account for the Celtics' uncanny mastery on the parquet. "I think everyone in America knows the answer," said Detroit's Isiah Thomas, implying that Boston gets preferential treatment at home from intimidated officials.
Nearby stood the defiant Rodman, who was determined to go down with both sneakers in his mouth. The subject was Bird, whose Game 7 numbers read: 37 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists. Rodman said Bird was "overrated...definitely not the best player in the NBA." Rodman allowed that Bird was smart, "but, after that, he's just a decent player."
A steely smile was frozen on Thomas's boyish face. He had played fiercely down the stretch, matching the Celtics basket for basket (he finished with 25 points) but unable to erase the advantage arising from Ainge's three-pointer. And now Thomas was discouraged. Perhaps the awful vision of Game 5, when Bird had stolen his ill-advised inbounds pass to turn the Pistons' certain victory into bitter defeat, danced in his mind when he was asked about Rodman's comments. Unfortunately, those comments as relayed to Thomas included a statement that Bird was "an overrated white player," something the rookie later vehemently denied having said. "I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player, an exceptional talent," said Thomas. "But I'd have to agree with Rodman. If he was black, he'd be just another good guy."
Thomas's remarks, besides being unwarranted, unprofessional and ridiculous, were also out of character. (Bird chose not to reply except in general terms. "This isn't Russia," he said. "You can say what you want.") But it may be understandable given the context of a series that, beginning with Game 1, was a roll in the mud. If the Lakers' four-game Western Conference final sweep of Seattle were a movie, it would be a trifle like Beach Blanket Bingo; Boston-Detroit, on the other hand, was seven games of Apocalypse Now.
Early in the week, with the series tied at 2-2, the Celts helped Jones celebrate his 55th birthday with a locker room party that included ribs and a cake. A couple of hours later, the coach received word from San Francisco that his mother had died. It cast a pall over the team as Detroit arrived for Game 5.
Laimbeer, meanwhile, had registered at his hotel under the name of Steve Glassman (an old friend of his) to avoid any hostile phone calls arising from his infamous Game 3 altercation with Bird. When he was introduced at the Garden last Tuesday, Laimbeer held his hands to his ears, mocking the crescendo of boos. That was Laimbeer before Game 5.
This was Laimbeer late in the first half: on his knees, stunned, blood trickling from his mouth. A split second after he had touched Parish with a glancing elbow—tame by NBA standards and positively mosquitolike by Laimbeer's—he was felled from behind by a senseless three-punch barrage by Parish. Though referee Jess Kersey was standing just a few feet from the play, he called no violation other than an unrelated personal foul away from the main event. Kersey said later, "I didn't see any punches."
If Parish was trying to intimidate the Pistons, it didn't work. The game stayed close throughout the second half until Thomas, with Jerry Sichting in his face, hit a jumper to give Detroit a 107-106 lead with 17 seconds left. At the other end, Rodman knocked away Bird's baseline drive. A scramble ensued, and the ball went out of bounds off Sichting. Detroit's possession. One-point lead. Five seconds left.
Detroit coach Chuck Daly was waving frantically and screaming for a timeout. Thomas didn't see him and prepared to throw the ball inbounds from sidecourt. Bird, who had ended the previous play skidding along the baseline on his butt, picked himself up and ran to the foul line to guard Joe Dumars. Thomas lobbed a soft pass to Laimbeer, who was standing just a few feet away. It never got there. The next few seconds will stand among the most dramatic in Celtic history. They'll be shown endlessly, frame by frame, Zapruder-like, a mini-epic in every split second. And every time we'll see Bird:
•Have the presence of mind to get into defensive position rather than hang his head after the blocked shot. The Pistons celebrated. Bird calculated.
•Anticipate Thomas's pass. Bird left Dumars and rushed to Laimbeer, intending only to foul him but, instead, snatching a pass that, as Bird said later, "seemed to hang up there forever."
•Somehow keep his balance, stay inbounds and turn toward the basket.
•Make the instinctive calculation that there was time for a better shot than a frantic, low-percentage jumper.
•Spot Dennis Johnson—"his jersey," actually—cutting toward the basket.
•Zip the ball to DJ, who ducked under Dumars' outstretched arms and put up a difficult righthanded layup from the left side. It kissed the glass and went in to give Boston a 108-107 lead.
With one second left, the stunned Pistons called timeout but couldn't get a shot off. Boston had a 3-2 lead.
The Boston Herald went overboard the next day when it ran a headline calling Bird's play the STEAL OF THE CENTURY. After all, the $2.7 million Brink's warehouse robbery occurred about three blocks from Boston Garden in 1950. But there's no doubt that a few million Celtic fans went to sleep that night replaying the steal again and again, VCRs of the mind working overtime.
Certainly Thomas couldn't forget the play. After the Pistons flew home, he went to bed, but got up at 4:30 a.m. and drove around aimlessly. Laimbeer didn't even try to sleep—he did some night fishing at a lake near his home.
On Wednesday the NBA fined Parish $7,500 for his attack on Laimbeer and suspended the Celtic center for the next day's Game 6 in the Silverdome. The Pistons didn't think it was enough, and general manager Jack McCloskey minced no words about Kersey. "Last night's lack of action has to be an embarrassment to every man or woman who has ever officiated any contest, from the Little League to the Super Bowl," said McCloskey. Celtic G.M. Jan Volk, meanwhile, weighed in with this three-point nugget about Laimbeer: "We've still got the consummate provocateur roaming the hardwood."
The Celtics did precious little roaming in Game 6, what with K.C. in San Francisco for the funeral, Parish back in Boston, McHale weakened by the flu and DJ misfiring en route to a 3-for-17 night. Bird's 35 points kept the Celtics close, but the Pistons ran away in the fourth quarter for a 113-105 victory. "They've got to be tired," said Laimbeer after the game. They were. It's just that the Garden wakes them up.
When the Pistons returned to Boston on Friday for Game 7, Thomas registered at his hotel under the name of Tony Montana, the Al Pacino character in Scarf ace. Why? "Because I'm going to assassinate them," Thomas told his wife, Lynn. But it was his quiet running mate, Dumars, who sprayed machine-gun fire in the first half, scoring 21 points as Detroit took a 56-55 lead in the stifling Garden heat, which reached 88°. But then the poltergeists started to swarm.
Dantley and Johnson go down as the third period ends. With 4:37 left in the fourth Bird cans a running jump shot off the glass lefthanded. At 3:06 Ainge finishes off Boston's remarkable six-shot sequence with his three-pointer. At 1:23 Bird drives the lane and lefthands a pass to Johnson, who sticks a baseline jumper for a 106-103 lead. At 0:25 Ainge hits another big jumper for a 108-105 lead. And then it was nine straight free throws down the stretch, two by McHale, three by DJ, four by Ainge. The Celtics just would not miss—not in Game 7, not in that building. It wasn't the heat that broke the Pistons. It wasn't even the humidity. And no, it wasn't the officiating. It was the history.
And when it was over, McHale, Ainge and Johnson went into something Ainge later called "the Rodman dance," imitating the Detroit rookie's fist-waving exultations. Said Ainge, "That wasn't to make fun of the Pistons as a team. It wasn't intended for anyone but Dennis Rodman."
As Boston prepared to meet the Lakers, Jones called his Celtics "a ragtag, Band-Aid, bang-the-drum, walk-with-a-limp team." And Isiah was asked if Boston had a shot at repeating.
"No," said Thomas, "none at all."
Boston assistant coach Chris Ford smiled when he heard that. "Yeah, but we're gonna get the chance to try," said Ford. "And he's not."