The timeworn subject of ghosts and the Boston Celtics is raised here only to note that any poltergeists floating above the parquet early on Sunday afternoon were of a nature and character completely alien to popular Boston Garden history. The Celtics were facing the Indiana Pacers in the fifth and decisive game of a highly entertaining and rather noisy first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, and it was the home team that was listening for rattling dishes and whooshing curtains. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad. Still, it was on a Sunday afternoon almost exactly one year earlier that the Celtics had blown a first-round fifth game in the Boston Garden to the New York Knicks, and that date—May 6, 1990—stands as one of the darkest in Celtics history.
Even if Boston wasn't worried about the eerie, it was very much concerned with the earful it was getting from Pacer sharpshooter Chuck Person, a.k.a. The Rifleman, a.k.a. The Mouth That Scored. In the end, though, the Celtics prevailed, thanks largely to that preeminent Garden fixture, one Larry Joe Bird, who does not acknowledge ghosts and bad vibes any more than he acknowledges pain in his back and throbbing in his head. He had both on Sunday. He also had 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 124-121 victory that sent Boston into a second-round matchup with the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons. The win over the Pacers was not one of the prouder moments in Celtics history, but it was among the most memorable because of Bird's distinctive imprint and because it spared Boston the ignominy of a third straight first-round exit.
Though retired for the summer, Indiana will hope to build on its unexpectedly strong, and sometimes downright heroic, playoff effort. "It's funny, but in a way the Pacers won, too," said Celtics guard Brian Shaw. And so they did—precious few visiting playoff teams have made as many important long-distance shots in Boston Garden as the Pacers did in Games 1, 2 and 5. For the series, Person converted 17 of 31 three-point shots, most of which he celebrated with an unbridled display of fist-shaking and tongue-wagging at his many and variously frustrated defenders. "Next year fans are going to say when we come into town, 'Oh my, it's Indiana,' " said forward Reggie Miller after scoring 22 points on Sunday. " 'Those guys have some firepower.' "
As for the immediate future of Bird and the Celtics, logic says it is not particularly bright. Leaving aside for now the obvious question of Bird's aching back, which will be operated on in the off-season, Kevin McHale, Boston's third-leading scorer, is hampered by a nagging injury to his left ankle. Lost in the drama of Sunday's game was his lack of mobility; he made just four of nine shots from the floor. If McHale cannot make a major contribution against the Pistons, Dennis Rodman will be able to concentrate all of his manic intensity on stopping Bird, and that would almost certainly be fatal for the Celtics.
There is also the matter of Boston's difficulties against even rudimentary half-court pressure, as well as the team's lack of poise. The Celtics committed 20 turnovers on Sunday and had an unacceptable 79 for the series. They also blew a 13-point third-quarter lead in a 116-113 loss in Game 4 at Market Square Arena and let a 16-point fourth-period lead dwindle to just one point in Game 5.
Then again, Boston took the home-court advantage into the Piston series, and who knows how much that will inspire Bird. After seeing how a boisterous crowd in Indianapolis had helped the Pacers to victory in that fourth game, Bird challenged the Boston Garden fans to be equally as persuasive on Sunday. They didn't get the message. So Bird had another idea. Why not bash the ol' noggin on the Garden parquet while diving for a loose ball, remain in the dressing room for a suitably dramatic length of time and then emerge as if on Marvell's winged chariot to play one of the games of your life? Sound concept.
The Celtics were leading only 48-46 with 4:23 left in the second quarter when Bird, having allowed Mike Sanders to bat the ball away from him, dived to recover it. (A conservative estimate of how many times Bird launched his 34-year-old body onto the floor during this series would be seven.) His head struck the court hard, and he lay there for several seconds, a horrifying sight for the home fans, who included his wife, Dinah. Finally, he dragged himself to his feet and walked slowly toward the bench. Boston coach Chris Ford headed him off and guided him toward the locker room, Celtics medical personnel in close pursuit. The half ended 58-58.
While the Celtics received their half-time instructions, Bird sat in the trainer's room just off the locker room. Team doctor Arnold Scheller and trainer Ed Lacerte applied ice to Bird's right zygomatic arch—the bone directly under the eye-to control the swelling and evaluated him for neurological damage. (The injury later was diagnosed as a bruise.) His teammates didn't even get a glimpse of him during intermission, and as rookie Dee Brown said later, "We honestly didn't know whether he would be back."
Bird didn't want to talk much about the injury after the game. Asked when he realized it was time to return, he said jokingly, "Well, I took a nap at halftime, and when I woke up, it was time to go out and play."
That happened at 6:51 of the third period. When number 33 appeared on the ramp leading to the court, the Garden erupted. Indiana coach Bob Hill had warned his players during intermission that Bird would likely make a dramatic return, but several Pacers couldn't help but steal a glance at the Celtics bench as Bird joined a timeout huddle. Not until the huddle broke did Ford nod to him, and Bird stripped off his warmup jacket. He wiggled his left hand at the scorer's table, hollered to center Robert Parish, "I got Deltlif" (he meant Pacer forward Detlef Schrempf, whose given name he had been having trouble pronouncing throughout the series), rubbed his hands together and walked onto the court. The standing ovation that had begun during the timeout continued.
In truth, Bird's playoff performance to that point had been long on courage but somewhat lacking in results. His sore back had kept him from doing much shooting between games, something he considers essential. It also had limited the various pump-fakes and dipsy-doodle moves he uses to extricate himself in post-up situations. Over the next 11 minutes, however, Bird played about as well as one man can play, never mind one with a bad back and a bruised face.
He rebounded a Pacer miss and fired an outlet pass to Reggie Lewis, who scored on a layup. He assisted Lewis on a short jumper. He made a 19-foot jump shot from the left side. He rebounded and threw a long chest pass to Lewis, who dunked. He drove on the right side and lifted a shot high off the glass for a field goal. He drove under the basket for a reverse layup, drew a foul and made the free throw. He posted up Sanders, once again drawing contact, converted the fallaway jumper from the corner—as the ball went through, Bird dropped almost to his knees and shook his fist at the ground as if after a triumphant roll of the dice—and made the foul shot for another three-point play. He found Brown for a basket on the break. He made two free throws. He took a perfect pass from Parish for a layup. By this time, Bird's head didn't hurt—Indiana's did. Ford took him out for a rest with 7:02 remaining and Boston ahead 110-96.
The legend was intact. The lead wasn't. And Bird knew it. "I didn't want to come out then," he said later, though exactly when Bird does want to come out of a game is not clear. "I knew they'd be trapping, and I thought my passing ability might help."
All that and prophecy, too. The Pacers did trap, and the Celtics went into the NBA version of a prevent defense, playing tentatively and conservatively instead of attacking. By the time Ford put Bird back into the game, with 4:12 to go, Boston had only a 116-107 advantage, and the momentum had turned.
Over the next few minutes, various Celtics took turns scrambling the eggs. Shaw traveled. Bird threw away a pass. Parish had a ball stolen from his blind side. McHale had a backcourt violation. With 22.8 seconds remaining, Boston led 120-118 and Indy had the ball. And the ball, everyone knew, was going to Person.
One fascinating subplot of this series was the emergence of Celtics forward Derek Smith as Boston's master of mayhem. Smith, who had spent most of the regular season on the disabled list (he has had four knee operations in the past five years), was dispatched to cover Person. That put Bird on the much quicker Vern Fleming, but Fleming eschewed at least two chances to drive in favor of getting the ball to Person, who was trying to carve out a postup position against Smith. Smith docs not carve easily. Finally, Person moseyed outside and shot an off-balance three-pointer from the left side.
He missed, and Shaw, after being fouled, made both free throws to give Boston a 122-118 lead. Person bolted downcourt and launched a three-pointer from about 35 feet. One would call the resultant swish improbable, unless one had been witnessing Person's radar throughout the series. The basket—which gave Person 32 points—brought Indiana to within one, 122-121.
Shaw was fouled again, this time with 1.5 seconds left. He made both shots, and Schrempf's last-second length-of-the-court heave didn't come close. One wonders if Person somehow wouldn't have put it in from a mere 90 feet.
Person was gracious after the game and even paid a visit to the Celtics' locker room to congratulate Bird, who by that time had disappeared. A few minutes earlier, Bird had been asked about Person's incessant talking: "Yeah, it is a little sweeter, I guess, since we beat Chuck. We've had a lot of good battles. But it always seems like I get the last word."
No mean feat that. But The Rifleman had had the last word in Game 4, when after scoring 12 straight Indiana points in the final five minutes, Person backpedaled downcourt, gestured wildly to the crowd and shouted. "Nobody can guard me! Nobody! I'm a bad man!"
Person's performance that night was an uncanny display of nervy pressure shooting, even if the primary defensive victim was Bird, who these days would have trouble covering a book in the open floor. Person's last three-pointer, with 2:06 to go, was the backbrcaker. With the score tied 109-109, Bird had tried to slip an entry pass down low to McHale, but Person—whom the Celtics consider not merely a bad defender but a horrible one—stepped in front of McHale and made the steal. He dribbled up the right wing with only one thought in mind and pulled up and let fly from the three-point line. "I shot it as high as I could," said Person, "so everyone could admire it."
The ball went in and for one brief and shining moment, Chuck Connors Person (that's his real name) was the best darned jump shooter on the planet. Afterward, in the Pacer locker room, he was predictably Chuck-full of comments. A sampling:
•"Larry knew I was in his ear, and now I'm going to be in his dreams."
•"I knew when Larry and McHale got on me, the shots were going in. It's like I was out there for target practice, shooting H-O-R-S-E by myself."
•"Unless they come up with something different, we're going to go tear some of that parquet up in Boston."
Well, Chuck, what they came up with—a vintage performance by Bird—was not original. It was enough, though. Number 33 is battered and bruised, but right now he's still the best thing the Celtics have going for them, and his presence alone gives Boston a chance against the Pistons. Maybe just a ghost of a chance, but a chance nevertheless.