Till Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics met briefly at center court before Sunday's game at Richfield Coliseum, tipped their hats to each other and then sailed away in opposite directions, the former into the sunshine of a bright future, the latter toward dry dock. Yes, yes, yes, we've heard that before. Three years have passed, after all, since a learned observer named Magic Johnson proclaimed Cleveland "the team of the '90s," while the Celtics have supposedly been coming apart at their surgically repaired, million-dollar seams for at least that long.
But now you can book it.
It wasn't just the severity of the 122-104 beating the Cavs put on Boston in Sunday's Game 7 to advance to only their second conference final: it was also the manner in which the Celtics crumbled. Larry Bird couldn't get going. Kevin McHale couldn't get free. Robert Parish couldn't get out of his own way. Perhaps against all logic Boston's Big Three will return intact next season—and don't bet on that—but never again will this trio impose its collective will on NBA front lines on a consistent basis.
After several false starts the Cavs, meanwhile, seem at last to have taken a stand. One of the knocks on them before Sunday was that they played without the intensity requisite for big games; well, if they had come out any more intense for Game 7, the Cleveland fire department would have had to hose them down. "We were in a frenzy" is the way reserve guard Steve Kerr put it. But, then, even this most cavalier of teams couldn't have helped but be frenzied after viewing two hours of horror films—the main feature chosen by coach Lenny Wilkens was the Celtics' 122-91 Game 6 rout of Cleveland last Friday in Boston Garden. Given the fact that his team never trailed by less than double digits after 5:52 of the first period in Game 7, Celtics coach Chris Ford now has such a motivational tool at his disposal too. He will have to wait until October to use it, though.
May 24, 1992
The Cavs, meanwhile, are playing later into May than ever before in their 22-year history. Sunday may have marked the 21st Game 7 for the Celtics, but it was only the second for the Cavs. They won the other one too, a dramatic 87-85 triumph over the Washington Bullets in the Eastern semis on April 29, 1976. That series is still widely known around Cleveland as the Miracle at Richfield, and such history is not lost on the current Cavaliers. "I still don't know what the Miracle at Richfield is." said Cleveland center Brail Daugherty. "What is it?" All right then, maybe it is lost.
At any rate the Cavs must now concern themselves with stopping the Bulls—Game 1 of their conference final was to be played Tuesday night at Chicago Stadium—and achieving that goal, considering the vulnerability Chicago showed against the Knicks (preceding story), will no longer require a major miracle, as it appeared it would when the postseason began.
One common theory, however, is that Cleveland, for all its talent and balance, lacks the toughness to give the Bulls as difficult a time as New York did. But if Daugherty takes a stand in the middle, as he did against Parish, the Cavs can win the inside battle against Chicago, particularly if forward Larry Nance is hitting his jumper.
Cleveland also has a potential advantage over the Bulls at point guard in the person of Mark Price, who played on Sunday like a man possessed. (Price, who sings in a group that records Contemporary Christian music, wouldn't like that description, so let's just say he was extremely enthusiastic.) Time after time he penetrated deep into the belly of the Celtics defense to set up easy scores. And, on the other end, he was frequently the gnat who successfully doubled down on McHale and forced him into bad shots or, worse for McHale; no shot at all. But the Bulls are much better equipped to do some Price-fixing than were the Celtics. First of all, should Price elude his defender, John Paxson, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Horace Grant are highly adept at rotating over and helping out. And when Price gives the ball to backcourt mate Craig Ehlo and runs off picks in search of shooting room, as he often did in the Celtics series, he's going to find the return passes coming from much more difficult angles, since the larcenous, quick-handed Jordan will be guarding Ehlo. And, finally, Price is going to need much more ball handling help than he did against the Celtics, who rarely play the kind of trapping defense at which the Bulls excel.
Still, the Cavs can win. They are a smart team, able to make adjustments from game to game, such as the one they made to take Bird out of the action on Sunday after his 14-assist masterpiece paralyzed them in Game 6. Small forward Mike Sanders, yielding three inches, was directed to crowd Bird and keep him from finding those nearly undetectable air pockets through which Bird slipped his pick-and-roll feeds and no-look bullets on Friday. And without Bird (12 points, four assists) to jump-start him on Sunday, Parish simply perished. He was outscored (27-2), outrebounded (9-3) and outassisted (6-0) by Daugherty. Much has been made of the superb physical conditioning of the NBA's oldest player (38), but, frankly, the Chief did not have a good season and was all but helpless against the multitalented Daugherty.
And, so, late on Sunday afternoon, as the Celtics dressed quietly and wished the Cavs good luck in the conference finals, there was an air of uncertainty about the Big Three. All of them were playing it coy. McHale, who actually had a strong final month of the season, did not address the subject of retirement. Expect him to return. Parish said, "I'll see you at training camp, and I'm not talking." Expect him to return too.
As for Bird: Well, a homemade sign planted along (ironically) Boston Mills Road in Richfield seemed to say the decision was a fait accompli, LARRY'S LAST GAME, it read in part, and an arrow pointed toward the coliseum. But Bird deflected the question with humor. "I'll decide in September," he said. "Just put your phone numbers in a box outside, and I'll call you to let you know." It might be hard for the 35-year-old legend to pass up the $8 million the Celtics would pay him to play the next two seasons, but it says here that he will not be back. Two seasons of on-again, off-again back pain have been too much for him.
Over in the Cleveland locker room, reserve forward Danny Ferry had a thought on the Celtics. "If it was their last time together," said Ferry, "then it was a very special day. I admit I thought about it once or twice. But we've got our minds on something else right now."