The basketball-crazy Celtics crowd broke into an unsolicited version of "Squish The Fish" at Boston Garden last night.
But other than the fourth-quarter cheer for the New England Patriots, it was business as usual for Larry Bird (29 points) and the Celtics , who raced to a healthy lead over the Atlanta Hawks and held on for a 115-108 victory before the usual sellout gathering of 14,890.
The Hawks had been on a roll of late, but defense is what separates the contenders from the pretenders, and after a fast start, the Hawks didn't start playing it until Boston was firmly in command.
The Celtics led by as many as 20 points (94-74) in the third period in posting their sixth victory in seven games.
As frequently happens, however, the Celtics lost steam and Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins led a furious fourth quarter rush that cut the lead to nine points several times. They didn't get any closer until Glenn Rivers sank two free throws after the final buzzer had sounded.
Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale each had 24 points to help Bird offset the 34-point effort of Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins as Boston beat the Hawks for the fourth straight time this year.
After the Celtics shot to a 7-4 lead, Atlanta came back with a 10-2 surge for a 14-9 edge. Atlanta was running with Boston and also steering Wilkins inside for a couple of dunks. With seven minutes to play in the first quarter, both teams had hit 7 of 10 shots and Boston was clinging to a 16-14 lead.
In the next few minutes, neither team could dominate because of turnovers. But with the score tied at 22, the Hawks went to their bench for 5-foot-7-inch Anthony (Spud) Webb, who put the Celtics in a state of shock.
Like the Pied Piper, Webb led Atlanta on a 9-0 run with two baskets, including a three-point play. The Celtics inserted Sam Vincent to contain him, but they were down, 34-30, when the quarter ended.
Bird had 15 points in the first period but was on the bench at the start of the second. Consequently, Boston had trouble gaining ground for the first seven minutes of the period. With 6:58 to play, Atlanta led, 46-41. But two baskets inside by Robert Parish and a 12-footer by Johnson produced a 47-46 lead for the green. Atlanta bounced back on hoops by Kevin Willis and Rivers to go ahead, 50-47, before the Celtics picked up the pace again. It was 51-50 Boston with 2:38 left in the half.
A basket by McHale gave Boston a 53-50 lead. A basket by Rick Carlisle and two buckets by McHale, including one on a beautiful feed from Bird, boosted the margin to 60-53. Atlanta came back with a three-point play, but two free throws by DJ with two seconds left gave Boston a 62-56 lead at halftime.
Bird led both teams with 19 points in the half. Wilkins had 14 to lead Atlanta. Parish got eight of his 12 points in the second period.
In the third quarter, the Celtics came out with the same kind of defensive intensity that held Atlanta to 22 points in third period. A three-point goal highlighted an early Celtic run as Boston went ahead by 11 points, 69-58. To make matters worse for the Hawks, their ability to execute on offense seemingly vanished and after drawing to within nine points at 79-70, they began to fade. They had little success stopping McHale inside as he had 10 points. DJ wound up with 11 in the quarter and Boston's lead grew to 94-76 after three quarters.