Here's how you take a first period clinic that indicates you might win by 50 and turn it into a 122-117 finale.
You start thinking about: Mass. Pike traffic that might get you home late for Easter dinner; whether you will get to Cleveland in time to watch the NCAA title game on TV; filing your income tax; Don Baylor's chances of hitting 30 home runs in Fenway; or the latest plight of your favorite soap opera heroine; and perhaps you even start debating yourself about the root causes of World War I.
In short, you start thinking about anything except the New Jersey Nets, at least until you look up at the scoreboard with 2:55 left and notice that your 21-point third-quarter lead is down to four (111-107).
"We got up by 20 points and then we relaxed," said Dennis Johnson.
Yesterday's game at the Garden never got any closer than four when it mattered (two Darwin Cook three-pointers in the last 19 seconds affected bettors more than real fans), but it certainly could have become serious had not Mickey Johnson overthrown an open Otis Birdsong on a transition opportunity (2:36) or Johnson air-balled from 22 feet after a blown assignment (1:59).
Given those two reprieves, the Celtics finally awakened offensively. Robert Parish (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Larry Bird (40 points) went into their vaunted two-man game on the right wing, and when Johnson, guarding Bird, made the mistake of honoring Parish too much, Bird stepped back and swished a 21- footer at the 1:42 mark. It was Bird's first basket after four straight misses and only the second Celtics hoop since Bird's own clock-beating followup had given Boston a 105-93 lead with 8:14 to play.
Jersey had to have one on the next possession, but Buck Williams missed and Parish rebounded in traffic closely resembling that found on Route 3 at 6 p.m. on any July or August Friday. The Chief was fouled by Johnson, and his two free throws gave the Celtics a safe 115-107 lead with 1:36 remaining.
Mike Gminski (24 points, 13 rebounds) kept New Jersey breathing with a second-chance jump hook, meaning that Boston needed one more sound possession to put the game away. They got it, too, for after the ball was knocked away from Parish with seven seconds left on the 24 (actually, Parish was fouled by every New Jerseyite but Bruce Springsteen, even if Jess Thompson didn't see it that way), DJ sank a buzzer-beating jumper behind a Parish pick to restore the eight-point margin.
These last-minute heroics never could have been forseen back in the first period, when the Celtics did everything but summon the Hall of Fame voters for an emergency session as they artfully constructed four 18-point margins.
Birdsong (26) scored the game's opening basket for New Jersey, but after that it was Parish (a very impressive 10 of his 21) or Kevin McHale (24) posting, Johnson (17) or Danny Ainge burying jumpers, the ball moving inside- out or side-to-side a step ahead of the Nets in the halfcourt or the Celtics executing a textbook fast break. Bird was orchestrating everything. He sank a three-pointer (one of three). He went back door. He posted up. He found open men and saw to it that others got open. He hit the boards. He, well . . . you get the idea.
The Celtics were so devastating that they were up by 18 (32-14) before Friday hero Bill Walton first shed his warmup jacket.
"I've seen great LA teams play like that before," said New Jersey coach Dave Wohl. "They just get into a bubble where they make every open shot, get every available rebound and get every available loose ball. You've just got to convince your team that the game isn't over after the first period."
It was, and it wasn't. The scoreboard suggested that it wasn't, but the mind tells you that in the next two periods Boston only played as well as it needed to. The lead grew to 22 (48-26), but this time the subs couldn't maintain the lead (DJ would wind up playing 46 minutes and Bird 43, much to the crowd's benefit, of course), and the margin was down to 10 (62-52) at halftime.
A three-point play on the break by McHale boosted the lead to 21 (80-59) with seven minutes left in Period 3, but the Celtics went back to snooze alarm. The offense got a little too casual, and New Jersey started playing very hard, chipping away at the lead until a nice baseline drive by Birdsong created that 111-107 situation.
Was Jones angry with all this? Nah. It will provide him with a little motivational tool, which is nice when you've won 11 straight overall and 27 straight at home (tying a 36-year-old record set by the Minneapolis Lakers) and you've all but wrapped up the league's best record.
"These kind of games are what you call 'wake-me-ups,' " said the mentor. "Something bad will happen and you say, Hey, we're not as good as we've been reading. We'd better start playing basketball."
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