4.02.2008

1986 Cs Win 12th in a Row, Move to 62-13

It wasn't the breathtaking kind of road showcase such as the dazzlers the Celtics came up with last month in Texas, but if someone among the Coliseum gathering of 17,495 was really into his or her basketball, said aficionado could have dug through the rubble of last night's basically uninspiring 123-105 dismissal of the Cavaliers and found a valuable artifact.

What really mattered were the final six minutes of the third period, a stretch when the Celtics asserted themselves defensively and correspondingly slipped into a beautiful offensive rhythm that demoralized the Cavaliers. And it all began with a play that could simply not be taught at any summer clinic. The only prerequisite for making this play was to be a great athlete.

The situation: Boston 74, Cleveland 69. The Celtics have gone up by seven twice after leading by two at the half (61-59), but nothing definitive has been established, other than to say that when World B. Free is hot (and 24 first-half points which include four three-pointers in four attempts is certifiably hot), the only thing that can cool him off is a fire hose.

So it is the Celtics by five when Larry Bird deflects an entry pass to Keith Lee in the general direction of the Boston bench. Larry tries to save the ball, but he is cut off by Lee. With neither Bird nor Lee able to get to the ball, it is heading out of bounds and will still belong to Cleveland, right?

Wrong. Somehow, Danny Ainge, who isn't remotely connected to the play, is there. He leaps up and makes a sensational save back to Bird. Larry feeds ahead to Dennis Johnson, who draws two fast-break free throws at the other end. The Celtics are now officially interested in playing basketball.

Honestly. That's where the game, as opposed to the fooling around, started. Everyone got into it. Robert Parish first threw in a tough in-your-face turnaround (78-71) and then made a great steal and outlet to DJ, who completed the parlay with a hip-shaking hanger for two more (80-71). Bird faked Lee into Xenia and then dropped off a perfect jump pass to a rolling Parish for a layup (82-73). Bill Walton ambled into the middle for a lefty hooking three- pointer (87-75). Jerry Sichting sliced off Walton for a textbook corner jumper (91-75). Walton salvaged a broken play by spotting a cutting Parish and hitting him in stride for a nice little turnarond (93-77). The Cavs looked confused and totally lost, capping off a hopeless five minutes of play by failing to get off a shot before the period ended -- after having 21 seconds to do so.

Long forgotten was the excitement of the 61-59 halftime situation, or the 70-67 state of affairs. Even more forgotten was the inspired first-half play of Free, without whose long-range missiles the opening two quarters would have been unbearably dull.

Yes, Free was a complete sideshow in that first half, scoring 13 points in the opening period (including two three-point shots and a three-point coast- to-coast drive) and adding 11 more in the second quarter, the highlight being a three-pointer from just this side of Akron that tied the game for the ninth and final time at 59-59 with 25 seconds remaining in the half.

In order to win, the Celtics had to do something to counteract Free, who was coming off a 43-point game against Atlanta. Not that every member of their party was worried. "He was hitting a lot of shots in the first half," said Bird, "but that didn't concern us. We knew DJ could contain him."

The major problem with Free in the first half was that he was simply being left alone. "There was a lot of switching going on in the first half," explained Ainge. "Big men were picking him up and then leaving him when he passed off the ball. He'd get it back and he'd be open. In the second half, we didn't switch as much. DJ stayed with him."

The Celtics, meanwhile, owed their first-half offensive production to the post-up proclivities of Kevin McHale (11 for 11 from the line), the make-it- up-as-you-go-along offense of Johnson (21 points, despite 7-for-21 shooting) and the superb off-the-bench outside shooting of Sichting (5 for 7) and Scott Wedman (3 for 6). Throw in another brilliant effort by Walton (12 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks), and the Celtics were able to survive a quiet night from Bird (16).

But the spark for the real push came from Ainge. "That's basketball," said K.C. Jones. "To have that kind of alertness, to run over there just in case, is very nice. You don't see that kind of anticipation too often."

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