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6.24.2008

Bird, Celtics Go Up 2-0 Over Atlanta

Forgive the Garden fans if they say they don't see what all this Dominique Wilkins fuss is about. He left behind enough bricks to get Roz Gorin's arena off to a healthy start, shooting 7 for 22 last night to leave town with a 29 percent (11-for-37) shooting touch in Games 1 and 2.

There was little doubt that the long arms and excellent double-teaming of the frontcourt accomplices had a big effect on Wilkins, who was forced to give the ball up several times. But K.C. Jones had words of praise for the Atlanta star, saying, "He's playing very unselfishly. He went to the boards, he passed the ball (6 assists) and when he was open, he shot. He filled lanes. I think he's acting like a real pro."

Once the fans got beyond the sideshows, beyond the reenactment of the Battle of Hastings (featuring Danny the Would-Be Conqueror) and beyond what will always be known as the Fratello Fan Fracas, and once they put aside the pleasant memory of the first 3 1/2 quarters, the Garden patrons had to look up at the clock with precisely four minutes to go and confront the horrifying reality.

An 18-point third-quarter lead was down to one, 109-108. The way things were going then, they wouldn't have bet a used Megabucks ticket on the Celtics ' chances. They had to assume that the first Celtic Garden loss in 144 days was somehow fated to happen. The game had that kind of slippery feel.

And of course, right about here Larry Bird decided to start playing some serious basketball.

With the Celtics making a bunch of good defensive plays (including two big ones by Scott Wedman), and with Bird (36) scoring eight of the last 10 Celtic points and deftly feeding Robert Parish for the other two, Boston ran the table, shutting the Hawks out and walking off with a 119-108 decision which sends them down to Atlanta for Friday night's third game in possession of a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven second-round series.

Granted, nobody was striking out 20 men, or anything like that, but there was more than enough start-to-finish excitement in this one to warrant a spot in the home videotape library. Bird's late heroics were a suitable dessert to what had been a very satisfying main course of superb transition basketball. And that's before even mentioning the extracurriculars.

The benchmark sequence in the game occurred with Boston threatening to convene garbage time while leading by an 87-69 score in the third period. Bird had just gone on the floor for a loose ball and come up with a sneakaway feed for Danny Ainge, prompting the crowd to start chanting, "Lar-ree!" And when Bird fed Dennis Johnson 12 seconds later for a two-on-one fast-break basket, the lead had apparently gone up to 20, and if it had, this thing would have been over.

But way back at the other end, referee Earl Strom was not only negating the basket, he was also ejecting Ainge, who, it turned out, had gone down on the floor with Scott Hastings and had, by Atlanta accounts, come up kicking the Atlanta swingman, first in the leg and then in the arm. Strom gave Ainge no satisfaction when he complained that Hastings had precipitated everything by pulling him down by the jersey (which Hastings cheerfully confirmed).

If that wasn't enough to inspire the Hawks, what happened immediately upon the conclusion of the third period certainly was. In one of the most regrettable, absurd and embarrassing incidents in Garden history, both veteran aide Dave Gately (who is, as they say, old enough to know better) and a season ticket holder got into a tiff with Atlanta coach Mike Fratello. The details are to be found elsewhere in these pages.

Now the Hawks were really wired. They had already managed to slice the 18- point lead to 10 before a Bird basket made it 94-82 at the end of three, and when the fourth quarter started, they were so determined that even a rocket start by Robert Parish (10 points in the first 2:40) failed to deter them. Sparked by Spud Webb's penetration and the inside aggressiveness of Kevin Willis (23 points, 10 rebounds), the Hawks made it just about all the way back, peaking with a sensational Rivers play when Doc stole a rebound away from Parish and stuck a turnaround in his face.

That made it 109-108, and that also appeared to make Bird angry, because for the rest of the game, he was The Beast Who Ate Atlanta.

There are two reasons Bird gets all that money. The first is that he brightens up dull games. The second is that he wins tough ones.

Here is how Atlanta died:

3:40 -- Bird loops pick-and-roll pass to Parish, who misses the shot.

3:36 -- Bird rebounds the shot and scores. 111-108.

2:45 -- Bird rebounds Willis miss.

2:23 -- Bird makes jumper in the lane. 113-108.

2:02 -- Parish blocks Willis layup (call it a Russell play).

1:41 -- Bird sinks off-balance, step-back right-corner fallaway. 115-108.

1:13 -- Bird feeds Parish for a layup. 117-108.

:44 -- Johnson dives on floor to direct loose ball to Bird.

:26 -- Bird swishes moon shot step-back jumper. 119-108.

"Dominique (Wilkins) played great defense on Bird," said Rivers. "What can you do about that? We hurt ourselves offensively in that stretch, not taking the kind of shots we took to get us there."

Forgotten in the midst of the dramatic ending and the second-half turmoil were great game-long performances by Johnson (15 points, 9 assists) and Kevin McHale (22 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists), a 22-point, 9-for-11 first half by Bird and, conversely, another El Stinko offensively by Wilkins (7 for 22, 19 points) who nevertheless drew praise from K.C. Jones for not freaking out and trying to go one-on-North Station when double-teamed.

In the end, the story was Bird, who hasn't been called upon to be a savior in a while. "You know Larry," said Jones. " His timing is always good."

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