6.23.2008

McHale Stops 'Nique as 86 C's Go up 1-0

The Celtics adopted a modified version of the defense employed on Michael Jordan Tuesday when they ran up against league scoring leader Dominique Wilkins yesterday.

"We had Kevin (McHale) on him and a big man nearby to help in case he got by," said K. C. Jones. Every time the Hawks tried to isolate Dominique on his favored left side, another Celtic came running over to help, several times making him give the ball up, which is exactly what happened to Jordan.

You can say it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi, not to mention the ol' pizazz. The Hawks' minds were here, but their bodies were en route from Pontiac somewhere, and the Celtics were efficient enough in their cold-blooded way to blow the kiddies from Atlanta out by a misleading 103-91 score as the Eastern Conference semifinals got under way at the Garden yesterday afternoon.

The 12-point final margin was the result of one of those horrifying NBA eyesore conclusions that mean nothing to anyone except statisticians and myopic agents. With 10 minutes 2 seconds remaining, a lucky banker from down the middle by Danny Ainge (whose other accomplishments on this day had nothing whatsoever to do with luck) gave the Celtics a 93-67 lead and capped a 10 1/2- minute run, during which the Celtics outscored the visitors, 37-17, and started most people in the crowd thinking about either a) getting home to see Philly-Washington, b) another Sam Vincent-David Thirdkill alley-oop or c) dinner.

What most people are going to remember about this game is that league scoring leader Dominique Wilkins shot 4 for 15 from the floor and scored 13 points. Kevin McHale, take a bow for sure, but don't linger too long in front of the mirror because the evidence suggests that the so-called "Human Highlight Film" is just in a slump. His shooting numbers for the last three games are a mortal 29-75 (.386), indicating that he was in trouble before he ever got to Boston.

"Whoever played him should take pride in it," said Atlanta coach Mike Fratello. "He did a good job and made him work for his shots. But Dominique is a good student. He watches and listens and he'll be back."

Despite Wilkins' offensive problems (2-10 in the first half), Atlanta entered the locker room carrying a quite manageable deficit of six (52-46), a situation owing largely to the strong offensive boardwork of both Kevin Willis (18 points, 8 rebounds), Wilkins and Tree Rollins that produced 12 points on second shots to Boston's two. Aside from that area of expertise, and the fact that Atlanta had scored two baskets on inbounds plays, Atlanta had played very poorly at both ends to be down by as few as six points.

But they never did get any closer. After three minutes of hoop-swapping, the Celtics launched the game's key surge, initiated by McHale's classy 1-on-2 (Willis and the Tree) jump hook in the lane. A quick turnover led to a whirling McHale sneakaway layup from the ever-alert Dennis Johnson (a play-off career-high 14 assists), followed by an Ainge steal leading to a fast-break banker by Johnson, who had 10 of his 16 in the pivotal third quarter.

The Celtics were totally in control from that point, but they turned the game into a near-travesty with a run of 14 unanswered points later in the period. The highlight of this blast was a Larry Bird collaboration with McHale in which Bird pump-faked five times from the right wing before dumping it into McHale, who finished the play with a rolling right-to-left scoop shot out of the 1972 Paul Silas playbook. Even Red Auerbach jumped to his feet in appreciation of this little basketball artistry.

However, these kind of golden moments that had made it such a memorable regular season were too infrequent to make this game anything to remember. For that you can thank the whim of the schedule-maker (translation: CBS), which dictates that a tired, half-prepared Atlanta team take the floor 37 1/2 hours after playing two overtimes in Pontiac to play a rested Celtics team on a floor where it hasn't lost since Dec. 6, or 32 Garden games ago.

There can be little doubt that Atlanta's inability to get back on defense (the Celtics ran off 13 successful fast breaks in 15 attempts over the first three quarters) was a direct result of the body telling the mind where to go when the orders came to get moving. Especially vulnerable were Atlanta's big people, who were frequently beaten down the floor by the likes of McHale (24 points), Robert Parish (16) and Bird (16).

"I think we're capable of better transition defense," said Fratello.

They'd better be, or else this will be a quick series.

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