It's not rhetoric, folks. This Celtics team appears to have the goods.
Game 3 is a tough game to play, but the Celtics made it look like an exhibition in Lewiston, Maine, as they had all the right answers all night long, utilizing their masterful two-way team concept to defeat the Atlanta Hawks, 111-107, last night and thus take a 3-0 stranglehold in the best-of- seven second-round play-off series.
Bill Walton (twisted left knee) wasn't available to K.C. Jones, but the mentor mixed and matched his front line nicely, employing Kevin McHale (25 points) as his backup center when he had to.
The Celtics led at every checkpoint, but never by much. Despite Atlanta's fourth-quarter inability to score (five field goals), the Celtics didn't put this one away until the final two minutes. The big sequence came at 103-101, Boston, when Larry Bird (28) nailed a 20-footer and Dominique Wilkins (38) missed a jumper at the other end. Danny Ainge, who had another very big game, tipped the rebound to Dennis Johnson, and the latter started a fast break which culminated in a free throw for McHale. Robert Parish rebounded a Randy Wittman miss, and Bird set up McHale for two free throws on a sensational pass. McHale canned them both, and with a 108-101 lead and 42 seconds left, it was just a matter of not giving it away.
Endless punching and counterpunching highlighted a nicely played third quarter which ended with the Celtics once again in possession of a shaky lead, this one by one point at 88-87.
Boston made the first run, using another three-pointer by Bird to launch a little burst that gave the Celtics three four-point leads, the last at 75-71. Now it was Atlanta's turn, in the form of a 10-2 run that made the Hawks four- point leaders (81-77) for the only time in the first three periods.
Undaunted, the Celtics shrugged off that statement with a series of great plays, the best of which was a Johnson clock-beating left corner jumper on an in-bounds play that had to frustrate the Hawks, who had played great defense (knocking the ball out of bounds with four left on the 24-second clock), only to see DJ throw in a monster shot. That basket made it 88-85 with 51 seconds left, and insured that the Celtics could survive a Spud Webb jumper and take the one-point lead into the final quarter.
Bird was a killer in that quarter, hitting his first four shots -- all from outside -- while working the boards and doing all his cerebral things.
Johnson's clock-beating three-point heave which salvaged a hopelessly broken play with 10 seconds remaining in the half sent the Celtics into the locker room holding tightly to a well-earned 64-60 lead.
Any night the Celtics have to deal with Bird in foul trouble is a night of minor history, and this was one of those nights. Bird got through the first period with his usual lack of difficulty, but he was whistled for three fouls in the first 2:24 of the second quarter, requiring Jones to send Greg Kite in for Bird.
The irony of all this is that as soon as Bird went to the sidelines (it was 40-38, Boston, at the time), the Celtics immediately expanded the lead to nine, their largest spread of the half.
They accomplished this with the large aid of two Ainge inside-out jumpers on McHale feeds, the first a three-pointer from the left corner and the second a jumper from one step inside the three-point arc on the right wing. Ainge performed very well in the half, scoring 12 points and making some of his patented hustle plays on defense.
Atlanta responded well to the Celtic thrust, ripping off a 16-6 spurt to regain the lead at 54-53 on an end-to-end drive by Doc Rivers. Jones called a timeout, and when play resumed, the Celtics went into their assassin mode, led by the indefatigable Johnson, who scored nine points in the final 4:17 after being silent offensively for most of the half.
By halftime, Wilkins had 23 points and had completely erased from his own mind the bad times in Boston. What hurt Atlanta more than anything was its inability to finish off fast breaks. At the 49-44 juncture, the Hawks was just 2 for 9 on fast breaks, and they had missed several open jumpers.
The Celtics had few basic complaints about a first quarter during which they survived a 13-point spree by Wilkins and still came out leading, 34-31.
The clubs went through five lead changes and four ties through 17-17 before the Celtics ran off a modest 8-2 spurt which put them in control of affairs for the rest of the quarter. McHale got things rolling with a tough turnaround in the lane, and when Robert Parish completed the little blast with two free throws, the Celtics had either club's largest lead of the period, a six-point spread at 25-19.
The hopeful sign for the Hawks was that the Dominique Wilkins who had led the league in scoring showed up for this game instead of the impostor who had clogged up the floor during the two games in Boston. Wilkins got going with a couple of inside scoops, and before the period was over, he appeared to have his normal outside shooting rhythm as well.