It was all on display, all the reasons why rooting for the Celtics is a special experience.
They win, sure, but how they win is what makes Celtic fandom a transcendent experience. In a long, long season, replete with luminous moments and breathtaking games, the Celtics may have submitted the topper at the Mecca yesterday when they took the absolute best the Milwaukee Bucks had to offer and spat it all back by a 111-107 score, to assume a forget-about-it 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics won this game by relying on poise, defense, the offensive might of the Greatest Frontcourt Ever Assembled and their unsurpassed ability to pass the basketball. Down by 13 (75-62) with 6:39 remaining in the third period, they came back to assume control of the game with a brilliant, scientific display of intelligent and aggressive basketball.
"We gave it our best shot," said Bucks coach Don Nelson. "We played it like a seventh game, and we played pretty darn good basketball. I don't know if we can play better. I don't know if they just turned it up a notch down the stretch, or what, but I do know we tried as hard as we could and it wasn't close in the fourth quarter."
That period began with Milwaukee leading by five, 87-82. Twice in the game the Celtics had chopped down substantial Milwaukee leads, only to hit The Wall and watch the emotional Bucks construct another big advantage. But this time, the Celtics would burst through the dam.
At 89-82 (a Terry Cummings follow-up) Larry (The One And Only) Bird set the tone. There was a loose ball bouncing along the left sideline. Bird was not in the play. As Milwaukee's Paul Mokeski appeared to be gathering it, Bird came flying into the pack. He ripped the ball away, rolled over, sat up and fired a pass underneath to McHale from a sitting position for a layup. It was his 12th assist and it was, quite arguably, not even his best, but it was the one which left the biggest impression on Don Nelson.
"It was the biggest play of the game," Nellie contended. "I'll never forget it as long as I live. I am impressed when I see a star player beat everyone else to the ball. What a basketball player."
On an afternoon when he was not particularly interested in forcing shots, Bird dominated the Celtics' offense with 13 assists (7 in the first quarter, and each of those for a layup) and he dominated the defense with a Celtics' 1986 playoff high of 16 rebounds. Included among his 19 points was an 18- footer that gave the Celtics their first lead (94-92), and a three-pointer with 2:12 remaining (107-97) that provided his team with the cushion it needed to survive the final two minutes.
Frontcourt mates Robert Parish (28 points, 12 rebounds) and McHale (29 points, 11 rebounds) also came up big in the decisive fourth quarter, especially Parish, who shot over game but undersized Terry Cummings for 10 points.
Bird's go-ahead hoop with 7:48 remaining capped a 32-17 surge over a span of 11:52, and came in the middle of a period-opening run of 25-10 that would culminate in the aforementioned three-pointer. Milwaukee tied the game one last time at 94-all on a foul-line jumper by Cummings (27 points, 18 rebounds), whereupon Bird and McHale put Boston ahead to stay with a play that will be discussed even longer than Nellie's dive-on-the-floor favorite.
The sequence began when Danny Ainge missed a three-pointer. The rebound came out to the middle of the lane. Bird went up and flicked the ball underneath to McHale for a layup in one deft motion. It was the second time in a week he had picked up an offensive rebound and an assist in one swipe, and it put the Celtics ahead to stay.
From 98-97, the lead expanded gradually to 10 on a Dennis Johnson fast- break stop-and-pop job (his only successful jumper of the day), a second- chance Parish layup on a clever feed by McHale, a Johnson sneakaway layup emanating from a double-exchange turnover, and, finally the Bird three-point swish from the right wing.
At this point the Bucks had scored 10 points in the first 9:12. But they suddenly awoke, utilizing strong full-court pressure, general hustle and a three-pointer from Craig Hodges to creep within three at 108-105 (42 seconds left), before two free throws by Ainge with 39 seconds left put the Celtics up by the safe score of 110-105.
Nellie had not exaggerated the scope of Milwaukee's achievement. His team came out as if exile to the North Pole was the fate of defeat, jumping to an early lead of 22-12 and remaining in control for the remainder of the half (60-53, Bucks).
"They came out ready to play," said K.C. Jones, "which is an obvious statement. "They pushed the ball up, banged the boards and played with much more intensity and enthusiasm than we did. We came out not ready to play."
And yet while the Bucks were playing for God, motherhood, Nellie, the state of Wisconsin and maybe -- who knows? -- even contract incentive clauses, they were not able to KO the Celtics, primarily because Bird was, well, Bird.
He accounted for a shade over half of the Boston first-half total of 32 points with five points (a jumper and a three-point facial in just two attempts) and six lemme-see-that-again wondrous assists, the best of which was an over-the-shoulder pass to Parish delivered the millisecond the Chief was left alone by a doubling-up Cummings.
The Bucks fed off the skill level and inspirational leadership of Sidney Moncrief, who threw in 15 first-quarter points in what Nellie described as his best performance in a month. They also got a huge lift from the totally unpredictable Alton Lister, who provided inside scoring, interior defense and rebounding. When the Celtics reduced that 22-12 deficit to one, 41-40, Milwaukee responded with a 13-2 blast to assume a 54-42 lead. And when Boston closed to within three at 63-60 early in the third quarter, a 10-3 countersurge -- sparked by Cummings -- lifted Milwaukee to that 75-62 summit.
Let the record show that the comeback was started via a hustling three- point follow-up by McHale, that within three minutes the Milwaukee lead had been sliced to three, 77-74, and that Milwauke had exhausted itself, both physically and emotionally.
The fourth quarter, as Nellie said, belonged completely to Boston, whose assist-per-basket ratio seemed to grow better as the game progressed (they would finish with an exemplary 30 assists in 41 field goals) "They are a fantastic passing team," lauded Nelson. "They put on a clinic in the fourth quarter. Boom, boom, boom, layup."
And now? "I told the team before the game if we didn't win it would be like being in a big hole from which it would be very, very difficult to dig out," Nellie said. "The Grand Canyon, I believe, is the way I put it."
And Nellie knows better than to expect the Celtics to provide him with a tour guide.