NBA's Best Defense Leads the Way
What you've got to remember is that, among their other distinctions, the Boston Celtics are the best defensive team in the NBA. Even more than that, they are the best defensive spurt team in the league, and that's why they left Boston Garden late yesterday afternoon leading the NBA Finals (the new, official marketing department name), 1-0.
Taking total advantage of the foul-induced absence of the wondrous Akeem Olajuwon, the Celtics destroyed the day's competition with a period-ending run of 27-11 that carried them into the final quarter up by 15 (91-76), and propelled them to a 112-100victory over the Houston Rockets as the best-of-seven series finally got under way.
Olajuwon had carried the Rockets in the first half, scoring 25 of his game- high 33 points as his team held the Celtics to a heartening two-point (61-59) lead. The lithe Nigerian had no help whatsoever from fellow Tower Ralph Sampson, who missed the final 19:19 of the half after picking up his third personal foul and who finished a miserable afternoon's work with a stat line that included 1-for-13 shooting and 2 points.
But Olajuwon himself watched the decisive stretch of this game from the Rockets' bench after picking up his fifth foul with 4:49 remaining in the third period. That foul No. 4 had come a scant 32 seconds before would be a source of massive frustration for the Rockets' coaching staff. For the next three days they can ponder the "what-if?" of the decision to leave Akeem in the game.
"When they (Boston) saw him going out," said Houston guard Robert Reid, "it was more or less like, 'Yeah, that's what we wanted all the time.' Let's get up on 'em and see what we can do.' "
What the Celtics did was simply continue what they had started at the defensive end about 3 1/2 minutes previously; namely, to combine tremendous external pressure from the guards with near-maniacal helping-out defense in the interior. With Olajuwon watching helplessly from the bench, the Celtics ran off a 14-4 blast to finish the period.
The question that will be debated between now and Game 2 on Thursday evening is, "Would the Celtics have won as easily had Akeem been in there?" The prevailing wisdom, of course, is that they wouldn't. But Kevin McHale isn't so sure.
"We already had great rhythm," he insisted. "Akeem might have stuck in a couple of jump shots to break our offensive momentum, but the way we were moving defensively, I don't think he would have made that much difference. There is only so much one man can do."
There is, however, a great deal of damage five men can do, and in that third quarter the Celtics demonstrated how they won those other 78 games this season. Sparked by the inspired play of Dennis Johnson (19 points, season-high 11 rebounds and 4 steals) and Danny Ainge (18 points, 7 assists and 3 steals), the Celtics moved from a 65-64 deficit to that comfortable 91-76 advantage (the lead would peak at 21 during temps garbage), and they did it with a spectacular defensive effort that made the offense a pleasant afterthought.
"It's fun playing defense like that," said Larry Bird (21 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists). "I'm not the type of guy who loves to play defense, but what happens when you play defense like that is that your offense comes very natural. That's what happened today."
The Celtics certainly needed something dramatic. Akeem's astonishing assortment of inside power moves, offensive follow-ups and artful one-on-three turnarounds were en route to producing 30 of the first 72 Rocket points, and there surely was no fear of Boston on the part of some other Houston players, most notably Rodney McCray (20 points, 10-for-14 shooting).
"It always seems like some particular thing gets the defense started," surmised Robert Parish (23). "A big basket, a steal, a blocked shot. Something like that."
How 'bout something like a Parish dismissal of a Sampson shot, leading to a transition jumper by Ainge at 70-65? That sequence got the crowd in the game. Or how 'bout Johnson knocking the ball away from Lewis Lloyd (who was made to stand over in the corner with Ralph based on his four-point showing) to Ainge, who fed DJ for a return layup at 74-67?
Or how 'bout the play that broke the applause meter, a sequence in which DJ poke-checked the ball away from Lloyd, picked up the ball, and then threw a perfect bounce pass through two defenders to a speeding Ainge for a layup at 81-72?
It is, more than likely, plays such as these The Chief had in mind.
Boston bagged six steals and two blocks in the third quarter. Houston was outscored, 30-17, and you didn't have to be a pupil in the Hubie Brown Correspondence School of Hoopology to know where this game was decided, at least not if your name was Bill Fitch.
"The best thing to do," decided the Rockets' homecoming mentor, "is use the short write-up and say that they outplayed us at every position for over seven minutes."
What will make the three-day wait for Game 2 more pleasant for the Rockets is the memory of the first 32 minutes.
The Celtics did a lot of good things at the offensive end during that span, but 10-point leads of 24-14 and 38-28 were casually erased by the Rockets with the same casual flair this resilient team demonstrated throughout the Laker series.
Sampson's early exit simply meant more dumps into Akeem, and the brilliant Nigerian responded with 11-for-13 first-half shooting. By the middle of the third period, the crowd knew that this Rocket team was not Phoenix in '76 or Houston in '81, that the opponent was a legitimate finalist and not some silly team hit over the head with the Lucky Stick.
Houston actually went ahead briefly at 65-64 on a Reid fast-break basket, before DJ (there was no end to his value on this occasion) dropped in a three- pointer to give Boston a nonrefundable lead.
But the fans should also know that the Celtics are taking said finalist very, very seriously.
"We're just doing what we're supposed to do," said McHale. "We're halfway toward holding our home court. With this 2-3-2, that's very important."
Equally important would be a few more demonstrations of that killer defense.