7.23.2008

Bird, Walton Lead Cs to Game 4 Win

History, without a doubt, was the guardian angel of Game 4 of this championship slugfest. Youth would not go down without a struggle, but it was history that put the Celtics only a Havlicekian steal or a Nelsonian back-iron jumper away from their 16th banner.

Only eight years separate Bill Walton's prime from Larry Bird's, but their eras are as different as the methodical dominance of John Wooden's UCLA squads and the high-tech artistry of Michael Jordan. It was Walton and Bird, the MVPs of then and now, who provided the crucial baskets in the Celtics' 106 - 103 victory before a stunned throng of 16,016.

For most of the contest, the outcome had been in great doubt. 30-30 at the quarter. 64-63, Houston, at the half. 86-85, Boston, after three. But at 101-101, and less than three minutes left, the game took a sharp turn away from the unknown and headed straight for the familiarity of past NBA championships.

Walton hauled down a Mitchell Wiggins miss and passed to Bird at the right of the three-point circle, and the inevitable must have become horrifyingly clear to every Houston fan. The most celebrated three-pointer of Bird's career had occurred five years earlier in the same building, in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 1981 finals, and it had embalmed the Rockets for burial.

History beckoned, and Bird acknowledged the call by swishing the shot and giving the Celtics a 104-101 lead at the 2:25 mark. "I could see it happening," Houston coach Bill Fitch said. "I hollered to somebody on the weak side to get over there. I knew what was happening."

Robert Reid unsuccessfully tried to counter Bird's effort with a three- pointer of his own, but Rodney McCray gathered in one of the Rockets' frightening 25 offensive rebounds and deposited the ball back in the hole with 2:02 remaining.

The final hoop of the night, 23 seconds later, supplied yet another history lesson, this one written for the Twin Towers. Sampson was just a 10th-grade office building and Olajuwon an adolescent soccer goalie when Walton's Portland Trail Blazers ruled the NBA in 1977.

Walton himself did not expect to be on the floor during crunch time. "Robert Parish played an outstanding game," he explained. "That's why I was surprised to get the nod in the last 3 1/2 minutes. The coach showed confidence in me, and I was glad to be in there."

After McCray's basket, Dennis Johnson worked the shot clock down to single digits and drove the right side of the lane. His shot hit only glass, as he went flying past, but Walton materialized amidst Sampson and Olajuwon to grab the rebound and nail a reverse layup. The Ghost of Greatness Past.

"Games like this are why I came to Boston," Walton said. "This is what I've been waiting nine years for. To sit in a chair like this (in an interview room) and talk about a game like this. This is the thrill of a lifetime."

Olajuwon, who was surprisingly ineffective in the closing stages, followed Walton's basket with a turnaround brick, but Bird turned the ball over, forcing the Celts into their static-cling defense. This time Kevin McHale took the honors; the lanky Minnesotan first notched a steal by knocking away a Wiggins pass to the low post and, after a missed Bird three-pointer, provided the clincher by rejecting a Sampson pass with 10 seconds left.

The Rockets' poor shooting performance (44 percent) would ordinarily have doomed them against a rebounding team like the Celtics, but Houston pounded the boards as never before in the series.

In the end, however, the game was in the safe hands of Celtic lore. "I'd played so lousy in the first half," Walton said. "Who'd ever have thought I would have made the final points of the game?" Hoop historians might ask who'd ever have thought that he wouldn't.

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