A carefree Billy Cunningham sat at courtside prior to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, rhapsodizing about the Boston Celtics .
"The Celtics are on ice skates right now, and they are watching the Lakers, who are running in sand," he said.
Three hours later, the Celtics had skated to a series sweep over the Bucks, while the plodding Lakers had fallen face down on the beach, losing a game to the Houston Rockets that put them down, three games to one, in the Western Conference finals. All season long, basketball fans nationwide had geared their thinking toward the inevitability of a Celtics-Lakers series. Now it's starting to look as if the only inevitability is the Celtics -- period.
They have played three series and have come within four minutes of sweeping them all. They have won games every way imaginable. They have survived a man scoring a playoff-record 63 points in one game; they have outscored a good team by a 36-6 margin in one quarter; they have held another good team to 12 points in the first quarter; they have beaten people by running; they have beaten people by powering the ball inside; they have beaten people by bombarding them with outside shooting, specifically, three-point shots; they have beaten people by passing the ball better than any team has in a decade; and they have won games by simply giving the ball to Larry Bird, stepping back and letting him orchestrate.
Talk about Bill Walton, talk about Jerry Sichting, talk about the flowering of Danny Ainge, talk about Kevin McHale's improved passing, talk about whatever you want, but the fact remains that one huge difference between the Celtics of today and the Celtics of a year ago is the basic status of Larry Bird. When he is ready to play, the Celtics have an unmatchable weapon.
His weekend performance in Milwaukee enhanced the growing legend. It was as if on Saturday he painted one half of the Sistine Chapel, and on Sunday he painted the other. He sliced up the Bucks on Saturday with 13 assists, all but one old-fashioned, completely legitimate assists for layups -- not bogus, 1980s assists when some guy drops in a 20-footer. He overpowered them on the boards with a 13-rebound second half. And he made the big momentum-switching play of the game when he went diving into a pile of bodies to secure a loose ball and wound up feeding McHale for a layup while sitting on the floor.
The next day revealed a different Bird. He went into the fourth period with a quiet 13 points, and he came out with a barrage of long-distance shooting unrivaled in playoff competition. His last four baskets were three-pointers -- two for real and two for show -- and when the last shot fell softly through the net, it meant he had outscored the Bucks in the fourth period. Passing, rebounding, shooting, hustling, defending, improvising . . . he has it in his powers to influence a game in whatever direction is necessary.
"I hope," said Don Nelson after Sunday's game, "all the other Celtics realize what a privilege it is to play with Larry Bird. They are very fortunate guys."