Again the academic query: Did Team A win it or did Team B lose it? Should the Celtics be taken out of Red's will, or should the Houston Rockets qualify for the next cover of People Magazine, as the 12 Greatest Men Who Ever Lived, because with 3:18 remaining in yesterday's game, the Celtics were leading by eight, and by the time the horn sounded, the Rockets were leading by two.
"Give them credit," decided Kevin McHale. "They played well in the fourth quarter, and took us out of our offense."
The Rockets did such a good job of taking the Celtics out of their offense that Boston was able to score on but one of its final seven possessions. And the Rockets were able to get the necessary offense, culminating in a tap-in by Mitchell Wiggins with 31 seconds remaining that put them ahead to stay (there would be an additional Akeem Olajawon free throw with five seconds left) as they created temporary interest in this series via a 106-104 decision.
"We thought we had control of this game," lamented Larry Bird. "But obviously they did a better job down the stretch than we did."
The Celtics have given away games on other occasions this season (New York, Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia come to mind), but they are supposed to be above this behavior in the playoffs, especially when they are two games away from winning a championship. Their offense in the final four minutes, was, shall we say, uninspiring.
Boston had broken out of the locker room at intermission with a run of 17-3, and when McHale (28 points, 11 rebounds) took an over-the-shoulder feed from Bill Walton for a dunk, they were comfortably in front by a 76-65 score with 5:45 remaining in the third quarter. And even if they couldn't quite deliver the official knockout punch (it was 84-80 after three), they still appeared to be safely ahead on points when McHale's tap-in with 3:18 to play made it 102-94.
The Rockets' push began when Olajuwon muscled in for a three-point play. A Kareem-like hook by the revived Ralph Sampson (24 points, 22 rebounds) chopped the lead to three at 102-99. The Celtics weren't doing much of anything on offense, and when Dennis Johnson mised a jumper, Wiggins wound up scoring on a transition hook despite a flying tackle by the retreating Johnson. He missed the accompanying free throw, but the lead was down to one, and the Summit was rocking.
Another bad Boston possession followed. Bird, who missed 15 of his final 21 shots (but who still compiled a 25-15-11 stat line), first missed a running hook and then fouled Olajuwon after the rebound. Akeem (9 for 11 from the line) calmly dropped in both shots to give Houston its first lead since the halftime margin of 62-59, a lead that disappeared immediately in the face of a McHale three-point play.
Boston went ahead for the final time when Bird fed Danny Ainge for a corner jumper at the 41-second mark. That lead lasted only as long as it took Wiggins to slither in and redeposit an Olajuwon miss.
"DJ relaxed on me for a half-second," Wiggins said. "When you are smaller, you've got to get in there quick. You only get one chance."
By the way, teeny-weeny Mr. Wiggins is 6 feet 6 inches.
What followed will go down in playoff lore as the Case of the Inadvertent Whistle, starring Jake O'Donnell. As the 24-second clock wound down, Bird hit Robert (3-for-15) Parish in the lane. The Chief cleared, fired and missed, but somewhere in here, Jake blew his whistle.
"I heard the whistle before I went for the rebound," said Bird. "I thought Parish was going to the line. The ball hit me in the head and went out of bounds."
Bird heard the whistle, all right, but Jake then said it was a mistake. The 24-second clock had expired by the time the rebound was available, and after consulting with fellow official Joey Crawford, Jake called for a jump ball.
"It was an inadvertent whistle," O'Donnell later explained. "When the ball is loose and there's an inadvertent whistle, it becomes a jump ball in the center circle between any two players."
So it had all come down to this: Houston 105, Boston 104, and a jump ball with seven seconds left, at midcourt, betwen 7-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-foot Robert Parish.
"Never was a jump ball more important at the end of a game," said Bill Fitch.
Sampson controlled the tap to Olajuwon, who was promptly fouled by Bird. Akeem made the first, but missed the second. Parish rebounded, and the Celtics had five seconds to get off a shot.
But why should this possession have been any more fruitful than the others? Johnson couldn't find either Bird or Ainge with his inbounds pass, and when he got it to his bailout man, Parish, The Chief got hung up with the ball in midair, and couldn't get rid of it before coming down on the sideline. Turnover. Houston wins.
The Celtics were trying to win despite such shooting performances as Bird's 10-for-26 and Parish's 3-for-15. They played one outstanding quarter (the third), but it simply wasn't enough to win. Bird, who had started off with an impressive 4-for-5, spent the final period and a half wearing his old nemesis, Robert Reid, and Larry hit but one jumper in those last 18 minutes.
Fitch did everything but swear on the family bible that Reid's defensive presence on Bird was circumstantial. It came about because Bird was the leader of a suffocating third-quarter Boston defense that forced the Rockets into seven turnovers in less than seven minutes.
"It was an offensive move, not a defensive move," Fitch insisted. "Larry was doing a good job 'cheating' on defense, and I wanted to get another shooter in there." At 6:01 of the third period, Allen Leavell replaced Rodney McCray, remaining out there for the remainder of the game.
The Celtics must spend the next two days ruing their numerous offensive sins in those final minutes.
"It was our fault," said Ainge. "All we had to do was not make mistakes. It was as if we were taking too good care of the ball. We were running the clock down too far, forcing up bad shots."
But there was no denying that the Rockets were overplaying strongly, and making better defensive rotations than at any other point in the game.
"It was pure desperation on our part," realized Fitch.
Most of all, the final minutes belonged to the vaunted Twin Towers, Sampson and Olajuwon. These two played like the Guns of Navarone down the stretch, while the Celtics' big folks were playing like the Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
The Celtics won't be strutting around with a 3-0 series lead tomorrow. Instead, they'll be answering questions they don't like. And they'd better not be blaming Jake O'Donnell, either.
Did Jake O'Donnell shoot 44 percent? Did Jake permit Sampson and Akeem to play like all-stars? The Celtics know the answers to those questions. The Rockets whupped up. It was that simple.